Bath buildings were among the most impressive structures in the ancient city of Rome. They combined sophisticated thermal and hydraulic engineering with lavish decor and impressive vaulted spaces. These imperial baths emerged, as did so much else, in the age of the first emperor, Augustus, and they evolved over the next couple of centuries to a peak of technical and architectural perfection. So let’s have a look at the evolving Roman bathhouse. Agrippa’s Baths, whose dome we saw in the pleasure ground of the Campus Martius fed by its own aqueduct, was the first imperial public bathing building in the city of Rome.
It was a largish complex with a central domed space and, as we know from the marble plan, surrounding rooms and courtyards for bathing, no doubt communicating with the Campus Martius garden and portico spaces. They were popular and later bath houses followed their lead. We saw traces of Nero’s nearby bath house in the Campus Martius, including those granite columns that still survive and the fountain basin. We visited Trajan’s later baths on the Esquiline, now from the start of the second century AD, and these give us a good sense of mature bath house architecture.
Fed by Trajan’s large aqueduct that entered the city over the river in Transtiberim from Lake Bracciano, more than 32 kilometres away, the baths themselves were a central block, with symmetrical suites of bathing spaces, duplication, perhaps a division by sex, so men in one half and women in the other, or maybe so one could be shut for maintenance or cleaning while one was in operation. Around that central bathing space was a portico containing gardens, maybe libraries, rooms for statues, colonnades, trees, fountains, spaces for strolling and exercising and relaxing. The best preserved imperial bath house in Rome, the Baths of Caracalla, follows that pattern.
It was built very quickly in the early third century, over about five years, with 9,000 workmen a day working continuously in that time to create a truly enormous complex. And the statistics are fun. 15 million bits of brick in the foundations alone, 20,000 cubic metres of concrete in the vaults, over 6,000 squared metres of marble for decoration. So it was meant to be a marvel a prodigy of construction, power, and resource, remaking the city using very efficient concrete construction. The baths were entered from a whole new street, through a terrace of arcades, up onto a platform terracing out the side of a hill, 100,000 square metres of space on which stood a huge garden complex around that central bathing block.
And inside, there were enormous vaulted bathing halls. These baths, too, were fed by their own dedicated aqueduct and an eight million litre cistern, but it wasn’t just about bathing. Some of the best known Roman artworks were, in fact, discovered in the remains of this bath, including groups known as the Farnese Bull and the Farnese Hercules. So it was full of top-quality art and provided a cultural day out, as well as space for health and fitness and well-being. The last great example of imperial baths in the city is the Baths of Diocletian, dedicated a hundred years later again, about AD 305, and even bigger.
Substantial elements remain, including a bathing hall converted into a church by Michelangelo in the 16th century, and we can see how this bathhouse leaves an imprint on the streets of modern day Rome. If we look at the map of Rome as a whole, we can see how these big imperial bathhouses, the thermae, form a ring around the city, each serving its own big suburb. And it’s a testament to the Romans’ need and desire for bathing that emperors spent so much money and land and resource on fulfilling that desire. But it wasn’t just the great imperial public baths that we should think about.
Remember that there were hundreds and hundreds of little private neighbourhood baths as well, where perhaps, for a few coins, you get a different sort of bathing experience. Here’s an example, in an area near what’s now Rome’s Termini station, actually quite close to that giant Baths of Diocletian, found in excavations associated with the expansion of the station complex. And here in these little neighbourhood baths, we might imagine more intimate gatherings, perhaps local businessmen doing deals or people meeting their friends there. So there’s room both for this local neighbourhood complex and for its much bigger neighbour in the city’s market for cleanliness and bathing.