Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Baths and Bathing in Ancient Roman Society, The Baths of Caracalla

Katie Furia
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007


In the words of Seneca, a Roman rhetorician and writer (ca. 54 BC - ca. 39 AD), “The baths, the wines and Venus corrupt our bodies, but the baths, the wines and Venus are life” (Piranomonte, 55). My research suggests that Seneca was right—baths and bathing were of great importance to the ancient Romans. The baths helped maintain good health, luxury, and indulgence for Rome’s citizens; they were often considered a public good for society; and many emperors throughout the history of imperial Rome bestowed public baths to their people as a generous gift. Bathing in ancient Rome is an interesting topic to study today, as public bathing is an unusual ritual to many contemporary cultures, and much about Roman baths still remains a mystery. This paper explores the history, engineering, and architecture of the Baths of Caracalla in particular, how baths functioned in Roman society, and Emperor Caracalla’s motivations behind his inauguration of the Baths.

A History of the Baths of Caracalla
One of the most famous thermae, or grand bath establishments, of Rome—once considered one of the seven wonders of Rome—are the Baths of Caracalla. They are second in size only to the Baths of Diocletian, dated almost a century later, and the Caracalla complex still stands with two upper stories and two underground levels. Septimius Severus commissioned the Baths in 206 A.D., and his son, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Bassianus, nicknamed Caracalla, inaugurated them in 216 A.D. His successors, Heliogabalus and Alexander Severus, added porticos (porches with roofs supported by columns or piers) and other decorations (Piranomonte, 3). After the reigns of Heliogabalus and Alexander Severus, Emperor Aurelian undertook restorations of the Baths after a fire, as did Emperor Diocletian by working on the aqueduct called forma Iobia. Gaius Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, otherwise known as Emperor Constantine, also modified the caldarium (hot baths) by inserting a semi-circle apse, evidence of which is shown in an inscription preserved in the underground level of the complex. Romans used the Baths of Caracalla for three centuries until 537 A.D. when they were forced to abandon them after the siege of Rome by Vitige, the King of the Goths, who severed the aqueducts with the intention of cutting off the Roman water supply. From that moment, the Baths lost their importance, and years of abandon followed, during which the monument was probably used as a cemetery for pilgrims who fell ill during their voyage to Rome (Piranomonte, 3-4).

There is some evidence of restoration to the aqueduct dating up to the ninth century by Pope Adrianus I, Sergius II, and Nicolaus I, and as early as the twelfth century, the Baths of Caracalla were used as a quarry for material for the decoration of churches and palaces (including the Church of Sta. Maria in Trastevere). According to the records of the fourteenth century, the Baths were used as vineyards and gardens during that time because large quantities of water were available. However, a few years after the papacy of Julius II, the site deteriorated significantly because of the excavations carried out by Pope Paul III Farnese for the construction of his new palazzo. Between 1545 and 1547 Pope Paul III Farnese unearthed large statues, precious objects, bronzes, and colossal marble groups, which proved to be a fundamental moment for the history of the Baths, as they fell into a long period of oblivion shortly after the excavations. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Pope Paul V conveyed the Baths to the Jesuits of the Roman Seminary to be utilized as a playground for children. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, interest in the grandiose architecture of the building was renewed, and artists such as Falda, Giuliano de Sangallo, Palladio, and Nolli produced their now famous designs (Piranomonte, 4-5).

In 1824 Count Egidio Di Velo carried out systematic excavations in the central body of the building, uncovering the famous mosaic floors depicting athletes, which are now preserved in the Vatican museums. Excavations continued to be conducted from the middle of the nineteenth century to 1996, uncovering pieces such as a rich domus (home), mosaic floors, marble floors, frescos, statues, capitals, columns of porphyry, the torso of Hercules, the ancient plan of the Baths, the library, the Mythraeum (temple in honor of the god, Mithra), and a water mill. The stage of the Opera Theatre was also installed in the caldarium in 1939, and in the 1980s, restorations of the southern wall with cisterns, the southwestern library, and the Temple of Jupiter were carried out (Piranomonte 5, 7, 10).

The Engineering, Art, and Architecture of the Baths of Caracalla

The Baths of Caracalla occupy a huge rectangular area of approximately thirty acres. The construction of the site was a great feat of engineering and the first of its grandeur. According to Olympiodorus, a fifth-century chronicler, the thermae could seat 1,600 bathers at one time. The sloping site on which the Baths lie was altered by creating a vast rectangular platform that was partially cut into the hill on the south and southwest sides (Yegül, 154-155).

The northernmost side of the site was constructed using brick arches, which also formed the substructure of the platform and the underground levels utilized for facilities. The opposite side was enclosed by a wall that supported and contained the hill, which was quarried for material used in the construction of the baths. All the service galleries, underground passages, sewers, and storage areas are in the lower level (Piranomonte, 13).

To give some perspective about the vastness of the project of building the Baths, it has been calculated that 9,000 workers were employed daily for approximately five years. The bricks alone, both used in the underground and above ground areas, numbered several million. There were at least 252 columns, sixteen of which were more than twelve meters high. The aqueduct aqua Nova Antoniniana guaranteed the water supply whose waters derived from the aqua Marcia aqueduct, amplified by the tapping of new springs. The aqueduct arrived on the southern side of the Baths, and emptied into eighteen cisterns, which guaranteed an augmented supply of water when needed for maintenance. From the cisterns, lead tubes branched off and, under pressure, supplied water to all the areas of the building, with various complicated routes and branch lines, which reached all the pools and fountains throughout the Baths. The sewer system was developed around a large central gallery that was about ten meters below the floor level of the Baths, into which sewage and rainwater would flow. The entire heating system was under the caldarium with the praefurniai, the hypocaust (a hollow space or system of channels that distribute heat from a furnace), storage rooms and hallways for wood, and the cauldrons for heating water. The ovens burned an average of ten tons of wood a day (Piranomonte, 13-14).

The Baths themselves include cisterns, libraries, large exedras (a room or covered area open on one side, used as a meeting place), gardens, a stadium, a caldarium that had several pools, a laconicum (sauna), a palaestrae (exercise room), an apodyterium (dressing room), a natatio (outside pool), a frigidarium (cold baths), a tepidarium (warm baths) that had two pools, a vestibulum (chamber), the Mythraeum, the underground levels, and the xystus, the garden with arcades that surrounded the central body of the building (see diagram). The frigidarium was a large hall that was the actual center of the main body of the Baths and the caldarium constituted the most remarkable part of the thermal complex.

Among some of the art and architecture that once decorated the Baths were columns made of grey Egyptian granite in the frigidarium, large arches that framed the beautiful mosaic-faced niche walls of the natatio, marble floors with granite and porphyry set within squares in the large hall, fountain pools, mosaics and frescos in the Mythraeum, floors made from oriental colored marbles and glass paste mosaics and marbles on the walls, stucco paintings and hundreds of statues in the niches of the rooms, the most important halls, and the gardens (Piranomonte, 22-25, 32, 27). In fact, the Baths of Caracalla were a seemingly inexhaustible source of statuary, art objects, and building material before the reign of Farnese pope Paul III (1534-49). Among well-known pieces from the Baths are the Farnese Hercules, Achilles and Troilos, the Punishment of Dirce (the “Farnese Bull”), a colossal Athena, a Victory, A Maenad, a heroic male nude, a head of Antonius Pius and the head from a full statue of Caracalla (Yegül, 152, 154). The Baths of Caracalla were similar to other ancient Roman thermae in terms of their layout and function, but never before had a public bath been so vast, complex, or opulent.

Roman Baths and Society
According to Fikret Yegül, “the universal acceptance of bathing as a central event in daily life belongs to the Roman world, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that at the height of the empire, the baths embodied the ideal Roman way of urban life” (Yegül, 30). Roman baths had many functions beyond helping ancient Romans maintain basic hygiene, and their public nature created the proper environment for social intercourse varying from gossip to business discussions. There was even a cultural and intellectual side to baths, as some grand establishments like the Baths of Caracalla also incorporated libraries, lecture halls, colonnades, and promenades while assuming the character of a Greek gymnasium (Yegül, 30).

It is important to distinguish the two primary types of Roman baths: balnea and thermae. The primary difference between the two seems to have been one of ownership and scale. Balnea were small establishments, sometimes privately owned and fitting into available city lots, while thermae, such as the Baths of Caracalla, were almost always owned by the state or the city, occupied large areas, and often stood free in the middle of an open park-like precinct. Most baths, balnea as well as thermae, were public and their use was generally not limited to a certain group or class of people (Yegül, 43).

For Romans, bathing was a luxury as well as a necessity. It was a pleasure deserved at the end of a hot day of hard work or travel, a treat expected from a host, or a comfort after a cold day. It is important to note that the quality of design and construction of the public baths was far above average. Fikret Yegül writes of the pleasurable sensory experience offered by baths: “vast spaces filled with light; marble tubs sparking with clear, warm water; gentle soothing massage; perfumed oils and soft, fresh towels” (Yegül, 30-31). Although it is difficult to visualize the opulence of the interiors of the baths because the actual remains of luxury are scantily preserved, such decorations included lofty vaults, marble veneer walls and floors, silver basins and spigots, mosaics, statues, and bronze lion-head fountains (Yegül, 31).

For this reason, many baths, including the Baths of Caracalla, catered to a wealthy class. Some of the baths might have catered to certain interests and professional groups, resembling club-like centers or modern cafés or lounges. However, as a rule, a majority of the more than eight hundred small baths and eleven thermae of fourth-century Rome were open to anyone who could pay the miniscule entrance fee. Even some baths that had special endowments were free. In fact, many Roman emperors visited the baths and enjoyed bathing with their subjects. This provided the emperor (or any high-powered political aspirant) with a chance to appeal for public support or increase popularity, for the baths were the ideal institution with which to create the illusion of a class-less society, “where wise man and fool, rich and poor, privileged and underdog, could rub shoulders and enjoy the benefits afforded by the Roman imperial system” (Yegül, 32).

Although some emperors tolerated heterogeneous bathing, it was also a general rule that men and women bathed separately. However, independent units for different sexes, even in the largest baths, were extremely rare. The common practice was to assign the sexes to different hours for bathing, women often reserving the morning while men reserved the afternoon. After a regular Roman workday (which ended by noon) and a light lunch, many men went to the baths and stayed there for several hours. Two o’clock in the afternoon was specified as the best time to bathe. Occasionally, night bathing did occur, but because of the difficulties and costs of providing artificial lighting, it was not usual and not encouraged (Yegül, 32-33).

The first thing to do upon arrival at the baths was to undress in a special room called the apodyterium. It was not uncommon for well-to-do Romans to show off their high stature by bringing slaves to the baths to carry and keep watch over their personal belongings while they bathed. Unlike the Greeks, Romans did not think it proper to exercise or bathe in the nude, but they did not consider it proper to enter the exercise ground or the hot rooms of the baths in street clothes and shoes. Roman gymnastics were a prelude to bathing, but they were only seen as a form of recreation and not intended as training for competition. In addition, the ancient medical profession believed that bathing, exercise, massage, and diet were principal elements to maintaining good health. However, a workout at the baths was to come to an end as soon as a light sweat built up so that the body would not be completely tired before bathing (Yegül, 33-35).

Among the popular sports at Roman baths were playing ball, running, wrestling, boxing,fencing, and light swimming. Many sports were carried out in the palaestrae, a special room for ball games, but many of the larger baths had spacious halls that could be used for indoor athletics.

After the exercise or playing of sports, the order of bathing required a movement from warm to hot through a number of rooms of varying temperatures; the primary stations are called the tepidarium and the caldarium. Bathing ended with a cold plunge into the frigidarium. Some bathers also enjoyed special sweating rooms, called the laconicum or sudatorium. Anointing was essential to exercise, either before or after, and it was customary to finish bathing by rubbing the body with prepared cosmetics, oils, and perfumed unguents. This description of the bathing ritual is not the rule, but it does provide a general framework that allows for variations and describes the ritual recommended by doctors and the medical traditions of antiquity (Yegül, 37-39).

Besides being part of maintaining good health, baths also provided venues for entertainment. Public baths like the Baths of Caracalla, with their vast halls, palaestrae, and gardens served as ideal stages for traveling jugglers, gymnasts, conjurers, jesters, and musicians. A good bath almost always called for a good dinner afterwards, as this would make a typical Roman’s day complete (Yegül, 39). Nevertheless, public baths did not always provoke praise from everyone. According to Fikret Yegül:

The disapproval of the excessive material luxury represented by baths; the objection to the worldly and wasteful lifestyle encouraged by them; and the condemnation of the sexual licentiousness and moral delinquency associated with the baths were among the major issues raised by conservative critics and constituted the basis for Christian opposition to bathing several centuries later. (Yegül, 40)

In this way, the critics of the baths often associated them with a lazy and wasteful lifestyle, excessive drinking, gluttony, overindulgence, and immoral and sexual indiscretions. However, bathing could also be a way to find a cure for illicit pleasures, as many people would bathe to sweat out and sober up after a night of indiscretion and indulgence (Yegül, 41-42).

Lastly, the operation of the larger Roman baths, such as the Baths of Caracalla, generated the force of a major industry. Next to the Roman army and the construction industry, public baths probably employed the largest section of the work force. The building and operation of baths required permission from local rulers, and baths had to pay an income tax. However, baths were established as a form of a public gift, so they were often primarily funded by the state or the city, although they were also sometimes funded by private subscriptions. Whether motivated by patriotism, philanthropy, or a political device for gaining popularity, the results of any type of donations for baths meant an improved urban environment for Rome and its citizens (Yegül, 43-45, 47).

Caracalla’s Motivations to Build the Baths
Caracalla was the emperor of Rome from 211 A.D. to 217 A.D. He has been remembered as a ruthless and bloodthirsty ruler because he brought about the downfall of his father-in-law, the political leader, Plautinus, through false reports and murdered his more popular brother, Geta, after his father’s death. However, Caracalla did extend Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire, albeit for financial more than philanthropic reasons (Columbia Encyclopedia, Caracalla). By granting citizenship to all inhabitants, he levied more taxes to fund grand projects such as the construction of the Baths (Baumgart).

As was mentioned above, many emperors built public baths for their subjects in an attempt to gain popularity and create the illusion of a class-less society. Most likely, these same motivations are also part of what drove Caracalla to build the Baths. However, there were also much deeper political and psychological reasons for why Caracalla built his grand Baths. For instance, Caracalla believed he could carry on the legacy of Alexander the Great by uniting the empires of Persia and Rome. First, he united all his divided subjects in the common bond of citizenship in order to prepare for this proposed union (Johnson, 2). Second, with the revenue from the taxes, Caracalla attempted to buy the allegiance of his soldiers in preparation for an ambitious campaign to extend his father’s conquests into old Persia (Columbia Encyclopedia, Caracalla).

In this way, the construction of the Baths of Caracalla was almost entirely driven by the selfish political motives of Caracalla himself. Although some could see granting Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants and bestowing a public gift in the form of a thermae as altruistic and generous (and many Romans were genuinely grateful for the Baths since they were a peaceful oasis in which they could escape from the bloody wars that the empire was involved in under Caracalla), it is likely that Caracalla did not see it as such. Baths were an ideal institution for uniting the Roman populace, and historians seem to agree that during the imperial era of Rome, Caracalla believed that the unification of Romans was imperative to successful campaigns of conquest. He would do this by any means necessary, even if it meant driving Rome into debt, to which the construction of the baths did ultimately contribute. In the end, the Baths were an integral part of Caracalla’s ambitious goal to achieve the fame and praise enjoyed by Alexander the Great himself.


Even without its famous decorations and even in its ruin, the Baths of Caracalla still attract admirers from across the globe. Many find the Baths to be provocative because of their vastness, grandeur, and complexity, and many take joy in imagining the society and rituals that accompanied bathing in ancient Rome. The Baths of Caracalla certainly had an influence on later generations, as the frigidarium itself inspired the architecture of many subsequent public buildings of the imperial era, such as the Baths of Diocletian and the Basilica of Massenzio. In addition, the architects who built the Chicago Railroad Station and Pennsylvania Station in New York in the 1800s copied the architecture of the frigidarium perfectly, and Italians have used the ruinous caldarium of the Baths of Caracalla as a theatre for their famous opera (Piranomonte, 7, 23-24). It seems apparent that we also still admire the baths today because it was a public space that any Roman could enjoy. This fact constituted the most surprising and interesting finding of my research, as many associate imperial Rome with vast cultural and societal inequalities. To imagine thousands of people of different classes enjoying the same thermae in ancient imperial Rome is to imagine a progressive movement in the midst of a ruthless ancient culture. The true tragedy is that the Baths did not function for longer than three centuries, for it seems likely that the public Baths would be just as popular in modern-day Rome as they were almost eighteen hundred years ago.



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Ed. DeLaine, Janet and D.E. Johnston. Roman Baths and Bathing: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Roman Baths held at Bath, England 30 March - 4 April 1992. Thomson-Shore; Dexter, Michigan. 1999.

Fagan, Garrett. Bathing in Public in the Roman World. University of Michigan Press; Ann Arbor, Michigan. 1999.

Piranomonte, Marina. The Baths of Caracalla. Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma; Electa, Milan. 1998.

Yegül, Fikret K. Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity. MIT Press; Cambridge, MA. 1992.

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