Not far from the Colosseum, but generally not included in the classic Rome itineraries, the archaeological site of the Baths of Caracalla surprises for the great architectural skills of the Romans and for the poignant beauty of the archaeological remains.
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The thermal buildings were very important in Roman daily life. In a city where the houses were small and not equipped with running water, it was necessary to provide citizens with places to carry out essential hygiene practices.
The baths are not a Roman invention, but they already existed among the Greeks, intended as taking a hot bath by immersion.
[from the Greek ϑερμός (thermòs) = hot]
SPAs and Baths buildings in Rome
In the city of Rome, there were hundreds balnea (bath houses), small spas designed to accommodate a few people at the same time, for a population of about one million people.
These small structures could be open to the public, free of charge or upon payment of a small sum of money, or private for being were integrated into a domus, a large private house.
The Roman baths were characterized by the succession of baths in artificially heated tubs or pools, alternated with pools of cold water.
SPA: salus per aquam
wellness through the water
The big imperial baths
In the imperial age, more and more spectacular baths houses started to be built, and in ever greater numbers.
They was sponsored by the emperor, and was called thermae. They were very few, but absolutely stunning.
Built at the behest of the emperors, and financed by them, these large spas were frequented by all social classes.
The spas thermae soon became places of socialization, of healing, sporting, competitions, artistic practices, venue for shows. The capacity and functionality of the buildings were modified and extended to meet the new social needs. The facilities were enriched with gyms, auditoriums, libraries, gardens, conference rooms.
The building model of the great imperial baths was, generally, always the same: a large rectangular compound largely occupied by gardens surrounded by recreational buildings, at the center of which is the real spa. In the main building, the rooms for the baths were aligned following the arrangment cold → hot:
frigidarium – tepidarium – calidarium
The imperial baths were richly decorated with marble statues, floors covered with mosaics, marble and frescoes on the walls, stuccos, fountains …
The Baths od Caracalla in Rome
Built in the early third century (212-217 AD), the Baths of Caracalla are the best preserved imperial baths spa complex in Rome, and the largest in the whole Roman empire.
The Baths of Caracalla could house up to 1600 people at the same time.
Water availability was guaranteed by a branch of the aqueduct Aqua Marcia, which allowed the filling of over 60 cisterns for a total volume of about 80,000 cubic meters of water. A complex system of canalizations allowed the distribution of water in all areas of the spa structure.
The actual baths complex was in the center of the large enclosure.
The Baths of Caracalla remained in use until 570 AD, when the water availability necessary for their operation was interrupted. At that time the Goths attacked Rome, and cut off the supply of water through what is called “the cutting of the aqueducts” to ensure the surrender of the city.
The termal path
There were two groups of multi-storey locker rooms (apodyteria), of which the mosaics that covered the floors are clearly visible. They were arranged on the two sides of the main pool (natatio), to which they were directly connected.
The natatio was the most spectacular section in the entire spa complex. It was a large pool with cold water, perhaps only in use during the warm season. One wall was perforated with niches framed by columns, which housed marble statues; on the opposite side, large arches with waterfalls connected the natatio with the next room, the frigidarium.
The frigidarium was a large hall covered by three enormous groin vaults supported by eight Egyptian gray granite columns. Here took place the practices that required the use of cold water.
Two palestrae (gyms) were connected to the short sides of the frigidarium. The gyms were large halls generally intended for sports.
The tepidarium was the room connected to the frigidarium. It was a relatively small heated room.
The calidarium was the large round hall for the sauna or for practices that required the use of hot water and steam. This room was covered with a 36 meters width dome!
The underground and the Mithraeum of the Baths of Caracalla
In the Baths of Caracalla, the underground system was very well organized. There were the furnaces for the boilers, the service areas and the connecting tunnels for the operating and maintenance personnel.
The basements were also largely accessible by carriages, to allow the transport of fuel to be used in the furnaces to heat the water, for the transport of consumables such as linen ….
It was the real beating and technologically advanced heart of the whole structure, of which it made possible the proper functioning.
In the underground of the Baths of Caracalla there was a Mithraeum, a place of worship for Mithras, a god of eastern origin. The Mithraic religion was widespread in Rome, and the presence of a Mithraeum inside the complex of the Baths of Caracalla, in the places intended for working people, let us understand how this religion was widespread among the humble and middle-class in Rome.
[A few years ago an exhibition by the artist Michelangelo Pistoletto took place in the mithraeum of the Baths of Caracalla. I wrote a post about it, and you can find it at this link.]
The Baths of Caracalla were not, however, only a functional environment for hygiene and social practices. Like the other imperial baths, they had to be spectacular from an architectural, artistic and decorative point of view.
In some of the rooms the mosaics of colored marble tiles with geometric designs that covered the floors are still visible, and a few fragments of trabeations carved in marble.
The Baths of Caracalla is one of the few places in Rome where we can admire the decorative mosaics in the original context.
However, going out into the city or entering the museums, it is possible to trace some of the artworks or decorations used to fill the rooms of the baths.
- Rome, piazza Farnese: the two granit tubs used as fountains
- Rome, Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere (Our Lady in Trastevere): some columns with capitals, reused in the constuction of the church (perhaps from one of the libraries)
- Vatican City, Vatican Museums: polychrome mosaic with representations of athlets (from a gymnasium)
- Naples, National Archaeological Museum: colossal statues known as Farnese Hercules, Farnese Bull and Farnese Flora
- Florence, piazza Santa Trinita: column of the Justice (from the natatio)