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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

Bathing in Ancient Rome and the Baths of Caracalla

What is the Baths of Caracalla?

The Baths of Caracalla is the remains of a colossal bathing complex built by Emperor Caracalla in the 3rd century AD.

Baths of Caracalla

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What were Roman baths like?

The ancient baths must have been a sight to behold, as huge crowds of Romans from all classes would gather to bathe and socialise in ornate settings fit for an emperor. Though a portion of the elite had washing facilities in the privacy of their own homes, the majority of Romans would frequently head down to the public baths as part of their daily routine. More than just a place to wash, the baths were social centres in which to meet friends, hold business meetings, attend extravagant banquets, or enjoy the extensive book collections their adjoining libraries had to offer. Romans would flock in from midday and they had until sunset to make use of the bath’s facilities. Depending on the complex, men and women would usually bathe apart, either in separate areas or at different times of the day.

Public baths were another impressive feat of Roman engineering, with pools and rooms maintained at different temperatures to suit the whims of each bather. Once you had left your clothes in the dressing room, you could choose to warm up in a heated room, or tepidarium, and even take a dip in the caldarium, an ancient version of a hot tub. Some baths offered a sweat room, similar to a modern day sauna, and a frigidarium, a cold room with a chilled plunge pool. In order to maintain the various room temperatures, the Romans developed an early form of underground heating. Certain floors were raised slightly in order to allow hot air and gas to circulate beneath them, thereby warming the rooms, and their guests, from below.

The philosopher Seneca, who lived above a public bathing complex, described wealthy Romans making grand, dramatic entrances to the baths accompanied by their slaves, whilst bath attendants were on hand to offer them bathing oils, food and drink. Attendants would also wind their way through the masses offering massages or a service in which they would pluck your unwanted body hair!

What were the Baths of Caracalla like?

Admittedly, many of the baths in Roman towns across the empire were fairly simple and unadorned, providing its citizens with a basic washing facility. Those built by emperors, however, were a different matter altogether. The Baths of Caracalla, the size of a small town in itself, are a perfect example of imperial grandeur, boasting ornate gardens, libraries, lecture halls, sports tracks, and even art galleries. The pool was Olympic-sized by modern standards and the cold rooms were 60 metres long, lit by magnificently glazed windows. From head to toe the baths were decked with precious marbles quarried from throughout the empire and featured a colossal statue of Asclepius, the Roman god of healing, who watched over the bathers as they swam.

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