Way back in 2012, I wrote about the Baths of Caracalla following my first visit to one of the most monumental ancient Roman ruins in Italy. I learnt a lot more about the monument during a recent re-visit and I thought it would be interesting to share some of these facts with you.
Baths (called Thermae) played an important role in the social lives of Romans in antiquity. They were a place where the people gathered to meet and exchange news, to relax and have fun and to of course also physically work out. Baths existed for both men and women though were separated from each other (or in the same complex but during separate hours). Romans attributed a special importance to natural hot springs and baths sprung up wherever there were such natural sources of water. This is quite similar to Japan where ryokans (traditional hotels) have popped up around onsens or natural springs. In fact I once even watched a Japanese movie called “Thermae Romae” where a man from ancient Rome falls into a hot spring and pops up in an onsen in modern day Japan. He takes much inspiration from the facilities available in Japanese onsen and goes back in time to install them in ancient Roman baths. Now if that isn’t a nod to how advanced and contemporary the ancient Romans were, I don’t know what is.
Even when such a natural source was not available in the immediate vicinity, the Romans were masters of building aqueducts- channels to bring in water- from sources that could be tens of kilometres away. Using lead pipes, Romans brought running water to both public fountains as well as individual villas in towns.
The Baths of Caracalla are located not very far away from the historic centre of Rome. They were originally called the Thermae Antonianae and were
- the largest baths in the ancient Roman world, second only to the baths of Diocletian also in Rome
- covered an area of 337*328 metres. That is slightly larger than two football fields
- were inaugurated in 216 CE under the reign of the Emperor Caracalla
- were called the Thermae Antonianae because the formal name of Caracalla was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caesar Bassianus
- were located in what was called Regio XII – one of the 14 areas of Rome as designated by the Emperor God Augustus
- were still in working conditions 200 years after their inauguration in the 5th Century CE
- so large that they could accommodate anywhere between 6000 and 8000 bathers every day
- were built by over 9000 workers working every day for over five years
- incorporated over 250 columns in its design, 16 of which were more than 12 metres high
- had a massive underground network of tunnels and storage to manage the flow of water as well as heating for the hot sections of the baths
- had an estimated storage capacity of over 2000 tonnes of wood underground. At a usage rate of 10 tonnes of wood a day, the supply could last for 200 days.
- the most lavishly decorated baths built in antiquity with extensive mosaics, marbles, other statuary, columns and so on
- also incorporated an outdoor garden, shops and a library
- had a swimming pool that was 50*22 metres in dimension. However the pool was quite shallow. Here’s a really nice video showing a reconstruction of what the swimming pool would have looked like
- had changing rooms where Romans would often leave their things and a slave to watch over their things as thieving was very common. One of the more interesting things is that the mosaic patterns on the floors in each room are quite different
- has been the inspiration for a number of modern buildings- including the main waiting room of Penn station in New York and Chicago Union Station that were inspired by the architecture of the Frigidarium (cold room) of the Baths of Caracalla.
- were quarried for the rich marble content and statuary in history. Especially true in the mid 16th CE when Pope Paul III Farnese was building his palace.
Top tip for visit: Pay 7 Euros extra to get a pair of really cool 3D glasses which you can wear to look at what the original baths would have looked like. There is a lot of demand for these glasses so I would recommend you visit early.
The Baths are a short walk (about 15 minutes) away from the Colosseum or the metro stop for Circo Massimo. If walking is not your thing you can hail a taxi.