The History Behind the Baths of Caracalla

A Typical Roman Bath Until 217 AD

    Roman bathing, which consisted of the Roman baths (or thermae) and also balneum, has a long and varied past. In their history, the early Romans used baths, but seldom, and only then for heath and cleanliness. The Roman baths that most people think of today only came into existence in 25 BC with the first thermae built by the Emperor Argippa. Until then, most Romans bathed in local neighborhood balneum, with an average of 5 bath houses per block. The popularity of these balneum led to the creation of the thermae. Following Agrippa's lead, the thermae (Greek for "heat")  became the pet project for many Emperors. Before Caracalla built his in 217 AD, there were the Baths of Nero (65 AD), Titus (81 AD), Domitian (95 AD), and Commodus (185 AD). And after Caracalla, there were the Baths of Diocletian (305 AD) and Constantine (315 AD). The addition of a new bath complex was nothing new for the city of Rome, however each emperor tried to improve upon the design, grandeur, and popularity of the ones before him. In order to create popularity, the fees to bath were practically nonexistent and sometimes there was no fee at all. Because of this, the baths had to be subsidized by the government. It is important to note too, that the great bath complexes were not found exclusively in Rome, but across the entire expanse of the empire. It just so happen that the best and most grand bath complexes were found within Rome, as it served as the capital of the empire. 

    The success of the bath complexes owes much to the technological advances of the Greeks and early Roman. The improvement of the aqueduct, the architectural usage of vaulted ceilings, and the hypocaust heating system allowed these great complexes to be as magnificent as they were. The hypocaust system allowed the great amount of water in the baths to be heated to great temperatures, so hot that bathers had to wear special shoes to prevent their feet from getting blisters from the floor. The Romans were able to achieve this by heating the marble floor, which was raised on small columns or stacks of tiles to allow hot air from a fire to circulate underneath. The walls were also heated by earthenware pipes in the walls to ensure a hot and steamy environment. It took two to three days to heat a thermae, but as the baths were kept in constant use, the fire was never allowed to die. The water for these baths complexes was diverted from the hills surrounding the city on a system of aqueducts and the creation of the vaulted ceiling allowed for the room for thousands of bathers to partake in the joys of the complex at a single time. 

    Most of the bath complexes were called complexes because one did not only bathe there. In fact, the baths in Rome served as an entertainment center, holding sports centers, swimming pools, gardens, libraries, areas for poetry and musical performances, restaurants, and sleeping quarters for visitors. Also, the baths were sometimes considered to be "free zones", outside of the long arm of the law. Above all however, the main attraction was the baths themselves, and the Baths of Caracalla were no exception to the rule.

A Typical Visit to the Baths

    The baths were opened daily from sunrise to sunset and open to all. Most commoners went only once a day, but it was not uncommon for those used to luxury (i.e. the Emperors) to bathe as many as 7-8 times daily. Most commonly, the typical Roman would start out with some easy exercise in the palaestra (exercise yard), attend to the bathing, anoint themselves with oil, and then eat some food. Let's go through the routine in a little more detail:

    Your typical Roman would arrive at the baths with at least two slaves with him. He would change in the apodyterium (changing room A on the layout) and one slave would stay behind and watch his clothes. (Thieves liked to hang out at the baths with good reason.) After this, the Roman would head out to the palaestra (B) for some moderate exercise. (Most commonly, you would wrestle or play a ball game.) From here he would enter into the bathing process itself, usually starting with the caldarium (hot room C) to open his pores and get the sweat out. He would then move to the tepidarium (warm room D) to partake in "strigiling",  the Roman ritual of using curved metal tools to scrape off sweat and dirt. Romans would cover their bodies in oil to loosen the dirt, and then wipe the oil of with the strigil. Your second slave would be used to perform this practice or you could hire someone at the baths to do it for you. The tepidarium was a busy place, as this is also the place where our Roman could get a massage or have his body hair removed. (Hairless bodies were fashionable during much of the Roman Empire.) Next up was a dip in the frigidarium (cold room E) to close the pores and refresh you. Finally, you could relax in the outdoor natatio (swimming pool F) before heading back to the apodyterium to change back into your clothes. Our Roman might leave then, or go the the gardens, or watch some wrestling, or listen to some music, any of which would most certainly be going on in the baths on a typical day. 

Emperor Caracalla

     Emperor Caracalla, the man behind the plan, ruled over the Roman Empire from 211 AD-217 AD. Born in 188 AD, Caracalla (a nickname - it referred to a Gallic cloak that he liked to wear) was the oldest son of Septimius Severus, who was also a Roman emperor from 193 AD-211 AD. His father appointed him as Caesar (second in command or junior emperor) in 195 AD. In 198 AD, he was then named co-Augustus (emperor) along side his father. His hopes of sole rule were shattered when, in  209 AD, Septimius Severus also appointed Caracalla's younger brother, Geta, to become co-Augustus. Caracalla had a long standing bitter rivalry with his brother, and was extremely unhappy at this turn of events. But he had to deal with it until his father, old and tired from fighting wars in Britain, died in York in February of 211 AD. On his deathbed, he told his sons to get along with each other, pay the army well, and to not care about anyone else. (Well, 2 out of 3 isn't bad.) 

    Caracalla went to Rome and ruled over the city, trying desperately to ignore his brother's presence. So much did they hate each other, that the two brothers set up separate entrances to the palace and divided it up into two separate homes. Both brothers feared that the other would kill him with poisoned food, and so lived in perpetual fear. Caracalla must have reached a breaking point though and had his imperial guards murder his brother in December of 211 AD. First, Caracalla paid off the guards and army for their support of his reign. He then went on a mad purge to kill anyone who was associated with his brother and had his image removed from all public or private art. 

    While Caracalla was in fact a cruel man, it should be  noted that his reign did have some benefits for the Roman population. Issued in 212 AD, the Constitutio Antoniniana stated that everyone in the Roman empire, with the exceptions of slaves, was granted Roman citizenship. Caracalla also went on a series of military campaigns, first to Germany, and later to Asia Minor, winning the favor of his troops along the way. (I'm sure that the pay raise he gave them led to some of their "loyalty".) Caracalla was unfortunately murdered by one of his imperial bodyguards while relieving himself during his expeditions in Asia Minor. He was only 29 when he died. 

    The importance of Caracalla's rule is that he was trying to maintain the fragile peace that his father, Septimius Severus, had managed to achieve during his rule. The Baths of Caracalla show Caracalla's attempt to show the Roman people that he was there to support them and care for them. And while he was a bad ruler,  he certainly had great taste in architecture. 

Up ] [ The History Behind the Baths of Caracalla ] Building Plan ] Decoration ] Significance ] Archaeology Links ]

  Email is always welcome.