ARCHAEOLOGY | The Baths of Caracalla, wellness center of antiquity

The Baths of Caracalla or Antoninian Baths were built by the Emperor Caracalla on the Aventine, between 212 and 217 A.D., as shown by the brick stamps. The external enclosure was, instead, the work of Elagabalus and Severus Alexander. Majestic and rich with precious ornaments, they were destined to the people of the nearby working-class quarters of the XII Regio and could contain about 1600 people. Polemius Silvius, in the V century, cited them as one of the seven wonders of Rome.

A unique complex

The baths were one of the favorite places of entertainment for the ancient Romans, where they regularly took care of their hygiene and improved their social relations.

From the structural point of view, they distinguished themselves from the “great imperial thermal baths” (a very common building typology, in fact, at the beginning of the V century A.D., there were 856 of them!) for a substantial novelty: the real thermal nucleus is clearly separated from all the other secondary and service rooms, that are not for bathing, which are located along the whole enclosure.

In the vast enclosure occupied by the Baths, citizens could not only use the public baths, but also devote their free time to sports, reading in the library, strolling through the gardens or paying homage to the god Mithras and other pagan gods by visiting the temple.

The Baths of Caracalla are an architectural and engineering marvel, especially when you consider their date of construction, with their water supply system, as well as heating and drainage. The wood-fired ovens, fed by slaves, were used to heat the floor and walls of the baths, as well as water.

The water supply was obtained from a branch of the Acqua Marcia: the Acqua Antoniniana, an aqueduct specially built in 212 A.D. and enhanced with a new spring. The heating of the water was provided by the fireplaces on the lower floors, the hypocaustics, which spread hot air in the cavities under the floor, supported by short brick pillars. Covered in marble and decorated with excellent works of art, those of Caracalla were the most sumptuous baths built in antiquity.

The thermal path
pianta Terme di Caracalla
Map of the Baths of Caracalla

One entered the central body of the building from four doors on the north-eastern facade. On the central axis you can observe different rooms in sequence: the calidarium, equipped with a large circular tank for immersion in hot water; here, to make the body absorb the moisture of vapors, the skin was sprinkled with water and a little soda, used instead of soap, cleansing with the strigilis, a metal scraper of curved shape suitable to remove the grease left on the skin by the combination of oils, ointments and sweat.

Continuing on, there was the tepidarium, equipped with tanks with lukewarm water to accustom the body slowly to the change in temperature, and then the frigidarium. This basilical hall (or cold room) is the focal point of the complex. Here the body was refreshed and invigorated, immersing itself in the four cold water tanks, placed at the corners of the room, which had to be covered. Finally, the natatio, where the ritual of bathing ended with a dip in the pool of very cold water.

At the sides of this central axis other rooms are arranged symmetrically around the two gyms. All the rooms were particularly well cared for and the spaces were enhanced with mosaic floors, walls covered with stuccoes, polychrome marble and, above all, hundreds of statues that decorated all the rooms. Sometimes special effects were also created. The mosaics, for example, often covered the interior and the bottom of the pools, perhaps with representations of fish and marine animals that the movement of the water made them seem alive!

Reconstruction of the Baths of Caracalla

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