The Baths of Caracalla, completed around 216 CE by the emperor Caracalla, is just a complex of massive ruins today, sitting on a huge plot of land, just a walking distance from the Colosseum, in Rome.
The epithet “Rome, the eternal city,” has always resonated in me, ever since I was a child. Taken at its face value, it means that the city has always existed and it will continue to be so indefinitely. Recently, I revisited the Baths of Caracalla site, which for many centuries accommodated as many as 8,000 visitors each day. Even though the area has suffered defacement and pillaging over time, one can still admire its architectural splendor, which provided inspiration for future builders of cathedrals, during the Middle Ages, as well as train stations in the United States, most notably, the original Pennsylvania Railroad Station of New York City, in 1910, and the Union Station of Chicago in 1925. Thus, the term “eternal” is not simply relegated to the notion that Rome will perpetuate itself, rather that the antiquity of Rome will continue to be a source of inspiration. The baths, as with so many other structures, embodied the identity of ancient Rome.
The Chicago Union Train Station was inspired by the Baths of Caracalla with its vaulted ceiling and its classical columns, all of which were intended to create space and to give exhausted travelers a sense of tranquillity in the midst of frenetic activity.
Built in the 3rdcentury CE, between 206 and 216, the Baths of Caracalla are the culmination of Rome’s design to improve the quality of life for its citizenry. Along with the Baths of Diocletian, the creation of exercise areas that would enable Romans to cultivate the philosophy of “mens sana in corpore sano (A rational mind in a healthy body),” have proliferated throughout the empire. These magnificent bath areas can still be seen today in Sicily at the Villa Romana del Casale, the Bath of Trajan in Rome, among many others. One of the gifts the Romans have handed down to posterity is the notion of the bath as a therapeutic center of wellness, recreation and social gathering, which to this day, it is still vibrant. From Rome to Aix-en-Provence, Baden-Baden, Tivoli, Pompei, one can truly appreciate the importance of baths in Roman life.
Villa Romana del Casale built around the first quarter of the fourth century CE, is an extraordinary example of Roman bath, allowing for physical exercise, as well as focusing on wellness of the human body.
Now, the presence of baths in antiquity goes as far back as Etruscan times, for they, too, understood the correlation between health and physical exercise. The thermal waters of the Etruria among many others in the region, between Tuscany and Rome, are believed to be the origin of the Roman of baths. These eventually grew out into larger projects throughout the empire, the most notable examples are those of Nero’s and Trajan’s. The Baths of Caracalla, however, are the most impressive. Built on 27 acres of land, the Baths of Caracalla were described as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Baths had a huge underground system that allowed for the transportation of cold and hot water.
The original project was initiated by emperor Septimius Severus in 206 CE and was completed by his son, Emperor Caracalla who wanted to create the most memorable site, in order to astonish the viewer, surpassing the accomplishment of many of his predecessors. Caracalla was a rootless man who had no regard for the rule of law. Like many dictators, he was interested in extolling his own virtues of grandeur. To this end, he employed fifteen thousand slaves and brought the project to a completion within five years. This was the most extraordinary public venue created by the Romans in an effort to promote wellbeing.
An Olympic size swimming pool at Caracalla which was used daily by the Romans, as part of affording citizens the opportunity to stay in shape.
By the Augustan Age, during the first century CE, baths had become an integral pastime of Roman life. To enter a bath, was like entering a sacred temple. To this day, even though the Baths of Caracalla have been reduced to ruins, one can still feel an aura of spiritual sentiment. Indeed, the baths were decorated with colored marbles, distinguished sculptures, representing Roman divinities of gods and goddesses and mosaics laid in sophisticated patterns that can still awe modern visitors. The mosaics decorated the floors as well as ceilings in order to endure the condensation created by hot water.
A mosaic floor designed to provide comfort to one’s feet, as well as enduring cold and hot water coming from a system of pipes beneath the floor.
In order to appreciate the level of physical engagement at a bath, one would need to refer to the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily where women and men can still be seen playing ball, exercising, attending a lecture in one of the libraries inside the bath area or enjoying a conversation among friends. The bath was a social center just as today people convene at restaurants in order to discuss business or other social concerns. The significance of the Roman bath is that it afforded the general population the opportunity to cultivate one’s health, to attend to one’s personal hygiene, while at the same time fostering social connections. It was truly an ancient cafe without the coffee. Perhaps, only modern Japan appears to have come close to the Roman notion of the bath. The ofuro in Japan, a bath concept that enables the participants to switch between the hot and the cold, affords everyone an opportunity to engage in socialization, just as the Roman baths did.
The Baths were open to all Roman citizens. Initially, baths were coed but, as time passed, rigorous schedules were imposed to accommodate women in the morning and men in the afternoon. If one can imagine, the baths must have been a moment of intense relaxation, especially for the wealthy ones. Members of the so-called patrician class who monopolized political power, would come to the baths with an entourage of servants, bringing bathing gear, oils for massaging the body. After working out a sweat in the palaestrae (gym), they might move to the laconica (steam room) and gradually move into caldarium (warm bath), the tepidarium (lukewarm bath) and finish up with an invigorating frigidarium (cold bath). One could also opt for the natatio, an Olympic size swimming pool.
Although the Baths of Caracalla’s vaults are now in ruin, one can still admire its architectural wonder.
Although the Baths of Caracalla ceased to function, its architectural feat had enormous inspiration on subsequent structures, most notably the Baths of Diocletian, the Basilica of Maxentius, the original Pennsylvania Station of New York City, and the Chicago Union Station. The huge vaults with their large windows became the model for medieval cathedrals. Even though the ruins of Caracalla are today void of decorative statues portraying Roman divinities, one can still feel its pulse, its atmosphere and imagine the myriad of people and voices that used to convene here in order to cultivate one’s body, as well as one’s inner being. Thus, ancient Rome has faded but it has not gone into oblivion, as its way of life is still intrinsically embedded into our collective consciousness.
Annunziata Berrino. Andare per Terme. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2014.
Maryl B. Gensheimer, Decoration and Display in Rome’s Imperial Thermae: Message of Power and their Popular Reception at the Baths of Caracalla. Oxford University Press, 2018.