This weekend I saw the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, the Pantheon, and the Vatican, and although all of these monuments far exceeded my expectations, it was a lesser known monument—the Baths of Caracalla—which truly blew me away. The Caracalla facilities (Terme di Caracalla) are generally agreed to be the most elaborate of the Ancient Roman baths. I haven’t seen the others, but I am inclined to believe this after my visit to the ruins.
I have been trying to think of a modern equivalent for the past few days and I simply cannot think of a a place that matches both the scale and social importance of the Caracalla site. As impressive as the other sites are, I can think of contemporary equivalents: the Coliseum is the precursor to the modern stadium (Wembley Stadium in London, Cape Town (FIFA) Stadium, Beijing “Nest” Stadium are a few noteworthy examples), the Forum is to Rome as the Mall is to Washington D. C., and Palatine Hill is the Ancient Roman version of Beverley Hills. It is this unfamiliarity with the public baths that was so captivating, and as difficult as it was, I was determined to visualize the ancient atmosphere of each and every room.
The Baths were begun in the 3rd century AD and it is estimated that 9,000 laborers installed 2,000 tons of raw material each day for 6 straight years in order to complete the massive complex a mile south of the Forum (the ancient city center). And massive is really the best adjective I can think of to describe this place. In total the complex covered approximately 33 acres and the main building stood about 12 stories high. In addition to the three central bathing halls—the caldarium (hot), tepidarium (warm), and frigidarium (cold)—there were two gyms (most commonly used for wrestling and ball games), an Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool, two libraries (one with Greek literature and one with Latin literature), a courtyard for socializing and performances, shops, restaurants, and even sleeping quarters for visitors.
This sounds like some of the “super” malls that can be found in America, and I would agree except for the fact that that bathing was a daily activity for most Roman citizens. The baths were not a luxury spa experience or an amusement park for the rich, but a public meeting space and a social right in the ancient capital.
Although the baths were left to deteriorate after the aqueduct system was damaged in the 6th century, they remain a significant site for Romans. When Rome hosted the 1960 Olympics, the baths served as a shell for the gymnastics facilities. Since 1937, the Teatro Dell’Opera di Roma has used Caracalla as a dramatic backdrop for its summer season, with performances by legends such as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. A final fun fact: the architecture of the central frigidarium was so impressive that architects continue to replicate it nearly 2000 years later. The architects of Liverpool’s St. George’s Hall, Chicago’s Union Station, and New York’s Pennsylvania Station all visited Caracalla and studied the engineering before making their final blueprints. Does the video below look familiar for those of you who’ve been to these places?