Caracalla is the name given to the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, who was known as Emperor Caracalla.
The site is a ten-minute walk from the Forum and Colosseum, just across a busy road from the entrance to the Circus Maximus on Via della Terme di Caracalla. Thermae was the Roman name for the public baths, which the Romans used not only for the purpose of hygiene, but also for what we now call social networking. While soaking in the waters, the various social classes would strike up friendships and do business deals – and perhaps even start an affair.
Construction of the baths was started by the Emperor Septimius Severus in around AD211 and they were completed by his son Caracalla in around 235AD.
The ritual of Roman bathing
The Roman baths had three different baths for different water temperatures – bathers would start by stripping off and leaving their clothes in the apodyterium. Next they visited the frigidarium and plunged into chilled water, before warming up in the tepidarium, where the water was warmer. Finally – bliss – they immersed themselves in the hot water of the calidarium, which was heated using an underfloor heating system.
The calidarium would also offer basins containing cold water for cooling off again, before the bather returned to the tepidarium. Massage was also part of the ritual and skin would be oiled and scraped as a deep cleansing treatment, using a tool called a strigil. Once the process was completed, relaxation in the laconium involved sweating in dry heat to cleanse the pores. There was also an exercise yard known as the Palaestra. For many, bathing was a daily ritual and the baths were state-funded.
Baths of Caracalla decoration
The Baths of Caracalla were some of the most impressive ever built and are the second largest after the Diocletian Baths, which are situated at Piazza della Repubblica. The Caracalla Baths were also some of the most ornately decorated, with frescoes and mosaics, which were plundered by the Barbarians. There are still examples of the decorations on the site today – and it is possible to wander round the baths and see close at hand the stunning architecture and the technology involved in the heating the baths.
The baths were closed in AD 537 when the Barbarians destroyed the aqueducts which served the baths. Further damage was caused when an earthquake struck in AD 847.
The actual site is strangely peaceful, despite being a busy tourist destination – perhaps the grandeur of the architecture makes us feel small and reverent. They are the ultimate public symbol of a successful state – grand in design and execution and state funded. It is easy to imagine the various classes of society bathing, chatting and doing deals among the splendour of their surroundings – as well as what a pleasurable past-time it must have been.
It is best to visit the baths either after the Colosseum or the Forum or as a separate trip – it is possible to do all three sites in one day if you allocate two hours to the Forum, one hour to the Colosseum and then make your way to the baths and Circus Maximus – but only if you are a seasoned walker with comfortable footwear. Otherwise, take your time to visit the Caracalla Baths, just as the Romans would have done.
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All images A. Meredith 2017, except featured image (Pixabay)