One of the most interesting non-touristy things to do in Rome is a visit to the ancient Terme di Caracalla (Baths of Caracalla). Baths were a very important part of a Roman citizen’s social life. This is where they came to bathe, as well as exercise, read, but also to meet other people and discuss different matters. It was another type of forum in its essence.
The Role of Baths in Ancient Rome
Most Roman citizens, rich and poor, went to the public baths frequently. They knew it was healthy but going to the thermae also had a social component.
Even the richest people, that had private baths in their villas, often came to the public baths for social activity. The baths weren’t a new concept. Romans borrowed the idea from the Greeks. However, as with many other things, the Romans took it to the next level.
Public baths (balneae) became common throughout the empire. In Rome and a few other major cities, imperial baths (thermae) were also built. The thermae were large complexes where citizens could not only bathe, but take walk or even listen to poetry.
Elements of a Roman Baths Complex
A typical thermae complex, in the largest cities across the Roman Empire, had a rectangular shape, bathing chambers, dressing rooms, and standard water, drainage, and heating systems.
The Romans would bathe in different chambers, heated differently. The frigidarium was the cool room, the tepidarium was warm, and the caldarium was the hot room. Outside the impressive bathing rooms, there was a shallow pool (natatio). At the Baths of Caracalla, the natatio was 50m long, which is Olympic size, and it made use of the sunlight for a good water temperature.
The installations were very complex, even more so if you consider the period when they functioned. They had a fresh water supply from an aqueduct, drainage, and also heating systems for the pools and floors. Under the pools, slaves worked continuously to feed the wood fires.
There were also dressing areas, saunas, gyms, and outside walking and relaxing spaces. People would undress, then step into the caldarium where they put oil on their skins, and then used a strigil to remove the excess oil along with dirt and perspiration. Then, they would either go to the hot baths or to the cold ones, as they preferred.
Moreover, the terme complex had spaces dedicated to exercise, gardens and gathering places, and even a library.
The Baths of Caracalla (Terme di Caracalla)
Thermae Antoninianae by their Latin name were finished in 216 AD by emperor Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus). They were one of the largest and most impressive baths complexes of Ancient Rome. You can still imagine today, by the size of the brick walls and the beauty of the Roman mosaics how luxurious the place must have been in its heyday.
The bathing rooms had marble or mosaic floors, and beautiful sculptures. Although the Baths of Caracalla weren’t the largest imperial baths, they were the most luxurious. No other complex equaled the Baths of Caracalla in splendor or works of art. In fact, they inspired many other buildings from the Baths of Diocletian in Rome to the Chicago Union Station or the first Pennsylvania Station in New York. The Baths of Caracalla were in use for more than 300 years and they could accommodate up to 1600 people at the same time.
The Baths throughout time
To get to the baths, you had to pass through the Capena Gate from the Circus Maximus, towards Via Appia, the first modern road. The thermae had small entry fees, so people in all social classes could frequent them.
Their location, close to Rome’s outskirts allowed for the baths to last for so long. When Rome started to lose its power and its population diminished, the city withdrew to a smaller area. So, nothing was ever built on top of the baths’ complex.
However, during the Middle Ages, the baths became a quarry for building materials. A lot was lost in the process. Some exquisite artworks were discovered during the excavations and ended up in museums or in piazzas. For instance, the fountains in Piazza Farnese have the granite tubes extracted from the frigidarium in the Baths of Caracalla as a base.
Useful info for visiting the Baths of Caracalla
The Baths of Caracalla are accessible by foot from the Colosseum, on a 15-20 minutes walk along the Palatine Hill and Circus Maximus, two other attractions that should be on your Rome itinerary.
The complex is open every day from 9:00 AM to 6:30 PM, except Mondays, when it closes at 2:00 PM.
An adult ticket costs 8€. You can use an audio guide or maybe choose a private tour and let the guide bring to life Ancient Rome. You will probably spend 1 to 2 hours visiting the site. Recently, they also opened the underground level for visiting. You can see part of the early technology involved in keeping the baths functioning.
The complex is free to visit every first Sunday of each month (October to March) along with some other tourist attractions in Rome. You can also use your Roma pass here.
The place is never too crowded, so it’s the perfect place to spend a quiet afternoon imagining how it must have been like.
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