Despite being close to the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla are often overlooked. As all local ruins can harly disappoint, this ancient Roman spa will go beyond your expectations. You do need to go a bit further, walk past the Foro Romano and the Arch of Constantine heading towards the Palatine Hill and the Circus Maximus, but I can guarantee your extra walk will be totally worth it.
Gone down in history as Thermae Antoninianae, the Baths of Caracalla were commissioned by Caracalla in 212 AD, and it took 5 years and 9,000 workers to build what now is one of the biggest and best preserved ancient thermal baths. Inaugurated in 216 and renovated several times, they ceased to be operative in 537, when Gothic King Vitige severed the aqueduct to bend and conquer the city by thirst.
The complex of the Baths of Caracalla is huge and so well preserved that it’s easy to imagine how they were in their heyday and picture sauna lovers debating, sweating and sprucing themselves up. Apart from the wide gardens, there are also big chunks of the original mosaic floor, columns, and the figures and statues used as decorations, different areas each with their own purposes, such as the gym, changing rooms, shops, libraries, and pools to please some 6,000 spa-goers.
The original baths were beautifully decorated, obviously, typical of the Roman style, with hundreds of statues, paintings, and mosaics. As it happens with art masterpieces, the more beautiful the more looted and removed from their original context, so at the Museo Nazionale of Naples you can find some sculptures from the Baths, in Piazza Santa Trinità in Florence you can see a huge column from the natatio (pool that apparently was of Olympic size), while in Rome’s Piazza Farnese you will find the two gorgeous basins in grey granite from the original frigidarium now employed as fountains.
A typical spa day started at the gym, then the sauna to get ready for the proper treatment that consisted in the calidarium, a warm room heated by an efficient heating system of hot air under the floor (oh, did you think we invented this only recently?), the tepidarium, to start bringing body’s temperatures down, and the frigidarium, the cool room to get all firm and toned with cold water pools and a play of waterfalls. This hall, frigidarium, was so beautiful that reminded of the structure of a basilica, and its style inspired in fact many buildings afterward, such as Diocleziano Baths and Massenzio Basilica.
Underneath the whole complex, chariots went back and forth carrying wood to be burnt in the ovens linked to the heating and lies an impressive water system that shows Romans’ incredible hydraulic expertise.
In Rome, I’m always in awe. Anywhere you go, whatever you visit will inevitably make you think how proud and aware ancient Romans were of their status of the center of the world. Truth be said, today’s Romans don’t really try to hide their pride, it will suffice to say that still now they go to bring flowers where Julius Ceasar was cremated about 2,000 years ago.
If you are a history lover, the Baths of Caracalla are a real gem, a full immersion in ancient Roman architecture, a way of life and self-celebration.
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