If you are wondering what to see in Rome during your vacation, Baths of Caracalla is an astonishing place to visit. Also known as Terme Antoniniane, the Baths are some of the best preserved ancient buildings of the Roman times. They are a must see when visiting Rome: even in their present state the ruins are breathtaking and are a magnificent testament to Roman architecture. This building is among the most monumental and imposing archeological complexes of the entire Imperial age.
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The Baths of Caracalla, located by ancient Appian Way in Rome, were named after the emperor Caracalla (whose official name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, hence the original name of the baths, Thermae Antoninianae) who reigned from A.D. 211-217. His father Septimius Severus commissioned the baths and after his death the project was completed by his son Caracalla in 216 A.D.
The emperor was nicknamed Caracalla for a Gallic tunic he used to wear, but this name was never officially used. Caracalla is infamous for killing his more popular brother Geta. He is also known for his decision to offer citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire, mainly to increase the income from taxes.
Caracalla’s distant cousin and successor Heliogabalus (218-222) erected the side-buildings, but it was not until the time of Severus Alexander (222-235) that the finishing touches were put on the structure.
The ruins of these baths are enormous and very well preserved with many mosaics still partially intact.
It was the largest bath complex in the world: the central building of the complex is circa 215 by 115 meters and consisted of four levels, two above ground and two below. It is not difficult to be impressed by it even today: the imposing ruins are still thirty meters high.
Beside the bathhouse, the complex was home to shops, an athletic track, sports fields, pleasure gardens, massage rooms, saunas, two reading rooms, perfumeries, music pavilions.
In addition to all of this, one of the side-buildings housed an underground temple to Mithras.
Much of the art that was found on the walls and some mosaic floors have been removed and taken to various museums. The interior of the building was enormously rich in color. The marble walls were littered with paintings and mosaics, the floors were also mosaics and painted sculpture adorned many if not all the alcoves. The structure endorsed 6300m3 of marble and employed 600 marble workers and 6,000 tradesmen to labor on this one project. It is said that before his death Septimius Severus issued 13, 000 prisoners of war from his campaigns to work at Baths building.
What the baths meant for romans
At a time, when Rome’s crowded tenements had few sanitary facilities, the more than fifty public baths in Imperial Rome played an important part in Roman society. Not only did it improve the cleanliness and health of its citizens, but the thermae were also places where Romans came to socialize, gossip and relax. Like most grand baths, the Baths of Caracalla were about more than just swimming and bathing. It was basically an ancient Roman community center, with wo palaetra (gyms), two libraries (one for Greek texts, one for Latin texts), and plenty of shops.
In their heyday, the Baths of Caracalla could accomodate a staggering 1,600 bathers at a time. In total the baths welcomed between 6,000 and 8,000 visitors each day.
They were fed by a dedicated acquaduct. A complex water distribution system ensured a constant flow of water from the Aqua Marcia aqueduct. Below the main buildings were two levels, the upper one was used for services and heating the water, the lower one was used for water drainage.
The ritual of bathing was a long process, starting with a hot bath in the calidarium. Next up was the lukewarm tepidarium, followed by the cold frigidarium. Then followed a swim in the natatio, an open air swimming pool. The walls and floor of both the tepidarium and calidarium were heated by a system called the hypocaust. The floor was raised and spaces were left between the walls to allow for hot air from a massive furnace to circulate through. In the subterranean structures, hundreds of stokers burned ten tons of wood every day to keep the water at the right temperature. The delivery of fuel was such an important task that Severus Alexander counted it among his personal responsibilities.
The end of the baths
The baths were extremely popular, and remained in use until the sixth century—even the first few waves of barbarian invaders and rulers loved them. The barbarians known as the Ostrogoths, though, not so much. They destroyed the hydraulics and heating systems, and the baths ceased to function in AD 537.
The complex was, as were most ancient structures, subsequently looted over the centuries—you’ve probably seen some of its sculptures without realizing they originally came from here, including the Belvedere Torso, now in the Vatican Museums, and the famous Farnese Bull and Farnese Hercules, both now in the Naples Archological Museum.
Later, the complex was mined for its very stones,which made excellent pre-cut building materials to help construct medieval Rome.
The Bath of Caracalla, excellent location for shows
The Baths of Caracalla are now the site of summertime open-air performances of ballet and opera, including works that employ spectacularly large casts, such as Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida and Georges Bizet’s Carmen. During the summer time, the Caracalla baths turn into a platform for breath taking cultural sets: the fancy Teatro dell’ Opera love to held the most famous operas for all the Roman- and non Roman.
In December 2012 a museum opened in the tunnels underneath the Baths of Caracalla. The network of tunnels, four kilometers long, was created to service the baths above. The furnaces to heat the hot water baths stood here and the tunnels also served as storage space.
The six-meter-wide tunnels create an atmospheric background for the display of objects that were found on site such as large sculpted capitals, marble reliefs and other ornaments that once decorated the sumptuous bath complex.