The Baths of Caracalla, a complex for relaxation and commerce

Rome, Italy

Having ascended the imperial throne in 193, Septimius Severus set about consolidating the power of his dynasty. The construction of public buildings was a good way of ensuring his popularity, and Septimius Severus, then his son Caracalla, built a monumental thermal complex which, according to historians, extended over 11 hectares and could accommodate 1,600 bathers. Only Diocletian’s baths later surpassed them in capacity.

Begun in 206 and inaugurated in 217 by Caracalla, the Baths of the Severus sought to perpetuate Trajan’s preoccupation with improving hygiene while satisfying the needs and pleasures of a class of rentiers. Indeed, people didn’t come to the baths just to bathe, but also to spend an afternoon relaxing, perfecting their knowledge, making contacts and even doing a little business.

The thermal baths, sumptuous facilities

The majestic rivulets looming in the shadows of the Aventine hill will give you a small idea of the extravagant scale of these thermal baths. Alongside the thermal baths facilities were libraries (Greek and Latin) and beautifully decorated rest rooms. The buildings were surrounded by a shaded garden adorned with fountains, a covered portico and a stadium with bleachers. The decoration of marble, frescoes, sculptures and mosaics was sumptuous (some mosaics on display at the Vatican show athletes in training). Sculptures were often monumental, like the enormous granite basins that now form the two fountains in piazza Farnese, and the Bull and Hercules from the Farnese collection, both on display at the Naples Archaeological Museum.

The baths ceased to function in the 6th century, when the Goths destroyed the aqueducts that fed them. Used repeatedly as a quarry over the centuries, they have lost their original magnificence and, as with other ancient sites, you’ll have to use your imagination to put them back together again.

The thermal baths were located in the central building. The main rooms (caldarium or hot bath, tepidarium or warm bath, frigidarium or cold bath) occupied the center of this building. On either side, there was an apodyterium or changing room, a palaestra or gymnasium, and a laconium or dry oven. Other rooms, such as the libraries, were located outside this perimeter.

The tour begins in one of the two palaestrae. This one, like its twin at the far end of the complex, features monochrome mosaic walls and multicolored mosaic pavements. A door leads to a checkroom, a vestibule and then down a few steps to the natatio (swimming pool). Another door leads to an atrium, then into the frigidarium. Going straight on, you’ll again pass through a checkroom before arriving at the other palaestra, which retains numerous mosaic panels. With the exception of two brick pilasters, almost nothing remains of the enormous circular caldarium with its seven baths. Its dome, which has now disappeared, was reputed to be as large as that of the Pantheon.

Practical info

  • Thermal baths visited on April 27, 2010
  • Closed on Monday afternoon
  • Transport: Rome, Metro B, Circo Massimo
  • Length of visit: 1 hour

Photo Gallery

Visit the Caracalla baths

Visite des thermes de Caracalla

360° general view


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