Anchored in the heart of Rome, are remains of the most important buildings of the Roman Empire: The Baths of Diocletian. Its structure that was once a marvel of Roman ingenuity, is now crumbling evidence of a Roman Empire that birthed the most advanced technology of the ancient world. In this essay I will be uncovering the social, physical and political aspects of the spectacular public Baths of Diocletian.
The Baths of Diocletian were the largest luxurious baths in Rome. It was a most unusual place, were crowds of Roman citizens would gather whilst relaxing in the most heavenly of circumstances. Built to hold over 3000 people at once, with close to 50 acres surrounding, these Baths were extremely advanced. The Romans were so brilliant in their designs that even the position of the foundation, oriented towards the sun, enabling the Baths to harvest the solar heat of mid-day. There was pluming that brought in hot and cold water from miles away and draining systems with reservoirs allowing the baths to be cleaned and re-filled regularly. A remarkably sophisticated heating system called the Hypocaust, radiated heat from the walls and floors. Underneath the Baths and within its walls, this system of channels and passageways provided a central heating system- where hot air from a burning furnace would circulate throughout the entire structure. It was so hot that wooden sandals were worn for whenever walking about. It is hard to image such advancements could have taken place over 2000 years ago!
To understand how the Romans enjoyed these baths, we must first discuss why the baths were built. Unlike the Greeks, who were more concerned in the ideals of the human body and condition, the Romans were a more practical society. The Romans were known for building functional bridges, underground waterways, aqueducts, and improving traveling roadways. In Rome, baths were considered a public good for society, and were usually “bestowed” to the city by the Emperor, as a gift to his people. The public baths of Diocletian were dedicated in 306 to Emperor Diocletian by Maxentius. Scholars believe it was a way to publically compensate the losses after the dividing the Roman Empire. What better way to win the hearts of your people, than to build the most impressive public “baths” known to man! The Baths of Diocletian were spectacular buildings comprising of gymnasiums, libraries, meeting rooms, concert halls, theatres, and sculpture gardens with mosaic floors and marble facades. The Baths were open to all citizens of Rome, not just for the high born. Gathering at the Baths was a social ritual that defined what it meant to be a Roman. Being a Roman over 2000 years ago, meant visiting the Baths, daily, if possible. At the Baths of Diocletian, Romans would be discussing politics, events, arguing, laughing, drinking, singing and even exercising. The bathing complex of Diocletian had 3 stages: beginning with the Tepidarium (a warm room), Caldarium (a hot plunge bath), and the Frigidarium (an outdoor cold water swim to close the skins pores). The first thing a Roman would do upon entering the Baths of Diocletian (after paying an initial fee) would be to go into a dressing room (the apodyteria) where they would strip down completely naked and place their belongings on provided shelves . Then the process could begin, by entering the Tepidarium- the Roman could have their skin oiled by a slave. The next step would be to go outside and exercise- although not intended to be over strenuous, it would allow the bather to work up a sweat and combined the oil with dirt. Since Romans did not use soap, the oil and dirt would be scraped off (striggled), exfoliating the skin. Being that the Romans also did not favour a hairy body, often the bather would call upon the services of a “plucker” that would come and individually remove any body hair. Lastly, a dive into the frosty waters of the Frigidarium, senses would be revived as the bather enjoyed a nice swim. As you might imagine, a day at the Baths would last hours. Moving from cold to warm to hot, being at the Baths of Diocletian was the epitome of luxury. Today the Baths of Diocletian’s Frigidarium (turned into Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1563) gives a glimpse into the lavish interior that enrobed each Roman in their visit.
Though we cannot go back in time, to where Romans basked in the opulence of the Baths of Diocietian, we are given a glimpse to how the Romans, as a community, would have gathered together to enjoy life. The tradition of this communal gathering links as all together, in one way or another, shaping our societies and civilizations to come.
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