Rome – The magnificent baths of Caracalla

These baths were begun in 212 A. D. by Caracalla, enlarged by Heliogabalus and completed by Alexander Severus. They are, unquestionably, in many respects, the most superb in Rome, suggesting, as they do, the unrivaled splendor of the ancient Roman baths, to which there is nothing similar in the world to-day. It is well that we can see a part of this magnificent structure even though it be in ruins, for it would be impossible, by any power of language, to give one an adequate impression of ” those gigantic walls and noble arches whose summits share with the mountain peaks the first rays of the morning sun.” So massive are they that they look as though they might have been built by a race of giants who lived in the primeval age.

The artistic embellishment of these baths must have been unparalleled, adorned as they were with the finest works of art. Numerous statues of the highest merit, including the Farnese Bull, Hercules, and Flora at Naples, and which we are to see ourselves in the latter city after a time, were found here.

This building was rectangular in form and surrounded by an outer wall. The grounds within this wall were eleven hundred feet long and about the same in width. In the center was the bath proper, and in the court surrounding the places for gymnastic exercise were porticoes, which were used as a meeting-place for literary men, who here read their essays and poems and carried on philosophical debates. Athletes here gave exhibitions of strength and skill, and musicians charmed the assembled citizens by their brilliant efforts. Sixteen hundred people could bathe in this establishment at once, and sixty thousand bathers could be accommodated, at any hour of the day, at all the public baths in Rome.

The arches seen over the stern and jagged wall in front of us – a wall the thickness of which cannot be approached by any feudal castle however massive, and whose prodigious dimensions are brought out clearly by contrast with the people you see -belong to the portico of the building. The vast hall in which we are standing and which is so richly paved with mosaics, was a peristyle or social salon. Out through those doors beyond this spacious chamber are three others: the frigidarium or cold room, which had the largest flat ceiling in the world ; the tepidarium or warm room, and the caldarium or hot chamber. Beyond those rooms is a hall similar to the one we are viewing and also called the peristyle.

The bather, when about to take a bath, first entered the tepidarium, which was moderately heated. When he began to perspire freely, he removed his garments, handing them over into the charge of slaves, who put them in lockers arranged for the purpose, or he might have removed his garments in the apodyterium before entering the warm room. Then he entered the caldarium, which was provided with numerous warm baths and marble slabs upon which the bathers reclined. Having lingered in that room until the perspiration flowed copiously, he might pass on to the laconicum, or sweating room, which was a circular chamber for sweating in dry air. The walls of these hot rooms were hollow and filled with hot air, which was constantly kept in circulation. The laconicum had a vaulted ceiling with an opening at the top which could be closed at pleasure, regulating the heat of the room. Encircling the walls of this chamber were marble steps which rose nearly to the ceiling, the topmost row being supplied with niches containing armchairs, and the bathers ascended these steps and sat in these chairs if they desired a still higher temperature. The bather then returned to the caldarium for a plunge into the warm bath, the alveus; then he reentered the tepidarium, where slaves rubbed and scraped his skin most vigorously, after which he went to the frigidarium where he took his final plunge into the baptisterium, a large basin sunk in the marble floor. Then returning once more to the tepidarium, he was thoroughly rubbed with oil, wiped with fine towels, and perfumed ; after which he re-entered one of the peristyles to recline upon luxuriant couches, to converse or to listen, to sleep or to dream, as suited his pleasure. We can well imagine the voluptuous fascination of such a bath and the delightful and refreshing repose by which it was followed. It is not surprising that the old Romans so often spoke of leaving the palatial appointments of the Bath of Caracalla buoyed up by the most exquisite sensations and seemingly treading on air rather than walking on the hard stony pavement of the city streets.

These ruins of the Baths of Caracalla were a favorite resort of the poet Shelley ; he loved to stroll ” among the flowery glades and thickets of odoriferous blossoming trees, which are extended in ever-winding labyrinths upon its immense platforms and dizzy arches suspended in the air.” All this is changed now ; the trees have been uprooted, the wild flowers have been swept away, the moss and the lichen have been re-moved, and this beautiful mosaic floor, as we see it, and these frescoed walls glowing with figures of nymphs, sea-monsters and tritons have taken their places. ” This poem,” writes Shelley in his preface to Prometheus Unbound, ” was chiefly written upon the mountainous ruins of the Baths of Caracalla.”

Turning north again past the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, we go now to the Forum of Trajan. On the map we find Trojan’s Forum a short distance to the north of the Capitoline Hill. The two red lines found there show that we are to look slightly north of west.