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Roman Bath

Roman Bath



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Visiting the Roman Baths in Bath, England

I n the heart of southern England, the city of Bath emerges from the countryside with picturesque stone buildings and neoclassical Georgian architecture. I recently visited the city’s Roman baths, which were built nearly two millennia ago and continue to impress over a million visitors each year.

The Romans settled at Bath in the first century on the site of a pre-existing British temple to the Celtic goddess Sulis, whom the Romans identified with their own Minerva. The Romans named it Aquae Sulis – the waters of the goddess Sulis, in an attempt to appease the local Britons. To the polytheistic Romans, belief in a god or goddess was not exclusive – the Celtic goddess Sulis was roughly equivalent the Roman goddess Minerva (Athena in Greece), so they worshipped the goddess at the spa as “Sulis Minerva.” Unlike most Roman settlements in Britain at the time, which were garrisons for military occupation, Aquae Sulis was intended to be a place of relaxation centered on the bath complex.

The goddess Sulis Minerva, worshipped at the temple near the baths. Image © Caroline Cervera.

Bath is located on a natural geothermal spring that has made it important to residents throughout history. Water makes a long journey to reach the spring, beginning as rainfall in hills to the south, then being absorbed into limestone aquifers underground, and eventually traveling deep into the earth, where it is heated by the planet’s geothermal energy. It rises to the surface at Bath at a rate of 1,170,000 liters (257,364 gallons) per day and a temperature of 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit).

Water flows through the original stone structure. Image © Caroline Cervera.

I paid a visit to the baths on a brisk day in March. Their entrance blends seamlessly into the modern town, most of which was built during the Georgian period to emulate the original Roman buildings. By design, all of the city’s buildings are made of the same local limestone, the aptly-named “Bath stone,” giving it a quaint charm that attracts many visitors. In the pedestrian shopping district, people weave in and out of Ionic columns that mark the entrance to the baths, providing an interesting juxtaposition of ancient and modern that came to characterize the rest of my experience at Bath.

People gather near the entrance to the baths. Image © Caroline Cervera.


A HISTORY OF BATH

There is a legend that Bath was founded in 860 BC when Prince Bladud, father of King Lear, caught leprosy. He was banned from the court and was forced to look after pigs. The pigs also had a skin disease but after they wallowed in hot mud they were cured. Prince Bladud followed their example and was also cured. Later he became king and founded the city of Bath.

In reality it is not known exactly when the health-giving qualities of Bath springs were first noticed. They were certainly known to the Romans who built a temple there around 50 AD. The temple was dedicated to Sul, a Celtic god, and Minerva the Roman goddess of healing. (The Romans hoped to please everybody by dedicating it to both gods). They also built public baths which were supplied by the hot springs.

In the 60s and 70s AD, a town grew up on the site of Bath. It was called Aquae Sulis, the waters of Sul. In the late 2nd century a ditch was dug around Roman Bath and an earth rampart was erected. It probably had a wooden palisade on top. In the 3rd century, it was replaced by a stone wall.

In the 4th century, Roman civilization began to decline. The population of Roman towns decreased and trade shrank. The last Roman soldiers left England in 407 AD. What happened to Bath afterward is not known for certain. Some people probably continued to live within the Roman walls and Bath was probably still a market for the local area. However, the old, grand Roman buildings fell into disrepair and were replaced by simple wooden huts.

After the Romans left the Saxons invaded Eastern England. In 577 AD they won a battle at Dyrham. They then captured Bath, Cirencester, and Gloucester. The Saxons took over the settlements and life went on.

In the late 9th century Alfred the Great created a network of fortified towns across his kingdoms called burghs (from which we derive our word borough). If the Danes attacked all the local men could gather in the nearest burgh to fight them. Bath was one such burgh. By the 10th century, it had a mint. So by that time, Bath must have been a flourishing, although small, community. In 973 Edgar, the first king of all England was crowned in Bath.

In 1088 a rebellion occurred. The rebels sacked Bath and burned the monastery but the town soon recovered. The local Bishop moved his seat to Bath and in the early 12th century a great abbey was created which dominated Medieval Bath. The present building dates from the very end of the Medieval period. Oliver King was Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1495 to 1503. In 1499 he dreamed of angels ascending and descending ladders to Heaven. He heard a voice telling ‘a king’ to restore the church. The Bishop took the dream to mean he should rebuild the abbey.

During the Middle Ages, the church also ran 2 almshouses in Bath, St John the Baptists, and St Catherines. There was also a leper hostel outside the town walls. During the Middle Ages people still came to Bath to bathe in the hot springs hoping it would cure them of their ailments.

In 1189 Bath was given its first charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). The main industry in Medieval Bath was the manufacture of woolen cloth. The wool was spun. It was then fulled, that is it was pounded in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by a watermill pounded the wool. The wool was then stretched on tenterhooks to dry. It was then dyed.

BATH IN THE 16th CENTURY AND 17th CENTURY

Henry VIII closed Bath Abbey in 1539. Most of its buildings were then demolished. During the 16th and 17th century the wool trade in Bath slowly declined. Increasingly Bath came to rely on sick people coming to bathe in the springs, hoping for a cure. It received a boost in the early 17th century when Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, came hoping to be cured of dropsy.

In 1590 Queen Elizabeth gave Bath a new charter. From then on Bath had a mayor and aldermen. There were some improvements in the little town. Bellots almshouses were built in 1609. In 1615 a ‘scavenger’ was appointed to clean the streets of Bath. In 1633 thatched roofs were banned because of the risk of fire. However, like all 17th-century towns, Bath suffered from outbreaks of the plague. It struck in 1604, 1625, 1636, and 1643.

In 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. In 1643 Bath was occupied by parliamentary troops. In July 1643 they fought a battle against the royalists north of the town. The royalists were victorious. The parliamentary army withdrew from the area and the royalists occupied Bath. However, by 1645 the king was losing the civil war. In July 1645 the royalist commander in Bath surrendered to parliament.

In the late 17th century Bath continued to be a quiet market town. It largely depended on its springs. From 1661 Bath water was bottled and sold.

In the 18th century, Bath became a much more genteel and fashionable place. It boomed in size. This was largely due to the efforts of Richard ‘Beau’ Nash 1674-1762 who was made Master of Ceremonies. Many fine buildings were erected in Bath in the 18th century. A Pump Room was built in 1706 (although the present one was built in 1795).

Architect John Wood the Elder 1704-1754 built Queen Square in 1728-1739. He built The Circus in 1754-60. His son John Wood the Younger was born in 1727. He built Royal Crescent in 1767-1774. He also built Assembly Rooms in 1769-71. The Octagon was built in 1767 and Margaret Chapel was built in 1773. Pulteney Bridge was built in 1774. It was named after William Pulteney the first Earl of Bath and it was designed by Robert Adam.

From 1718 attempts were made to pave and properly clean the streets of Bath and to light them with oil lamps. A general hospital was built in Bath in 1742 and the first bank in Bath opened in 1768. Sydney Gardens opened in 1795. During the Summer Georgian Bath was full of rich visitors. They played cards, went to balls and horse racing, went walking and horse riding.

However, the high life was only for a small minority. There were a great many poor people in Bath, as there were in every town. Despite the fine architecture, there was also plenty of squalor and overcrowding in Bath.

In the late 18th century the great astronomer William Herschel lived in Bath.

In 1801 Bath had a population of 33,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large and important town. However, during the 19th century Bath lost its importance. It doubled in size but the new industrial towns grew at a much faster rate. Bath remained a market town, popular with tourists and shoppers.

Theatre Royal was built in 1805. The Kennet and Avon canal opened in 1810. Royal Victoria Park was laid out in 1830 and Parade Bridge was built in 1835. Bath was linked to Bristol by rail in 1840 and to London by rail in 1841.

Like all cities in the 19th century, Bath was a dirty and unsanitary place and it suffered an outbreak of cholera in 1849.

However, conditions improved later in the 19th century. From 1880 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Bath. Also in 1880, the old Roman baths were rediscovered. The first electric streetlights in Bath were switched on in 1890. Henrietta Park opened in 1897.

By the beginning of the 20th century the population of Bath had grown to over 65,000.

From 1904 electric trams ran in the streets of Bath but in 1939 they were replaced by buses.

The first council houses in Bath were built in 1907. More were built in the 1920s and 1930s (many of them to replace slums) and more still after 1945.

Bath was bombed during the Second World War. A raid in April 1942 killed 21 people and damaged or destroyed 1,500 buildings.

The American Museum opened in 1961. The Museum of Costume was founded in 1963. Bath University was founded in 1964. The Southgate Centre was built in 1972. The Bath At Work Museum opened in 1978 and the Postal Museum was founded in 1979. The Herschel Museum opened in 1981. The National Centre of Photography was founded in 1981. Bath Museum of English Naive Art opened in 1987.

Also in 1987 Bath was declared a World Heritage Site. The Podium Shopping Centre opened in 1989. The Building of Bath Museum opened in 1992. Then in 1997 a Farmers Market opened in Bath.

Today Bath continues to thrive on tourism. In 2006 a new spa opened in Bath. In 2020 the population of Bath was 88,000.


Twelve facts about the Bath House:-

There were hot, warm and cold baths

Water was heated by a boiler over a fire

The hot room was called the caldarium

The cold room was called the frigidarium

Men and women used separate bath houses

The floor might be covered with a mosaic

You had to pay to use the baths

You could buy refreshments at the baths

People did weight lifting at the baths

Public slaves could give you a massage

There was no soap so people used oil instead

Sticks called strigils were used to scrape dirt off the body

This article is part of our larger resource on the Romans culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on the Romans.


The Ancient Bath

Entering the Roman Bath Museum, the first thing you lay your eyes upon is the Great Bath, the largest attraction in this huge complex. You will first get a good view of the now roofless pool as you walk along the high walls and terraces built so that the public could visit the site. Here you can learn some general information about the discovery of the bath in the 18th century CE and the museum. Information is available to read at the information boards all through the museum, but you will also have been given a free audio guide at the entrance, which will give you additional exciting information.

As mentioned, the bath complex was built around the middle of the 1st century CE, and the Great Bath, together with the temple and the sacred spring would have been the main attractions in Aquae Sulis. The Great Bath hall was a marvelous example of Roman architecture and engineering as the roof would have been 20 meters above the bath. There is no roof now and so the water is green due to algae that grow in the sunlight, which would not have been the case in ancient times. You can also see statues of the Roman generals and emperors whose policies and strategies impacted on the British Isles. The statues were fashioned by British sculptor George Anderson Lawson (1832-1904 CE) and are positioned on the terrace overlooking the bath.

After enjoying watching the Great bath from the terrace for a while, you move on to the main part of the site: the Hot Spring. The Hot Spring is what made the site so important and mysterious to the Britons and Romans, as the water in the spring rises at a rate of 1,170,000 liters each day with a temperature of 46°C. Watching the water, you can see the damp and gas bubbles leaving the surface, and it is not hard to understand why the ancient inhabitants saw this as the work of the supernatural world. Surely the water’s healing power was a gift from the goddess Sulis.


York’s Roman Baths

Located smack-bang in the centre of York, in the cellar of a rather unassuming pub, lies one of the few Roman remains still visible in the city the Roman bath house.

Originally built by the ninth legion sometime between 71 AD and 122 AD, the complex would have covered an area of around 200 square metres, although only the caldarium (hot room), a small section of the frigidarium (cold room), and a single plunge pool have since been excavated.

Late in the fourth century AD, the cold room’s plunge pool was filled up with limestone blocks, indicating that the facility had fallen out of use by that time. By the fifth century AD and the Roman withdrawal from Britannia, the remaining sections of the bath house would almost certainly have been in ruins.

Excavations of the bath house first took place in the 1930’s, when the ruins were accidentally stumbled upon during renovations to the pub above. In 1972, excavations on the other side of Swinegate revealed additional stone buildings of Roman date, some standing nearly three metres high. It is thought that these structures marked the other end of the baths.

Above: The Roman Baths aren’t the easiest to find. If you reach this door, you’re in the right place!

Nearby, archaeologists have also discovered a remarkably well-preserved Roman sewage system which would once have carried waste water away from the baths. In the soil that was taken out of the sewage tunnels were all sorts of small objects which were probably lost by people using the baths: small playing counters of glass and bone, gold beads, and engraved gemstones from finger rings.

Interestingly, this bath house is one of two which would have served Roman York. The other is located in the council buildings towards the south west of the city, which – in Roman times – would have sat outside of the city walls. The second bath house is therefore likely to have served the civilian population of Eboracum (the Roman name for York).

Today, the Roman baths are open to the public between 11am and 5pm each day, complete with a small museum. There is a small entrance charge, but this goes to help maintain the museum so it’s for a good cause! The baths are also part of the York Pass scheme.

Tours of historic York
For more information concerning tours of tours of historic York, please follow this link.

Above: A floor plan showing which areas of the baths are visible, as well as those which are still to be excavated.


Ancient Roman Baths: How the Roman Bath History Relaxes

The History of Roman Baths. How Romans bathed in Ancient Times, and the role that Ancient Roman bath houses played in Roman society.

Despite the two main fundamental parts of the Roman Baths bearing names of Greek origin, the thermae (bathing facilities) and the palastrae (place for exercise), the idea of joining these two together under one roof and adding libraries, galleries with the idea of putting the whole thing at the service of the people was purely a Roman concept.

These huge public bath houses played an important role in the life of the city, like ancient community centers for the citizens of Rome. The Terme Caracalla (Caracalla Roman Baths) could accommodate up to a thousand and six hundred people at one time. And these Roman Baths were lavishly decorated with precious marbles, and even the basin of the modern day Farnese Fountain was taken directly from these baths.

Taking a Roman Bath, how the Romans bathed in ancient times was a fairly long process that can be broken down into various stages. First, visitors would enter small and dry, hot chambers which encouraged sweating. This area was known as the sudatoria.

This area of the Roman Baths continued into larger hot rooms that were moistened by hot tubs of water. These chambers were known as calidariums, and at this stage it was typical to have an attendant of the Baths apply the Strigil ( a form of scraper) an ancient version of skin cleansing in Roman Times.

After the delights of the Strigil, came the cooling down process of a Roman Bath. Bathers would enter the tepidarium ( a room with moderate heat), before plunging into the cold waters of the frigidarium. One of the best examples of a Roman Bath to visit would be the Caracalla Roman Baths which are located near the majority of attractions of ancient Rome.

At the Caracalla Roman Baths, more or less the whole area of the frigidarium was taken up by the swimming pool and its cool waters, with the rest of the space occupied by changing areas at the poolside. While the tepidarium was flanked on either side by exercise areas. Exercise was mainly in the form of ball games or wresting and usually preceded the bathing process.

Originally the Roman Baths were completely open for both sexes to use them at the same time. But, later they were regulated through which ladies bathed before the men, although the exercise areas were allowed to be used simultaneously by either sex.

To understand further the inner-workings of a Roman Bath, beneath the public areas of the baths was a huge underground section made up of servants quarter, furnaces, stoking rooms, storage areas and passageways connecting them. Surrounding these Roman Baths would be elaborate gardens, stadiums for sport, libraries, shops and arcades where Romans caught up on the latest gossip.


Thermae

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Thermae, complex of rooms designed for public bathing, relaxation, and social activity that was developed to a high degree of sophistication by the ancient Romans. Although public baths are known to have existed in early Egyptian palaces, remains are too fragmentary to permit complete analysis of Egyptian types. Bathing occupied an important place in the life of the Greeks, as indicated by the remains of bathing rooms in the palace of Knossos (begun c. 1700 bc ). The standardized architectural type of the thermae, however, was not developed until the Romans designed the great imperial thermae—Baths of Titus ( ad 81), Baths of Domitian (95), Trajan’s Baths (c. 100), Baths of Caracalla (217), and the Thermae of Diocletian (c. 302).

The general scheme consisted of a large open garden surrounded by subsidiary club rooms and a block of bath chambers either in the centre of the garden, as in the Baths of Caracalla, or at its rear, as in the Baths of Titus. The main block contained three large bath chambers—the frigidarium, calidarium (caldarium), and tepidarium—smaller bathrooms, and courts. Service was furnished by means of underground passageways, through which slaves could move swiftly without being seen. For lighting and for the roofing of the enormous rooms, the Romans developed an ingenious system of clerestory windows (windows in or near the roof or vault).

Modern discoveries of ancient sculpture in the Roman baths, such as the Laocoon group from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, indicate the richness of the furnishings. Floors were marble or mosaic walls were apparently sheathed with marble to a considerable height and decorated above with stucco reliefs and mosaic. Gilt bronze was used freely for doors, capitals (the crowning member of a classical column), and window screens. This type of imperial bathing establishment was repeated in its essential form, but on a smaller scale, throughout the Roman Empire.

Although there is disagreement among scholars about the exact order of bathing activities, the Roman technique of bathing is thought to have followed a somewhat standardized pattern. The bather probably first entered the apodyterium, where he undressed. He was then anointed with oil in the elaeothesium, or unctuarium, before entering a room or court, where he indulged in rigourous exercise. After this activity, he proceeded to the calidarium (hot room) and to the sudatorium, or laconicum (steam room), where his body was probably scraped of its accumulation of oil and perspiration with a curved metal implement called a strigil. The bather then moved to the tepidarium (warm room) and afterward to the frigidarium (cold room), where there was frequently a swimming pool. The bathing process was completed after the body was once more anointed with oil.

Roman baths varied in size from those in the larger, private houses to the great public thermae. The essential features present in all types of thermae were an adequate system of furnishing hot, tepid, and cold water the heating of the hot portions of the bath, and sometimes also the tepidarium, by the circulation of smoke and heated air from a fire under the floor through the hollow walls (see also hypocaust) and adequate basins for warm and cold water in the hot bath.

As a rule, men and women bathed separately. Mixed bathing is first recorded in the 1st century ad , by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder. The practice, which seems to have been largely restricted to courtesans, was condemned by respectable citizens and prohibited by the emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.


Roman Bath - History

Welcome to the city of Bath, World Heritage Site. Famous worldwide for its imposing architecture and Roman remains, Bath is a vibrant city with over 40 museums, good restaurants, quality shopping and theatres.

The Roman Baths and magnificent Temple were built around the the natural hot spring which rises at 46°C and were at the centre of Roman life in Aquae Sulis between the first and fifth centuries. The remains are remarkably complete and include sculpture, coins, jewelry and the bronze head of the goddess Sulis Minerva. A visit to the Roman Baths would not be complete without a visit to taste the waters and enjoy a tea, coffee or snack in the 18th century Pump Room, centre of Georgian entertainment in it’s day, which is situated just above the Temple.

The 15th century Abbey, Pump Room and Roman Baths are located right in the heart of the city. Bath Abbey Heritage Vaults are well worth a visit: the 18th century vaults provide an unusual setting for the exhibitions, displays and presentations of over 1600 years of abbey history.

Bath’s Georgian architecture is quite stunning. The Royal Crescent, built in the late 1700s by John Wood the younger, has been designated a World Heritage Building and No. 1 Royal Crescent has been carefully restored by the Bath Preservation Trust to appear as it might have done when first built. The Circus was built slightly earlier and designed by John Wood’s father and finished by John Wood himself. Many famous people have lived in the Circus, including Gainsborough and Lord Clive of India.

One of the most famous landmarks in the city is Pulteney Bridge, one of only two bridges in Europe to support shops. Built in 1770 by the eminent architect Robert Adam and modelled on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, here you will find small specialist shops and restaurants. Regular boat trips run from the east bank of the river, offering alternative (and very beautiful) views of Bath.

Bath is also well known for it’s ghostly residents. There are guided tours around the city to visit their favourite haunts. Perhaps among the best known are the Man in the Black Hat seen around the Assembly Rooms and the jasmine-scented Grey Lady of the Theatre Royal.

Bath’s most eccentric landmark must be Beckford’s Tower, an early 19th century folly in Lansdown with superb views over the city and across the River Severn to Wales. Built in 1827 and surrounded by a Victorian cemetery, the Tower is open to visitors and includes a museum in the two storey building at the base of the Tower. (Fit! ) visitors to the Tower can climb the 156 steps up the beautiful spiral staircase to the luxuriously restored Belvedere and admire the panoramic views.

Other places to visit include the Museum of Costume, the American Museum and the Jane Austen Centre. One of Bath’s most attractive qualities is that the city centre is small enough to be explored on foot. Parking in Bath can be quite a nightmare, but there are ‘Park and Ride’ schemes operating where visitors can park their cars, free of charge, and then take a bus into the city.

Situated on the edge of the Cotwolds, Bath is an ideal base from which to explore the picturesque villages of honey-coloured stone and the surrounding beautiful countryside.

Tours of historic Bath
For information concerning tours in and around historic Bath, please follow this link.

Getting here
In the county of Somerset, Bath is easily accessible by both road and rail, please try our UK Travel Guide for further information.

Roman Sites in Britain
Browse our interactive map of Roman Sites in Britain to explore our listing of walls, villas, roads, mines, forts, temples, towns and cities.

Museums
View our interactive map of Museums in Britain for details of local galleries and museums.


The open-air pool with columns at its corners and surrounding statues of the Hadrianic Baths, Aphrosidias Carole Raddato CC BY-SA

The beautiful ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias, still partly excavated, is one of the most important archaeological sites of the late Hellenistic and Roman period in Turkey. The city was located in Caria in Asia Minor, on a plateau 600 meters above sea level. Today it lies near Geyre village, some 80 kilometers west of Denizli. The city was founded in the 2nd century BC on the site of a rural sanctuary of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. It was named after Aphrodite who had her unique cult image, the Aphrodite of Aphrodisias, and who became the city’s patron goddess.


Watch the video: The Roman Baths - Amazing Inventions Explained (August 2022).