Sprawling across San Saba (the Small Aventine) between the Circus Maximus and the old starting point of the Appian Way, the Baths of Caracalla were the second largest baths in the city of Rome, and are arguably the best-preserved.
They were named after the emperor Caracalla, a member of the Severan dynasty, who ruled from 198 - 217 AD. That Caracalla isn’t a household name like Caesar, Nero, or Constantine is strange given just how horrible he was.
The emperor Caracalla
Caracalla's most heinous crime was to murder his brother Geta, who died in the arms of their mother, modelled himself on Alexander the Great without possessing even a modicum of his military prowess, and spent much of his reign terrorizing the Senate.
Caracalla was as hated as he was feared by a populace powerless to resist him. When was assassinated - butchered while urinating at the side of the road on campaign in Syria - the news was welcomed with relief and jubilation among Rome’s ruling class (though it did set off a power struggle that resulted in the brutal deaths of several successive emperors).
This sibling-murdering sociopath did leave one lasting legacy in Rome, however - the second largest public baths complex in Rome: the Baths of Caracalla. Read on to discover all about the Baths of Caracalla, what they were used for (far more than just baths) and where some of their monuments have ended up.
The Romans would have known these baths not as the Baths of Caracalla but as the Antonine Baths (Thermae Antoninanae) after the regal reference within Caracalla’s name.
Construction of these baths started in 212 AD, as confirmed by the dating of brick stamps found onsite. That the Baths of Caracalla were completed just four years after the first foundation may seem unbelievable but is in fact true: paying fitting testament to the speed and efficacy of Roman engineering.
In fact, to complete the Baths of Caracalla within this four-year timeframe the Romans had to install more than 2,000 tonnes of material a day.
The Baths of Caracalla is quite misleading as a name. More than just a bathing complex, this was an enormous leisure center, consisting of several bathing rooms, gardens, two gyms, two libraries (one for Latin texts; the other for Greek) and even a subterranean temple to the eastern god Mithras.
The baths themselves consisted of an enormous central frigidarium (cold room) running beneath a groin vaulted hallway some 32.9 metres high. Alongside this was a tepidarium, which issued warm water, and a caldarium where bathers were treated to steaming hot water baths.
Interior of the Baths of Caracalla
At the north end of the Baths of Caracalla was an open-roof natatio (swimming pool). A series of bronze mirrors installed above ingeniously reflected sunlight into the pool which itself was mounted on a raised 6-metre platform to accommodate the furnaces below.
Beneath the baths you’ll find the largest Mithraeum in Rome. This Temple for the Eastern god Mithras is far surpasses that found beneath the Basilica of San Clemente, though the Mithraeum beneath San Clemente is better preserved.
The Baths of Caracalla were not the only public baths in Rome. But they were the largest up to this point, not to be overtaken until the Baths of Diocletian (306 AD). They were mainly frequented by residents of the I, II, and XII regions of the city, which roughly corresponds to the Caelian Hill, Aventine Hill, and the Circus Maximus.
The Baths of Caracalla survived the sack of Rome in the 4th century, remaining in use for another 200 years. When the Belisarius’ Byzantine Army stormed the city in 536, they ran amok, looting buildings and, in this case, destroying the baths hydraulic installations.
The Roman Empire might have fallen in the West in the 5th century AD, but its cultural and architectural legacies long lived on to inspire future peoples and projects.
During the Renaissance, such figures as Donato Bramante, the architect responsible for the current Saint Peter’s Basilica, and Andrea Palladio, whose villa in Vicenza is now a UNESCO world heritage site, turned to the Baths of Caracalla for inspiration.
Some 500 years later, at the turn of the 20th century, architects again revisited the structure so they could incorporate its features into their modernist projects. One little-known fact is that the American architectural firm McKim, Mead and White drew inspiration from the baths’ and their ceiling in designing the former Pennsylvania Station (1910 - 1964).
Pennsylvania Station in 1911
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Rome might have inherited the majority of the Baths of Caracalla’s material, but other Italian cities have enjoyed their fair share too. Few people know this, but the Column of Justice on the Via dei Tornabuoni in Florence actually comes from the Baths of Caracalla.
This 50-ton column was moved here in the 16th century as a gift from Pope Pius IV to Cosimo I de Medici. The journey, which was overseen by master architect and author Giorgio Vasari, took several months and saw the column painstakingly transported down Rome’s River Tiber to Ostia and then onwards up the River Arno to its terminus in Florence.
Virtual reconstruction of the Baths of Caracalla
The water that inundated the Baths of Caracalla came from the Aqua Antoniana: a branch of one of the earliest Roman aqueducts, the Aqua Marcia. Dating originally from 144 BC, the aqueduct drew water from its source at the River Aniene, an astonishing 56 miles from Rome.
You can still see one of the supporting arches of the Aqua Antoniana as you enter (or leave) the Eternal City through the Porta San Sebastiano. Water from the aqueduct ran along the so-called Arch of Drusus: a monument that in reality had nothing to do with the Republican general Drusus.
Until 29 September, you can visit the underground of the Baths of Caracalla and explore the vast labyrinth of ovens that heated the baths above. The underground houses an art installation by the Italianartist Fabrizio Plessi set to music by Michael Nyman - famous for composing the soundtrack for The Piano.
Underground exhibition at the Baths of Caracalla