Sunday, 18 October 2015

Thermae of Caracalla – part 2

Thermae of Caracalla – part 2

Mausoleum of Hadrian- Castel Sant'angelo
After the death of the ancient Roman Emperor Septimius Severus at Eboracum (York), Caracalla and his brother Geta, left Britannia fairly quickly and headed back to Rome

Having buried the urn containing Severus’ remains in the Mausoleum of Hadrian (now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo) Rome, in AD 211, Caracalla soon turned his evil attentions on his brother Geta. Co-ruling with Geta wasn’t in his plans and getting rid of his brother seems to have been easy enough.

The sons of Emperor Severus don’t seem to ever have been particularly friendly. Arranging for Geta to visit their mother provided Caracalla with the opportunity to murder his rival co-emperor. As the story goes Caracalla stabbed his brother whilst in the presence, maybe even in the arms, of his mother whose pleas for clemency fell on deaf ears.

Baths of Caracalla 
With the stain of the death upon him, Caracalla as sole emperor then had to win the support of the citizens of Rome. He embarked on many projects both military and domestic, needing extremely grand gestures which would endear him to the populace. Building his fabulous bathing complex was just one of those strategies to make him appear benevolent to the public.

Huge building projects weren’t unusual in Ancient Rome and many of these were for the enjoyment of the general Roman citizen. Emperor Trajan had commissioned the architect Apollodorus of Damascus to build a huge multi-functional shopping centre in AD 117. Built on many floors, the Mercatus TrajaniTrajan’s Market—provided the Roman shopper with a novel building complex to buy all manner of wares. It provided all you could want to buy in the one huge building.
When it came to the time of Caracalla, the “Termae Antonianae” multi-function building was designed for much more than mere shopping. Whether or not it was the Emperor Severus, or Caracalla, who commissioned the building, it was a hugely impressive project.  

“I want this to be the biggest and best ever, most spectacular leisure centre in Rome!”

I don’t think that’s quite what Caracalla would have said to his cronies at the Senate in Rome but his baths complex must have been unbelievably extravagant and highly impressive in its day. Built between approximately AD 212 and 217, it had to have been the ultimate in contemporary bathing experiences… and a lot more besides.

Spending some time at the baths was a daily occupation for most Roman citizens but Caracalla was aiming even higher than that – his intention being to provide a fabulous day ‘in’ at the baths complex. 

His “Termae Antonianae” was built to such enormous scale that 1600 bathers could congregate in the main bath. (though by this time, post Hadrianic decrees had male and females segregated)

Though you might not have believed that if all you'd seen about the baths was this wonderful painting by Laurence Alma-Tadema.

The usual hot and cold rooms, saunas and massage rooms were available for conversation during cleansing but in addition Caracalla’s bath building included fitness areas—if desired the gymnasium and wrestling rooms were places to show off ones prowess and strength. 

When the ablutions extraordinaire were over there were libraries for quiet reading and contemplation. There were gardens to walk in, shops to look at and make purchases from, and restaurants to catch a bite to eat. Food and drink was consumed in convivial surroundings.

Free entry to Roman citizens drew in the crowds and his novel bathing facilities proved hugely popular. A figure quoted is that it accommodated some 6,000 -10,000 visitors every day.

Impressive remains can still be seen and the grandeur imagined…the heights of the marbled columns, the mosaic floors and decorative touches in niches all around.  

Like Trajan’s Market the bathhouse was set over four levels. Two levels below ground were storehouses and the firing area where the hypocaust system provided the heating of the water. The plumbing was state of the art, designed to keep constant and precise temperatures as required in the different bathing rooms. The ten tons of wood which were burned every day to heat the complex must have taken considerable transportation from place to place, the storage of it at a subterranean level.

mosaic floor

The two floors above ground level consisted of the range of cold, tepid, hot and sauna rooms, and all of the other multi functioned areas—beautifully decorated with marbled flooring and highly ornate walls. 

For the more active swimmer there was a huge pool open to the skies, a series of bronze mirrors mounted on the top of the building which were designed to deflect the sunlight down to the pool.

I’d love to be able to see that building as it was opened to the public around AD 216.
detail of mosaic

Though in the nature of the competition among Roman emperors it's not surprising that the Baths of Caracalla weren't the largest built in Rome. That accolade goes to Emperor Diocletian in AD 306, close to a century after Caracalla built his baths.

Stay tuned for more of what Caracalla built coming soon.


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