Nov. 4: Baths of Trajan & Baths of Caracalla
Today was Imperial Bath Day! But seriously, all we talked about were the great Imperial bath complexes. It may sound boring, but it’s really pretty fascinating. First of all, the Romans were a shockingly hygienic people who really loved their bathing, as we discovered in Pompeii, where there are three major public bath complexes. The emperors, on the other hand, love to facilitate the bathing of the Roman people. So just about every emperor built a public bath complex for the Romans. I guess a clean people is a happy people?
We started the morning at the Baths of Trajan, up on the Oppian hill (a sub-hill, if you will, of the Esquiline Hill). We had a permesso to go see the great sette sale, the cistern system that fed Trajan’s baths; however, according to our rather lackluster custode, all our permesso entitled us to was the ability to buy tickets to enter the site—not to go into the cisterns themselves, as we’d thought. So we didn’t get to go in but we did get pretty close—and we saw inside the massive water storage chambers, all lined in waterproof cement (and still holding a little water!). The building is actually really beautiful—seven large barrel-vaulted chambers cut into the hillside—and the park where they’re located is very quiet.
From there we walked down through the public part of the park and through the remnants of the rest of the Baths of Trajan. There are only pieces of the brick structure left, amidst a massive Roman park complete with homeless people and playgrounds, but even these little tiny pieces give you an idea of how huge the scale of these buildings was. I’d look down at my plan, thinking that I’d found where we were, and the scrap of building we’d found was about half the size of what I thought we were looking at! Having the plan was integral in imagining the space, but you really need the massive leftover chunks to help you really understand how huge these bath halls were.
The main event of the day was the Baths of Caracalla, a really well-preserved complex on the other side of the Caelian hill. Talk about scale! Surrounded by a massive outer precinct wall, up on a platform looking out over the Via Appia as it enters Rome, the baths are just gargantuan. Inside the buildings, there are really tall arches and huge piers—and they’re only the first story, the beginning of the roofing system! It must have been quite the out-of-body experience, coming in and bathing here. Every Roman citizen must have felt so small (which is the point of a lot of Imperial architecture—I guess in this case you never forget who gave you hygiene, who’s bringing the water into the city, etc.). After a great tour of the baths by Catherine (her final oral presentation—the beginning of the end!) I sat out in the park and ate my lunch where all the buff Roman men would have exercised. It was a stunning day—and there’s no better way to spend a Friday afternoon then napping on a huge granite column in the Baths of Caracalla. Life is good.