The Baths of Caracalla, also known as Thermae Antonianae, dominate the lower part of the Aventine hill not far from the Camene Valley, the old Appian Way and Capena Gate, and are immersed in a splendid backdrop of trees and flowers.
Probably the most famous, imposing and best preserved of all the ancient Roman bath complexes, they were begun during the reign of Septimius Severus and inaugurated by his son, the Emperor Caracalla in 216 AD.
To ensure an adequate water supply for the baths a special branch of the Acqua Marcia aqueduct was created to transport water to the site. This was called the Aqua Antoniniana and was operative up until 537 AD.
The baths offered not only cleanliness and physical exercise but also a range of leisure activities, so bathers could meet, be entertained and study here as well. Originally covering an area of 130,000 square metres in a carefully articulated series of sumptuous halls and smaller rooms, with surviving walls over 30 metres high, the baths today still evoke the lively atmosphere and architectural complexity which spanned three centuries. Even today, the visitor can witness traces of the luxurious original decoration, which included gigantic marble columns, coloured marble floors, mosaics and inlaid marble on the walls, refined plasterwork and literally hundreds of statues.
We will begin our tour of the rectangular shaped complex passing through the gardens which surrounded the main block and entering the first huge gymnasium on the western side. We continue on then past a changing room and one of the entrances to reach the huge natatio or swimming pool, aligned especially with the three great halls, each with their own temperature, the frigidarium, the tepidarium and the calidarium. We will also see how this layout was perfectly matched symmetrically on the other side.
A complex of such dimensions also required an extensive service network. About two kilometres of underground galleries have been found (although these are not generally open to the public, part of the upper level, transformed into a small museum, is occasionally accessible). Thousands of slaves worked down here, the ‘beating heart’ of the entire complex, transporting wooden logs for burning in 49 stoves, to provide the necessary warmth for 8,000 bathers seeking personal wellbeing here every day.