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The Roman Baths in Bath

By Alex Boag-Wyllie
More by Alex

Take the Plunge into History

Nestled at the southern tip of the Cotswolds, Bath is a Regency masterpiece. A city hewed in buttery stone; there is no mistaking the history of this fashionable destination. Look back beyond the era of Jane Austen 200 years ago to discover a much older Roman core.

One of the great empires of the western world, the Romans arrived in Britain in AD43 following a successful invasion by Emperor Claudius. The city of Bath, or Aquae Sulis, quickly emerged. It was a strategically important site for the Romans, and the presence of a burbling hot spring was the cherry on top. Read on to dive into the history of one of the finest Roman ruins in northern Europe, followed by a delightful cold plunge into the frigidarium of the Baths today.

Take Me To:

The History of the Roman Baths

The Romans arrived in Britain in AD43 from Europe. 20 years later, they began building a temple complex around a hot spring. A local tribe worshipped their goddess Sulis at the spring before the arrival of the Romans, and the spring would go on to feed an entire Roman bathing complex. The Roman Baths you can visit today were built in around AD70.

Why were the Roman Baths Built?

Baths were not a new concept for the Romans when they arrived in Britain. The Romans built their first bathhouses in approximately the 3rd century BC and likely borrowed ideas from the Ancient Greeks. Although Roman concepts of hygiene differed from what we know today, the primary purpose of the baths was as a way for people across the Roman Empire to get clean – bathing was a social, daily activity.

The Romans built the baths at Aquae Sulis because of the hot spring. They believed a spring was a direct link to the Underworld. It was a site of worship. These baths were next door to a temple to the goddess Sulis Minerva. The Romans visited the baths as part of their daily cleaning route, but they might also have visited to seek healing from the goddess. Archaeological evidence has revealed many offerings in the baths and temple complex. These offerings include jewellery, pottery, written messages for the goddess, and thousands of coins.

Photo credit: Visit Bath

Evidence of the temple complex can be seen in the Roman Baths in Bath today. Part of the temple pediment survives from the later 1st century AD. The pediment rose 15 m/49 ft above the entrance to the temple. It has been causing debate since its discovery in 1790. The focal point of the pediment might be a gorgon, but there is one apparent problem with this suggestion; the gorgon was female, yet this carving is very clearly a moustached man. Could this figure instead be an older god such as Oceanus? Find out more about the temple pediment here.

How Did the Roman Baths Stay Warm?

The water from the hot spring in Bath maintains a temperature of approximately 46°C/115°F, meaning the water of the tepidarium and natatio (great bath) was naturally warm.

The baths also had a heating system known as a hypocaust. A furnace heated the air in a series of well-designed hollow pipes and passages under the floors and in the walls. This system was fundamental to the caldarium, where the floors were so hot that patrons had to wear wooden shoes to protect their feet from burns.

What Was it Like in the Roman Baths?

Roman baths were not just a place to get clean. They were much more like the leisure centres we have today, and would have been places for eating, shopping and games too. Some of this was likely unisex, but the bathing aspect was usually segregated by gender. In larger baths, there would have been different entrances for men, women and enslaved people, with separate wings for male and female bath complexes. In smaller facilities, there were likely designated time slots for men and women.

What Are the Three Roman Baths Called?

Roman Baths were similar to the Turkish Baths we might use today. There were warm rooms (tepidarium), hot rooms (caldarium), and cold rooms (frigidarium).

Did Romans Have to Pay for the Baths?

There would have been a minimal fee for entry to the Baths. This was a place for the poorest and wealthiest members of the Empire, and it was affordable. The emperor or a local politician might have paid for the day on special occasions such as feast days to allow everyone free entry.

Did Roman Baths Have Toilets?

Yes. Historians have credited the Romans with significant innovations in plumbing, and the toilet was no exception. Many bathhouses had built-in bench toilets – a row of holes built into a bench.

How Did Roman Baths Stay Clean?

The short answer is that they didn’t. The Romans did not understand the hazards of contaminated water as we do today, and the water in the Baths was likely only occasionally emptied and cleaned. Depending on the location within the Roman Empire, an aqueduct or spring may have supplied the baths, constantly replacing the water. A cistern supplied smaller bath complexes, and the water was stagnant.

Going to the baths was a healing process as much as a daily cleaning routine. The sick and healthy would have been mixing in the water with the clean, dirty, and even those with open wounds.

Were the Roman Baths Healthy?

Bathing was an essential part of Roman culture and a daily routine for many Romans. However, the medical understanding was very different 2,000 years ago. There is no clear health benefit to the Baths.

Additionally, many visitors came to the baths as they believed it would heal illnesses and ailments. The Romans did not have the same knowledge we do today of how diseases spread, and parasites and lice were undoubtedly widespread.

What Did the Romans Use Instead of Soap?

Evidence of soap made from lye dates to around 1,600 years ago. The Roman Baths used scented olive oils, scraped off with a hooked tool known as a strigil.

Visiting the Roman Baths Today

What Are the Roman Baths Famous For? Read More

The Roman Baths in Bath are amongst the finest Roman ruins surviving in northern Europe. An impressive reminder of one of history’s great empires, the Baths were a significant site in the ancient world.

How Long Does it Take to Walk Around the Roman Baths? Read More

The Roman Baths are open almost every day of the year. Walk around this impressive complex on your own or accompanied by an audioguide. We recommend allowing 1.5 – 2 hours for your visit.

Why is the Roman Bath Water Green? Read More

Visiting the Roman Baths today, the water is green due to algae growth in the water.

The Baths had a roof in the Roman period, which kept out natural light. There would not have been algae in the heyday of the baths.

Photo Credit: Visit Bath

Can You Swim in the Roman Baths? Read More

No, you cannot swim in the baths and have been unable to for almost 50 years. The water is untreated and unsafe.

For a similar experience, the nearby Thermae Bath Spa uses the same (treated) water.

Photo Credit: Visit Bath

Can I Drink the Water in the Roman Baths? Read More

Yes. While you cannot touch or drink the water as you go around the Baths, you can try a cup of (safe) thermal water at the end of your visit. You can even buy bottled water to take home with you. Just watch out – it’s an unusual taste!

Do the Roman Baths Smell? Read More

Due to the composition of the water, you might notice a faint smell of sulphur during your visit.

Meet the Author: Alex Boag-Wyllie

Born in the Scottish Highlands, I was lucky enough to spend my early childhood playing on beautiful, sweeping beaches and learning to ski (or, more often, fall over). My father’s job kept us on the move though, and I was soon just as at home amidst the rolling Wiltshire downs, the dramatic Yorkshire Dales and the expansive East Anglian coast. I’ve had almost 40 bedrooms to date across the UK, so I’m your gal if you need a good cafe recommendation (almost) anywhere in the country; if I haven’t been there yet, you can be sure it’s on my trip list…

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