Baths of Caracalla

The Baths of Caracalla are the remains of what was once one of the grandest and most elaborate bath complexes in Italy. It dates from the early third century AD and was begun by Septimus Severus in 206 and inaugurated in 217 by his violent and fratricidal son, Caracalla. One of the largest bathing complexes ever built, Caracalla's baths could fit up to 1500 bathers at any time, getting through an estimated 15,000 - 20,000 cubic meters of fresh water a day, which was brought in from the hills near Subiaco via a special branch of the Aqua Marcia aqueduct.

History of the Baths

The Baths of Caracalla The Baths of Caracalla (photo: Eleanor Murkett)

Remains of the many different rooms are still visible, including the apodyteria (changing room), the frigidarium (the cold room), the tepidarium (warm room) and the caldarium (the hot, steamy room). There was also an open air natatio (swimming pool). Heating was provided by a hypocaust - an underwater heating system fuelled by over fifty wood-burning furnaces. Not just a bathing complex, the baths played a vital role in the social life of the capital and included gardens, two separate palastrae (gyms) for exercise or for boxing or wrestling matches.

For those of a more intellectual bent, the building also housed a public library with one room for Greek texts and another for Latin. Entrance to the baths was free, but plenty of local business would have been provided by the numerous shops, bars and brothels which were built nearby. In their heyday, the baths were extravagantly decorated by mosaics and painted statues, although only a few remnants of these are still visible today. Most famously, it was here in 1545 that a dig undertaken by the Farnese family uncovered the colossal statues of the Farnese Bull and the enormously muscular Farnese Hercules, both of which are now on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

The Baths of Caracalla remained in use until 537 AD when the invading Goths cut off the water supply to the city. In later years, some of the grounds were used to house pilgrims who had fallen sick during their journey, whilst the decorated rooms were heavily plundered to adorn other more recent buildings and churches. Serious excavations on the site began in 1824, unearthing amongst other things the famous mosaics now conserved in the Vatican museum. Since the 1930s, the site has been used (albeit sporadically) as a wonderful backdrop for outdoor operatic recitals, the most famous of which was perhaps the concert of the Three Tenors which ended the 1990 Italian World Cup. In the summer months open-air operatic concerts are still held here.

Visiting the Baths of Caracalla

The baths can be reached from the metro stations Circo Massimo or Piramide, both on Linea B.

Viale Terme di Caracalla 52

Tel. 06 39967700

Opening hours Open Tuesday - Sunday from 9am until one hour before sunset, and on Monday morning from 9am-1pm.

Ticket prices Entry to the baths costs €6.00/€3.00, with free entry for EU citizens under 18. The ticket, valid for seven days, can also be used for entrance to the Villa dei Quintili and the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella.

Map of the Baths of Caracalla.

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