Taking a Bath in Bath

No. We did not pay the big bucks to experience the modern spa built next to the old Roman baths of Bath England. But it did rain on our visit. What the heck, we’re in England! Meg and I left the kids with Lara Morgan (Thank you Lara!) and did a whirlwind trip to Bath from Oxford. The kids meanwhile got to go to the University Museum of Natural History. It was the highlight of their visit to Oxford. Dodos and dinos are a big sell to kids.

England represented Rome’s furthest stretch of empire. One of my favorite emperors showed up here as well, Hadrian. In addition to all the structures and monuments to his glory that we saw in Greece and Italy, the bath here in the UK was most likely remodeled under his direction. He is more commonly known in these parts for Hadrian’s Wall in the north along the border of Scotland and England. I guess after building that 80ish mile long wall it was decided that he needed a decent bath. In addition to Hadrian’s interest in the construction of this spa he also instituted new rules as to how baths should be run throughout the empire. Hadrian banned naked and mixed bathing. As a result separate men’s and women’s dressing rooms and bathing rooms were built. Apparently he was calling the empire back to the more conservative ideals of Rome during the Republic.

The Roman bath at Bath has some similarities and differences to those that we visited in Rome and Pompeii. Similarities include the traditional caldarium, tepidarium, and firgidariums. The ruins here are in better shape than in other places. That’s probably because they weren’t destroyed by a volcano or barbarian hordes. When Rome fell (AD 476) this area just fell into disuse. Eventually the building fell in upon itself and buried much of what was left. For the next 1,000 years the baths were subsequently cleaned, used, dirtied, and buried several times. Locals literally built their homes on top of the old rubble not knowing that only a few feet under their homes there lay an incredible complex of pools, changing rooms, and heating equipment. It wasn’t until the late 1600s that the bath and temple was “rediscovered” and renovated into its present Georgian style.

The biggest difference in this bath was that it was built upon a natural hot spring. There are actually three of them in the area. The temple and bath built here were dedicated to Sulis Minerva (Athena) and so also functioned under the name of Aquae Sulis. The hot spring bubbles up about 300,000 gallons of hot sulphery-smelling water every day. This “sacred well” as it is now called, was channeled into a large pool surrounded by a Doric columned portico. Traditional Roman bath rooms were later added around this mineral water pool. On our tour there was much talk that this bath was special and that people came here for the healing qualities of the water. I need to research Roman writings to see if this is really true. Most roman baths were social, business, fitness, hygiene centers, and while religious sacrifices were often held at these places, they were not commonly known for their mojo. The waters were certainly known for their “magical” qualities in pre-Roman Celtic mythology and post-Roman Medieval practices.

After their rediscovery the bath was dug up and given a bath itself. At this time it most certainly became a haven for those seeking the healing values of mineral baths. It was actually vogue to visit hot spring baths. This was relatively short-lived as the fad swung over towards swimming in the ocean for health (early emergence of British surfing). Bath once again fell into disrepair until Mary Queen of Scots was able to conceive shortly after bathing here. The conception was attributed to the waters of the bath, and the city experienced a boom in popularity. The bath was reborn. The old Roman pool was repaired, and new columns, porches, and statues were constructed. Architecturally the city followed suit and new structures were built in a neo-classical or “Georgian” style haling back to Roman times. It’s a beautiful city, even in the rain.

Roman Bath

1 comment:

Ontario Emperor said...

Some pre-Roman history, according to this site:

Long before there was a city of Bath, from the mushy ground where eventually the Roman's would establish a settlement, natives found hot water bubbled from the ground. By the the time of the Celts it is clear the hot springs held a special place in their culture. The hot springs, unique in all of the Briton, in the mind of the Celts, provide a conduit to the goddess of rivers and steams. After all, hot water coming from the earth could only be coming directly from the goddess, Sulis.

When the Romans arrive, around 44 AD, they opted to respect the local goddess, if not the native druid priest/priestess which they viewed as trouble makers. The Roman's deduced, from the native's description of Sulis, that Sulis was non other than their own goddess, Minerva.