Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Baths of Caraclla

Today's photos:


1. The Aqua Appia, the first aqueduct built in Rome in 312 B.C.

2. One of the two fountains in Piazza Farnese.

3. The columns in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

4. A section of the wall which surrounded the baths.

5. A small part of the enormous interior.

6. A section of pavement in one of the rooms.

7. Waiting for the opera to begin!

8. The same scene during the non-opera season.

9. The original Three Tenors Concert in 1990.

10. The baths look down on the modern Stadium of Caracalla.


One of the works for which ancient Rome is justly famous is its system of aqueducts (photo 1). This amazing structure, a marvel of hydraulic engineering, brought an abundance of water into the city to supply its fountains and especially the great imperial baths. Ancient Rome boasted eleven aqueducts, each one bringing water to a different part of the city. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Papal State, the popes continued to keep the aqueducts functioning, some of which are still operating today, maintained by the Italian State.


Some stretches of the aqueducts were above ground, but the majority of them were underground. Only the very wealthy were able to tap into the aqueducts in order to bring running water into their homes. The vast majority of the population needed to go to the public fountains and carry water back to their homes. The public baths, however, were for everyone, not just the wealthy.


The baths were much more than just bathing. They were more like our health clubs, including an open field for athletic games, changing rooms, as well as warm, hot and cold pools for bathing. There were masseurs, and bathers could purchase food on the premises.


One of the largest and most extravagant of the imperial baths was the one built by the emperor Caracalla (211-217). The emperor himself inaugurated the baths in the year 216, even though they were not completely finished until 235 under one of his successors, Alexander Severus (222-235).


A curiosity


But who was Caracalla? A "good guy" emperor or a "bad guy" emperor? Judge for yourselves. At the death of Septimius Severus in 211, his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, ruled together as co-emperors. A year later Caracalla had his brother assassinated and so became the sole ruler. But he didn't stop with the murder of his brother. In the early years of his reign he put to death over 20,000 people, some of them for as little as expressing sorrow for the death of Geta. Despite this cruelty, Caracalla was tolerant of the Christians; there was no persecution of Christians during his reign.


We know that the baths of Caracalla functioned for over 300 years, until 537 when the invading Goths cut the aqueducts, depriving the city of water. Thereafter the area was abandoned, and like many other structures built by the Romans, the baths of Caracalla became a stone and marble quarry during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.


A curiosity


It is possible to see impressive remains of the baths of Caracalla without ever going to the site. The two fountains in Piazza Farnese (photo 2) were made in 1612 using two giant granite basins taken from the ruins. And the monolithic granite columns in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere (photo 3) were taken from the baths in the mid twelfth century.


Visiting the site of the baths today you will be struck by the enormous size of the ruins (photos 4 & 5). The entire complex was surrounded by a wall 30 meters high, much of it still standing today. The arches, passageways and rooms give the impression that they were constructed for a race of giants!


The area measures 337 meters by 328, but if you consider that on the two sides was a large exedra, a kind of semicircular atrium, the 328 meters become 400. The interior walls and floors were lavishly and colorfully decorated in multi-colored marble. Unfortunately, very little of this decor remains except for a few of the rooms whose pavement partially survives (photo 6), and a few detached pieces of marble and stone.


The complex could accommodate 1,600 people at a time, and as many as 7,000 people over the course of one day. Both men and women could use the baths, but they did not bathe together; there were separate times for both.


A curiosity


In 1938 the Rome Opera House began staging its summer performances in the baths (photos 7 & 8). This activity was canceled in 1993 for fear that the ruins were being damaged. This was quite possible since in Aida a live elephant would be part of the Grand March! However, work was done and changes made to protect the ruins and the spectacular outdoor operatic and concert performances resumed in 2001, and are still going strong today. So the Baths of Caracalla are once again the home of the summer season of the Rome Opera House. No more elephants, however!


The Baths of Caracalla were also the scene of the historic, original Three Tenors Concert in 1990, featuring Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras, with Zubin Mehta as director (photo 9).


It is also possible to visit today the subterranean part of the baths. This was not an area open to the bathers; it was an extensive underground expanse of corridors and passageways which were necessary to house equipment, furnaces and huge supplies of wood, as well as the extensive hydraulic system, including all the pipes necessary to keep the water flowing. It was quite an amazing operation!


It is interesting to note that just below and to the side of the entrance to the ancient baths is a modern athletic complex appropriately called The Stadium of Caracalla (photo 10).


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