The Roman Empire ruled over roughly 21 percent of the world’s population at its greatest extent in the early 2nd century. And as the empire exercised its influence across ancient Europe and beyond, its lifestyle and culture were enforced – including the use of public bathouses.
Today, over 1500 years since the fall of the Empire, there remain a host of ancient Roman bathhouses which have survived the elements and can still be explored. Among the very best are those at Herculaneum, Dougga and the Roman Baths in Bath, Somerset.
Here are 12 of the most well preserved and significant surviving Roman bathhouses in Europe.
Only recently starting to creep out of Pompeii’s shadow, the fascinating ruins of Herculaneum contain two of the best-preserved Roman baths in the world – the Forum baths and the Suburban baths. These are probably the best Roman baths found anywhere.
Herculaneum was a port town established by the ancient Romans in what is now modern Ercolano, Italy. At its peak, it would have had around 4,000 citizens. Like nearby Pompeii, Herculaneum was engulfed by the lava and mud which spewed from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Even the streets of Herculaneum are fascinating, displaying the high degree of planning employed by the Romans.
2. Baths of Caracalla
Among the most impressive Roman baths found anywhere in the world, the huge Baths of Caracalla in Rome are vast and impeccably preserved. It was Emperor Septimius Severus who began building these massive baths, but they are named after his son, the emperor Caracalla, who completed the works in 216 AD.
Visitors can see the original walls as well as impressive black and white mosaics underfoot. Also, an innocuous staircase leads deep below ground to the tremendously well-preserved tunnels and corridors that represent the unseen heart of this complex. It was there that slaves and other workers would have scurried about to keep the waters heated and the customers happy.
3. Roman Baths - Bath
The world-famous Roman Baths complex in Bath, Somerset, contains an incredible set of thermal spas and an impressive ancient Roman bathing house. Ranked among the best-known Roman baths in the world, this complex led to the naming of the very city in which it is now found.
Boasting a combination of well-preserved remains mixed with some 19th century additions, it’s one of the best examples of Roman baths to have survived. Today, the Roman Baths offer an incredibly comprehensive insight into the lives of the Romans in the town and around Britain. The site looks quite small from the outside, but a visit can last several hours.
4. Baths of Diocletian
The largest Roman baths ever built, the Baths of Diocletian in Rome could hold up to 3,000 people and boasted vast frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium chambers as well as a host of other facilities. Given the sheer size of the Baths of Diocletian, it is no surprise that the structure did not survive intact over the centuries.
Various sections are still preserved, though, with some standing as grand ruins and others incorporated into modern buildings. It can be difficult at times to distinguish between the original building, restored areas and more modern constructions built within the complex. Probably the best place to view the actual ancient structure is the well-preserved Aula Ottagona, also part of the Rome National Museum.
5. Imperial Baths of Trier
Believed to possess the biggest Roman bath complex outside Rome, Trier was a grand ancient city under the Romans. By the late 3rd century AD, in fact, when Diocletian divided the Empire and created the Tetrarchy, Trier was such a flourishing and important city that it was known as the “Second Rome”.
Today, many of the original walls of Trier’s bathhouse still stand. Visitors can also explore the city’s ancient underground tunnels.
One of Portugal’s best Roman sites, the remains at the public baths include their hypocaust heating systems, decorative mosaics and the frigidarium (cold room), caldarium (hot room), the tepidarium (warm room) as well as the remains of the praefurnium (heating or furnace room).
The site contains three bath areas, Great Southern Baths, Baths of the Wall, Baths of the Aqueduct. Other things to see at Conimbriga include the remains of houses and public buildings, some quite impressive walls and a small museum.
7. Lyon Roman Baths
The Lyon Roman Baths are thought to have been built in the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD. The ancient bath complex would have served Lugdunum, as the city was known during the Roman period, when it was an important regional capital of the Roman Empire.
Only found in the 1970’s and then partially restored, the Lyon Roman Baths are hidden behind a set of modern buildings.
8. Constantine Baths - Arles
The Constantine Baths (Thermes de Constantin) are a well-preserved set of ancient Roman public baths in the Provence town of Arles. Dating back to the 4th century AD, the Constantine Baths would once have formed part of an imperial palace known as Palais Constantine. It is also thought that this was one of three sets of public baths in Roman Arles.
Today, visitors can see the well-preserved remains of the Constantine Baths, the excavated part being only its northern area. Whilst only a fraction of these baths are visible, what can be seen is fascinating and includes several of the bathing sections. The Constantine Baths are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
9. Welwyn Roman Baths
The Welwyn Roman Baths complex houses the remains of a Roman bathhouse dating back to the 3rd century AD. Originally part of a larger Roman Villa, the Welwyn Roman Baths are housed in a unique environment – an underground chamber built nine metres below the A1(M) motorway.
Today, visitors to Welwyn Roman Baths can view the remains of the small bath complex. The site also offers information on the Roman approach to bathing as well as an exhibition detailing the history of the site and other relevant archaeological finds from the local area.
10. Guadalmina Roman Baths
The Guadalmina Roman Baths, known locally as Las Bovedos, meaning “The Domes”, are the ruins of a small Roman baths complex in Marbella.
Located near the beach, the Guadalmina Roman Baths are comprised of seven stone rooms built in an octagonal shape and probably date to the 2nd or 3rd century AD.
11. Bearsden Bath House
The Bearsden Bath House was a 2nd-century Roman bath complex. It would have served one of the forts of The Antonine Wall, a structure built almost two decades after Hadrian’s Wall to protect Roman lands from hostile enemies further north.
Today, the remains of the Bearsden Bath House – located innocuously in the middle of a modern housing estate – represent some of the best relics relating to the Antonine Wall.
12. Varna Roman Baths
Varna Roman Baths are a large semi-ruined set of public baths from Roman times believed to have been built in the 2nd century AD. Measuring over 7,500 sqare metres, it is said that Varna Roman Baths are Europe’s largest baths after Rome’s baths of Diocletian and Caracalla and those in Trier, Germany.
When the baths were built, Varna was known as Odessos and its people would congregate at the complex to bathe and socialise. In use until at least the 3rd century AD, Varna Roman Baths now lie in a semi-ruined state and visitors can see their various rooms, from the cold water bathing and hot water bathing rooms to the sports hall.