When the Romans talked about civilising the world they weren’t only talking of conquest and military might. In fact, they saw the tactic of exporting their lifestyle as a key weapon in their subjugation of others – and nothing represented this better than Roman baths.
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, and among the very best are those at Herculaneum, Dougga and of course the Baths of Caracalla. Other popular sites tend to include Roman Baths in Bath, the Antonine Baths and the astonishing Baths of Diocletian.
We’ve put together an experts guide to surviving ancient Roman bathhouses and hypocausts, with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of baths from ancient Rome which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.
What are the best ancient Roman Baths to visit?
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 and served as a holiday town for wealthy Campanians and Romans. 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.
The Lucinian Baths at Dougga, also called the Baths of Caracalla, are a genuinely impressive example of surviving Roman baths. Quite a site to see, the towering walls and other structures have survived pretty much intact. Dougga itself boasts a series of impressive ruins amidst its seventy hectares, including a 3,500-seater theatre, an amphitheatre, temples such as those of Juno Caelestis and Saturn, public baths, a forum, a trifolium villa, two triumphal arches and the remains of a market.
Among the most impressive Roman baths found anywhere in the world, the huge Baths of Caracalla in Rome are simply astounding – check out the streetview option in our entry for this site and take a virtual walkthrough! It was the 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. With the original walls still towering above and impressive black and white mosaics underfoot this amazing ancient ruin is one of the best preserved of its kind anywhere in the world. However, the fun doesn’t stop there. For it is the recently opened underground sections which will really set your heart racing. An innocuous staircase will take you deep below ground to the tremendously well preserved tunnels and corridors which represent the unseen heart of this complex – where slaves and other workers would have scurried about to keep the waters heated and the customers happy.
The world famous Roman Baths complex in Bath 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. It is unsurprising that the Romans chose to build such magnificent baths in this location. The area benefits from hot springs from the Mendip Hills, which arrive at the Roman Baths at a temperature of 46 degrees Celsius and rise due to enormous pressure. In fact, prior to the Romans discovering these springs, the Celts dedicated this phenomenon to the Godess Sulis. The Romans equated Sulis with their own deity, Minerva, and kept the original name, calling the town Aqua Sulis – the waters of Sulis. 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 it is actually vast and a visit can last several hours.
The Antonine Baths ranked among the biggest Roman baths to have ever been constructed and were the largest such complex in North Africa. Much remains to be explored, though only the lower levels have survived. Originally built from 145 to 165 AD, mostly during the reign of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, the Antonine Baths were among the largest baths to be built in the Roman world and were the largest such complex in North Africa. Although it would have once existed of many stories, the remains that can be seen today are mostly from the lower level. Despite lacking its original grandeur, the fascinating ruins are certainly worth exploring and provide a picturesque location, positioned as they are against the backdrop of the ocean.
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 elements survive – some standing as grand ruins while others have been incorporated into other buildings. It can therefore 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 structure, and get an idea as to the original scale of the Baths of Diocletian, is the well preserved Aula Ottagona. Also part of the Rome National Museum, it contains many artefacts found during the excavation.
One of the more unexpected entries in our Roman baths list is the Imperial Baths of Trier. Believed to be the biggest Roman bath complex outside Rome, many of the original walls still stand and there’s even the option to explore the ancient underground tunnels. Trier was a Roman city initially established in around 15 BC and called Augusta Treverorum. By the late third century AD, when Diocletian divided the Empire and created the Tetrachy, Trier was such a flourishing and important city that it was known as the “Second Rome”.
What is now a museum was once an ancient baths complex and represents some of the best remains of Roman Paris. Much of the outer structure of these Roman baths survive, known as Thermes de Cluny, and the museum itself provides a guide to the layout of the baths. Outside the museum, one can see the original walls of the cold room or “caldarium” and warm water room (tepidarium), although, at the time of writing, visitors cannot walk around this part of the site. Officially known as the National Museum of the Middle Ages – the museum has an impressive collection, including Roman statues, gothic sculptures, a treasury filled with the works of medieval goldsmiths and an exhibit of funereal objects.
Kourion is an impressive archaeological site near Limassol in Cyprus containing mostly Ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins. The baths at Kourion are some of the best remains found at the site and contain a number of interesting mosaics as well as the remains of the hypocaust heating system. Several additional ancient buildings remain, including part of the fourth century AD House of Achilles – thought to have been a reception centre – with its mosaic floors and the third century AD House of the Gladiators, so named because some of its mosaics depict gladiatorial battles.
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 of finds.