Roman emperors often built huge public bath buildings for the people of Rome to enjoy. The largest one, and one that also happens to be very well preserved so we can still see it today, was the one built by the Emperor Caracalla, about 200 AD. When you first came in, you went into a big courtyard with changing rooms around it. This was for exercising – stretching, jogging, or aerobics.
There were two of these exercise courtyards, one on each end of the bath building. They had black and white mosaic pavements with patterns. Above them, there was a wooden balcony that went all the way around, so you could watch the people who were exercising. You can still see the holes in the brickwork where the balcony was attached.
When you went through the door, you got to the warm baths (the tepidarium). They weren’t big enough for swimming, but were more like a soaking pool. (The metal fences weren’t there in Roman times, but at that time there was a vaulted roof).
On your right, there were the hot baths (the caldarium). These were really hot, like a hot tub today. People who were enslaved had to stay in the basement all the time, putting charcoal into big ovens to heat up the water. That was a really unpleasant job, hot and sweaty, and also probably pretty dangerous. You could get burned, and even if you didn’t get burned you were inhaling charcoal smoke all day long.
Of course the walls weren’t all plain brick when the building was new! They were all covered with marble and stucco, and the swimming pool had mosaics of sea creatures on the bottom and was full of water.
These big bath buildings needed a lot of water. The Roman emperor Caracalla built a special aqueduct to bring water into Rome just for these baths. The cold swimming pool was huge – much bigger than a regular public swimming pool today. But the pool was only about four feet deep, all over it. Probably people didn’t do much swimming in it. Roman people weren’t very good swimmers anyway. They mostly stood around in the pool and splashed or played games, or just talked to each other and cooled off. It gets very hot in Rome in the summer! The cold water must have been very welcome.
Learn by doing: go swimming at a public swimming pool
More about Roman bath buildings
The Romans: Bacillus and the Beastly Bath, by Ann Jungman (2002). For kids (basically British kids).
The Baths of Caracalla: A Study in the Design, Construction, and Economics of Large-Scale Building Projects in Imperial Rome, by Janet Delaine (1997). Another supplement to the well-regarded Journal of Roman Archaeology. By specialists, for specialists.
Bathing in Public in the Roman World, by Garrett Fagan (1999).
Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity, by Fikret Yegl (reprinted 1996).
Roman Baths and Bathing, edited by Janet Delaine and David Johnston (2000). Another supplement to the well-regarded Journal of Roman Archaeology. By specialists, for specialists.
The Architecture of the Roman Empire: An Introductory Study, by William MacDonald (1982). Actually not so introductory, but it’s got great illustrations that really make the building techniques clear. Explains how bath buildings were built.