The Roman Baths: A History Student’s Guide

With her exams out of the way, our PR Officer, Lauren Kent, visits the Roman Baths.

The magnificent Roman Baths are situated in ‘an area central in the city,’ with Stall Street to the west and York Street to the south.[1]

I visited the bath houses on the 21 June 2017 – a sunny, hot day, and as I came into the street I was immediately in awe of the grand building. With Bath Abbey standing tall on the opposite side, and the elaborate Baths glistening in all their glory in the sunshine, the entire image was magnificent. I walked in – appropriately wearing brown leather sandals – and felt the coldness instantly, cooling me down from the walk from the train station. Taking in my surroundings, what I saw next were high, elaborate ceilings that were breath taking in their intricacy; this place is a historian’s dream.

 

After picking up an audio guide and paying for a ticket, I made my way into the caverns of the Baths with the guide playing. The interior was equally awe-inspiring as the exterior. Within the Baths displays of different artefacts including archaeological finds of coins and jewellery were organised into glass cabinets for all to see. The themes mainly included the everyday lives of the Romans, who would have walked around the Baths to spend a leisurely afternoon being pampered and relaxing; a Roman “middle-class” pastime.

The main bath is situated in the middle of the Bath House. Filled with mystical green water, its striking colour and a delicate contrast to the sandy stone and the tall pillars.

 

main-bath.jpg
The Main Bath

Historian and archaeologist, Barry Cunliffe, points out that ‘the rooms between the original caldarium and tepidarium and the cold swimming-bath can now be shown to have undergone a considerable range of alterations, while new details now apparent between the tepidarium and laconicum show that here too the original interpretation was at fault. Perhaps the most significant change of view is the suggestion that the western-most cold swimming-bath was built in Period IV and not, as originally thought, in Period I.’[2]

This shows how the interpretation of the Baths can change, but his interpretation and diagram (illustrated beneath) is helpful for figuring out the layout of the Roman Baths themselves, as well as the Latin names.

map
Barry Cunliffe, The Roman Baths at Bath: The Excavations 1969-75, fig 2, p 5.

 

Religion was a significant part of Roman life which extended to their leisurely pursuits; a fact which is evident from the remains of the temple.

temple.jpg
The Temple

Interestingly, this friendly face depicted in the centre of the temple is Celtic in nature, and yet distinctly Roman, showing the blend of culture in Bath during the Romans’ occupancy. Through the audio-guide, it whispered into your ear the secrets of this Temple, accompanied with interpretations of its meaning and symbolism in this historical era.

The goddess Minerva was worshipped at this temple. Sulis Minerva was a Celtic deity of healing and retribution, who was revered at the thermal waters of Aquae Sulis (modern-day Bath) during the Roman Britain.[3] Further evidence of her presence and importance in Bath included ‘offerings of Celtic coinage dated to the first century AD,’ both attesting to the existence of the cult and suggesting the existence of the deity in pre-Roman times.[4] However, the offerings were not present until the development of the Baths and associated temple, which was during the Flavian era (AD 69-138) and it may well be the case that the cult did not gain ‘overt religious significance.’[5]

 

minerva
Minerva

I would really recommend a visit to the ancient Baths – both for their architectural beauty and to become lost in the history of ancient religion, mystical goddesses, Roman lives, and archaeological discoveries. After I left this monumental structure I felt an immense connection to people from the past, allowing me to feel like I belonged amongst the streets and within the bathing house of the historic town of Bath.

 

All photographs © Lauren Kent.

[1] Barry Cunliffe, The Roman Baths at Bath: The Excavations 1969-75, Society for the Promotion of the Promotion of Roman Studies Stable, p 4.
[2] Barry Cunliffe, The Roman Baths at Bath: The Excavations 1969-75, Society for the Promotion of the Promotion of Roman Studies Stable, p 1
[3] John T. Koch (ed), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopaedia: Vol 1,Volume 2 pp 1635-1636.
[4] John T. Koch (ed), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopaedia: Vol 1,Volume 2 p 1636.
[5] John T. Koch (ed), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopaedia: Vol 1,Volume 2 p 1636.
References:
Cunliffe, Barry, ‘The Roman Baths at Bath: The Excavations 1969-75’, Britannia, vol. 7, (1976), pp. 1–32.
Koch, John T., eds. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopaedia (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2006).
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