Over the years I have developed a mild obsession with Roman remains, seeking them out across Europe and elsewhere. But even better than ruins are those Roman sites that are still in use today, giving a sense of direct connection to the past. I’ve written elsewhere about the Arena of Verona, home to the annual Opera Festival, and the Circus Maximus in Rome, still used for concerts and other events. Another such site is the Roman spa and hot springs of Bath, in the south of England.
The Early History Of Aquae Sulis
Geothermal activity beneath the city of Bath created three hot springs, with water rising at a temperature of 46°C. It is known that the Celts used the site, but tradition dates the first spa activity to Bladud, a local king, in 836 BC. It is said that Bladud and his herd of pigs suffered from leprosy, but that they were cured by the warm mud around the springs.
The Romans were well known for their love of bathing and bath-houses, so it is natural that they would have been drawn to the hot springs of Bath (or Sulis, as the settlement was then known). Over a period of 300 years, starting around AD 70, the Romans built a whole complex of baths, temples, courtyards and administrative buildings around the springs. The town became known as Aquae Sulis (waters of Sulis), and people from all around the Roman empire flocked here to bathe, pray and to be healed by the waters. An early example of mass tourism!
Later History Of The Roman Baths
After the Romans left the baths fell into disuse, and they were partially destroyed. However, a new bath, supposedly with curative properties, was built inside the Roman remains in the 12th century. Another new bath was created nearby in the 16th century.
During the Regency period spas became very fashionable, and Bath was foremost in this tradition. Leading architects of the time remodelled the city and designed new buildings in the neoclassical style around the baths. These included the Pump Room, where the leisured classes would meet and enjoy the health benefits of drinking the water.
This was the Bath that was immortalised by Jane Austen in her novels. In fact it remained possible to bathe in the Roman baths until the 1970s, when the water was declared unsafe. Today visitors can tour the Roman Baths, drink the spa water and enjoy a meal in the Pump Room, or bathe in the newly created Thermae Bath Spa. The whole city of Bath, including the spa complex, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Exploring The Roman Baths
This is the only Roman bath-house I know of that is still fed by the original hot springs. In terms of preservation and visual impact, I would say that it is one of the best Roman sites I’ve seen anywhere in Britain. It is no wonder that the baths continue to attract tourists (around a million visitors a year), just as they did in Roman times.
The bath-house complex is well appointed for visitors. Although it is no longer complete (Bath Abbey was built over a part of it), you can walk around different sections of the baths and get an idea of what it would have been like for the Roman citizens (and their slaves) who came to bathe here. As an aid to the imagination lightshows project ghostly images of bathers onto the walls, and Roman soldiers play dice beside the pool.
Roman Baths Museum
The museum area has been arranged so that you can see the original layout. Walk past the hot and cold pools, through the changing rooms and into the temple area, following in the footsteps of the Romans. You will see a quote from the Roman poet Seneca: “The picture is not complete without some quarrelsome fellow, a thief caught in the act, or the man who loves the sound of his own voice in the bath – not to mention those who jump in with a tremendous splash.” A reminder that the Romans were not that much different from ourselves!
But there is more to the museum than just the Roman Baths. The baths were at the core of the Roman city, and the excavations also include parts of the surrounding area. In particular, you can see the remains of the Temple of the Goddess Sulis Minerva.
Torchlit Evenings At The Roman Baths
During the summer months the Roman Baths have a special programme of “Torchlit Evenings”. From the middle of June until the end of August the Baths are open every evening until 10 pm. They are lit by torches and a popup bar serves glasses of prosecco.
I was lucky enough to be a guest at one of the Torchlit Evenings. As I wandered around the ancient pavements I stopped to chat to two characters in Roman dress – a wealthy lady and her personal slave. It was almost as if I had slipped back in time…
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
In July 2021 Bath was included in a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Great Spa Towns of Europe. This brings together eleven of the most important and influential spa towns across seven different countries, a celebration not only of the health benefits of spas, but of the resorts, leisure culture and grand architecture that have grown up around them.
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