As The Romans Do: Connecting to the Ancients in Bath

Never before had I stepped into a city and known without a doubt that I wanted to live there. I’m not the only one – beautiful Bath, in Somerset, England, has enamoured people in its many iterations for over two thousand years. From the ancient Romans to novelists like Jane Austen, its location 160km west of London and 24km southeast of Bristol has and continues to make it a perfect getaway from the big city for people throughout history, with the surrounding countryside offering breathtaking views for miles.

David Iliff

Founded in the first century CE by the Romans who used the natural hot springs as a thermal spa, the town originally began as a shrine at the hot springs by the ancient Britons to their goddess Sulis. Seeing Sulis’ similarities to their goddess Minerva, the Romans encouraged worship to her to help adapt the Brythonic people to the Roman way of life, and called the town Aquae Sulis in her honour.

In its current iteration Bath is a town of Georgian sandstone, whose light colour peeks through the greenery in which it is nestled and lends it a bright, cheerful feeling. Stepping down from my bus and having freshly read Northanger Abbey, I’m instantly enamoured and find it impossible to be anything but in high spirits – different from the dark mediaeval brickwork of York or the neo-Gothic feel of Edinburgh, I feel like a city-bred Regency girl, off on my first trip out of the city and ready to hunt for a husband at the balls I’ll be attending.

Bath Abbey (back) and the Baths (right) / John Menard

Starting in the square wedged between Cheap and York Streets, I sit at the steps of a building and watch the people around Bath Abbey. I can tell the tourists from the locals quite easily; the locals amusedly watch the tourists make sense of maps and snap shots of the church through camera viewfinders from their café seats, though a mixture of both watch musicians busking with their instrument-cases open. I’ve been told I absolutely must try the fudge that is so famous here, and to visit the grand Bath Abbey and the Royal Crescent of Georgian apartments. Across from me, though, are the Roman baths. The history lover in me immediately gets the better of my inner Austenite. It says: what better way to begin in this city but to explore its ancient namesake?

The Romans built the temple to Minerva in 60-70CE, and then built up the bath complex around it over the next 300 years, surrounding the natural hot spring with a with a chamber of lead and enclosed within a barrel-vaulted hall. In the modern day, the baths are four metres below street-level, and the sandstone building surrounding and enclosing them are 19th-century additions that blend perfectly with the golden limestone.

Wikimedia Commons

Stepping out onto the terrace above and surrounding the main pool as I exited the ticket room, I’m struck by the magnificent blend of ancient and modern. Statues of emperors and early governors of Britain stand over the pool and its visitors, their blank eyes staring sightlessly across the milky blue-green water. These statues, carved in 1894 in anticipation of the 1897 opening of the baths to the public, are gorgeous replications; the Victorian artists have skilfully mimicked the original Roman style of lifelike hands and delicate clothing folds. I walk a few turns of the terrace to take them all in. After snapping a few photographs, I headed down the stairs to the level of the main pool itself.

The heat of the pool presses on my bare skin as I make my way around the edge and step gingerly over a small slab used as a makeshift bridge over a small stream leading into it. A small sign warns visitors not to touch the pool water – it’s filled with dangerous amoebae and bacteria that proliferate in the heat – but I see a group of small children splashing their hands in it. I hope that their parents simply didn’t see the sign, but I get the distinct feeling they don’t believe the sign. I say a small prayer to Minerva-Sulis that the children don’t become ill.

The main pool / Flickr

Off to the sides of the main one are other pools, but this one is a tepidarium. A warm bath, this one was used for general relaxation and socialisation, such as remains the case in places like Japan and Turkey. The use of public baths as a Roman social gathering-point is well-documented – like the salons of the Enlightenment, they provided a place to gather and disseminate gossip, broker business deals, and flaunt wealth.

The caldarium hypocaust system / Ad Meskens

However, before the main bath, bathers would first head to the caldarium. The one here has had its floor removed to show visitors the empty space underneath where hot air flowed to heat the room. This was the hottest room of them all, with a scalding pool sunk into the floor where bathers would use an oil-cleanse to rid themselves of dirt and sweat. Lathering using oil instead of expensive soap, the bather entered the hot pool to open the pores, then scraped off the oil and accumulated dirt afterwards with a device known as a strigil before moving on to the frigidarium.

As its name suggests, this was a plunge-pool of frigid water that sealed the pores and energised the bather. Learning all this, I’m struck by the similarities to modern medical knowledge of the effects of temperature on the body. I adore the notion that we are not so different to those born hundreds or thousands of years before – knowing an ancient person enjoyed the relaxing feeling of hot water on sore muscles humanises the people we only have a connection to through artefacts and texts.

Farah Tsai:Wikimedia Commons
The plunge-pool / Farah Tsai

This plunge-pool, a men-only bath, functions in the present-day as a sort of wishing-well. It glitters in the dim light with the coruscations of thousands of coins thrown in by hopeful visitors. Like mermaid scales, the silver shimmers through the pretty green-blue water and makes a good source of additional income for the Baths, being emptied out every few weeks to make a tidy sum.

Did you know that across the world we throw £3 million worth of coins into wishing-wells and fountains each year? I rather like that such an old folk superstition still remains to this day. As it is, I fish a coin out of my pockets, cup it close to my mouth to whisper a wish to it, and then flick it into the water like I’m playing heads-or-tails. It spins neatly to join the rest with a small plop, and I move on.

Despite the hazardous nature of the main pool’s water, there is a place to partake of the healing waters in the modern day. Through the West Baths I find myself at the fountain, a small spout from which the mineral waters flow. These were installed very recently, and provide water from the sacred spring that is safe to drink. One may also drink from a separate fountain in the Grand Pump Room restaurant for a bit of money, but I’m not planning to go there.

I retrieve a peculiar conical paper cup from a dispenser and fill it with the water. It doesn’t look terribly different from normal tap-water, but it dances on my tongue and tastes rather metallic and a little fizzy. I’m not sure if I expect to feel invigorated or not; after all there are 43 minerals in the water, but I did also only have a cupful. Maybe I’d have to drink it for days on end to feel any effects, and I’m not so sure I’d be willing to down the strange-tasting concoction again.

Recycling my odd paper cup, I then wandered through a series of rooms filled with artefacts excavated from the temple complex. One such room houses the Sacred Spring Overflow – a drain that for two thousand years has moved the excess water from the spring to the River Avon. Downstairs, well below street level are more artefact rooms. One such is titled ‘People of Aquae Sulis’ and features objects and knickknacks from the lives of the Romans who bathed and socialised there: pottery, coins, jewellery lost in the deep. I’m particularly partial to ancient jewellery displays, my own experience of countless earring-backs and tiny beloved miscellanea lost in deep waters universal though time and connecting me to neglectful ancient women who did the same.

The man in question / Chris Goldberg

Here there is the stone head of a lady taken from a 1st-century CE tomb, her hair decked out in the high bonnet of small curls fashionable at the time. Next to her, in a glass cabinet, lie the bones of a man; on the shelf beneath him is the lead coffin-lining of his casket. Forensic reconstruction based on his skull shows a round-faced, brown-skinned man with greying black hair and expressive eyes. Found to be from what is now Syria, it is thought he was a trader. Syria primarily exported cloth and glassware; this man shows the extent to which the ancients travelled and interacted with people across the Roman Empire and the world as early as two thousand years ago.

By the year 410CE, however, the Romans had completely withdrawn from the province of Britain. Following the Battle of Dyrham in 577CE, Bath fell to the Saxons, with the temple baths eventually falling to ruin and being lost to history, only being rediscovered in the Georgian era purely by accident.

By this time, Bath had already been rediscovered as a fashionable resort town by wealthy Georgians in part due to visits by queens of the time. Struggling with infertility, Queen Mary bathed in the hot springs and became pregnant ten months after, and several years later, Queen Anne found that the mineral waters eased her chronic gout.

The city having proliferated mostly during this time, Bath retains its Georgian character to this day with its cream-gold limestone architecture. Whilst the natural hotsprings of the city were still being used, and whilst Roman artefacts were being dug up in years prior, it wasn’t until 1775 that builders broke through rubble to discover the perfectly-preserved temple.

Adrian Pingstone

From then on Bath eventually became a resort destination for everybody, not just the very wealthy. In 2014, there were 4.8 million day visitors to Bath and north-east Somerset (with only 383,000 being from overseas), and over 1 million visitors to the Roman Baths itself in 2015.

After emerging from below street-level and combing through the gift shop for trinkets, I feel I have a better understanding of how Bath has enamoured people for so many years. Despite having only seen one site so far, I feel a powerful pull to the beautiful city and the lush Cotswolds that surround it. The only question now, is: ‘where to next?’ I’m drawn to the imposing Gothic spires of Bath Abbey, but my stomach rumbles and I eye a fudge shop just off the way.

With my history buff in me sated, it’s time to feed the inner Austenite. Sate my sweet tooth and then visit the church, I decide. Let’s heed the advice given me and see what all the fuss is about.


Featured image from Flickr


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