Two thousands years ago, Romans building the Fosse Way westwards through the English countryside crossed the River Avon and came across a hot-water spring gushing from the earth. To the Romans, who had little knowledge of geology, the steaming, never-ending waters must have seemed miraculous. They built a temple nearby to the Sulis Minerva, goddess of the springs and a bath house in which to enjoy the waters.
As the spring water gained a reputation for healing and bringing good fortune, thousands of pilgrims came from across the Empire and a town, Aqua Sulis, sprang up nearby. For over 500 years, the town was a thriving Roman centre. But as with all things, over time the Empire withered away. The town slowly died and the once-famous temple and bath house faded from memory and finally, fell into ruins.
Two thousand years later, it’s still difficult to talk about the English city of Bath without speaking also of the Romans. The colony they founded so long ago forms the foundations of this graceful Georgian city, which sprang up in the 18th century when English aristocrats rediscovered the spring and its curative properties. They quickly built a city around it and during the construction, the remains of the original Roman complex were unearthed under 20 feet of dirt and debris. In a shrewd move, the builders chose to incorporate the ancient remains into the new bathing establishment surrounding the spring and after a thousand years of abandonment, the Roman Baths became once again the city’s most popular attraction.
Through the Roman Baths
Most of the original Roman Bath lies deep beneath the contemporary street level. On the ground floor however, is the neo-classical Pump Room, the social heart of Bath’s high society for two centuries and still a popular restaurant. Here, mineral water from the spring was drawn up in an elegant fountain for drinking. In addition to a fine English meal, visitors can sample the water as well, though the strongly mineral taste may not be to everyone’s liking.
The Pump Room is a popular stopping point before and after visitors tour the underground level, where most of the exhibits reside. The original bath house was a huge complex, far larger than most of its counterparts in other parts of the Empire, for it catered not only to locals but to a huge stream of pilgrims.
There are three main pools, the West, the East and the Great Baths, each set its own room. Both the East and the West Bath are enclosed spaces, preserved as archaeological exhibits. In the East Bath, visitors can see a display of the way Romans bathed during the days of the Empire. In the West Bath are a series of pools and heated rooms and also a display of the hypocaust, the revolutionary system the Romans used to heat their bath houses.
Tucked away in a corner of the complex is the sacred spring itself, which despite its enormous importance to the city is surprisingly unprepossessing, being only still sheet of water sitting in a pool open to the sky. The waters are a deep, murky green, courtesy of the minerals which are supposed to give the waters their healing properties.
What it lacks in appearance however, the spring more than makes up in history, for from these waters researchers have removed more than 12,000 coins, silver and gold artifacts and most bizarrely, thin, rolled up pewter sheets inscribed with curses. Most of these were about lost love or stolen property, with a suspect named and an appropriately foul end called for; some were counter spells to prevent being cursed. A number of the inscriptions were written backwards, to imbue the magic with extra potency. Many of these items are on display in a nearby area.
Nearby is the temple which was built to Sulis Minerva. One of only two true classical temples in Britain, it was once home to the cult statue of the goddess. Though the statue was lost, the ornamental pediment survived and is on display in the Roman Baths Museum. Today, the centerpiece of the temple is the sacrificial altar, a great stone 2 metres high, chiseled smooth on the top, where the priests must once have slaughtered animals for augury.
The Great Bath
For all its humble appearance, the spring has flowed nonstop for more than a thousands years, sending over a million litres of hot water coursing in a steady stream through the Baths in an ingenious system of lead pipes. Now however, most of spring’s water drains out to the River Avon through an overflow system. The only pool which still receives the spring’s water is the one in the Great Bath (pictured above), the impressive centerpiece of the entire complex.
Unlike the East and West Baths, the Great Bath is open to the skies, with a terrace overlooking the pool’s dark waters. The view from the terrace is the first sight many people have of the Roman Baths. The Great Bath is unique, pointing up the difference between this particular bathhouse, and the thousands of bathhouses in the rest of the Empire. Because of the difficulty of heating great amounts of water, bathers performed their ablutions in a series of small pools and heated rooms. Here however, builders had the luxury of having a never-ending supply of hot water, and they took full advantage of it by building this extravagant swimming pool of a bath.
The colonnaded hall in which the Great Bath resides is a Victorian creation, as everything except the floor of the original structure was lost long before to time and vandals. The ancient looking busts of Roman statesmen lining the terrace also date from that time. Despite the artificiality of the surroundings, the Great Bath is perhaps the most evocative area of all the entire complex, for it is easiest here to picture the Bath as the Romans must once have seen it.
In those long ago days, the pool would have stood beneath a vast barrel-vaulted hall, 40 metres high and quite possibly the greatest structure most of the visitors would ever have seen. There would have been wooden benches and tables lining the niches surrounding the pools, perfect for a chat or a quick meal. The green water is a constant 48 degrees Centigrade, just perfect for a swim or a long soak, and on cool days, when steam rises lazily from the pool and the Bath takes on an ethereal aura, it’s easy to believe, like the Romans once did long ago, the waters really did spring from a blessed source.
Visitors to the Bath are provided with a personal audio guide, which provides excellent commentary on the various areas of the Bath complex. The ticket also provides entry to the Roman Bath Museum nearby, which like the Bath itself is much larger tha