Here’s my guide to visiting the Baths of Caracalla, one of the most monumental ruins from Ancient Rome.
The baths were inaugurated by Emperor Caracalla in 216. They were the most luxurious thermae of Rome.
Happily, you can visit these magnificent ruins without the ruinous crowds of most of Rome’s historic sites. And gain insight into the life of Romans 1,800 years ago in the process.
In this guide, I give you an overview of the history of the baths and tell you everything to see at this famous attraction. I also give you must know tips for planning your visit.
History Of The Baths Of Caracalla
Construction of the baths began in 206 A.D., under the direction of Emperor Septimius Severus.
The emperor wanted to establish a new dynasty after a period of turmoil in Rome, symbolized by a significant building project. Since Vespasian had already built the Colosseum, Severus decided to build some baths. He began building in 206.
Severus also tried to consolidate imperial power within his own family. He appointed his oldest son Caracalla as co-emperor at the precocious age of 10.
But Caracalla didn’t get along with his younger brother and rival Gaeta. Neither wanted to share power with the other.
After his father’s death, Caracalla plotted to murder Gaeta to seize sole power. He finally succeeded in 221. After offing his brother, Caracalla sent out killing squads to assassinate 20,000 of Gaeta’s supporters.
But what Caracalla hadn’t planned on was the fallout. Gaeta was popular and Romans were outraged.
Caracalla decided to try to win back the people’s support. It was no secret that the Roman loved a good bath.
So Caracalla turned his mind to finishing his father’s great baths project. He completed them between 212 and 217 A.D.
Baths were the hub of Roman social life. People would luxuriate in a steam sauna, then enter the warm bath, and finally cool off in a frigid pool.
The final part of the bathing ritual was the natatio, where Roman would swim in an open-air swimming pool, followed by a massage.
Caracalla’s building complex was massive. It was the biggest complex in the history of the empire, only subsequently surpassed by Diocletian’s Baths.
The baths could accommodate 1,600 people. There were hundreds of elegant columns and arcades.
The main pool was 13,000 square feet, fed by a specially built aqueduct, the Aqua Nova Antoniniana.
The waters were heated by a coal burning hypocaust system located beneath the pools. Approximately 9,000 men were needed to operate the baths on a daily basis.
Caracalla spared no expense when it came to decoration. He adorned the baths with mosaics, frescos, and sculpture.
There were social spaces and libraries. Caracalla also built a sanctuary to the god of Mithras, so the Romans could pay their respects while they bathed.
To top it all off, the baths were free and open to the public.
Despite all his efforts, karma caught up with Caracalla. He was murdered by one of his Praetorian guards, finished off with the usual stabbing.
The outer walls of the baths were constructed by his successors, Heliogabalus and Severus Alexander.
The baths remained in use until 570. In that year, the Goths destroyed the aqueduct, cutting off the water supply to advance their siege.
In the mid 16th century, Pope Paul III excavated that baths hoping to find ancient statues to decorate the Farnese Palace.
The Farnese Bull and the Farnese Hercules are now in Naple’s Archaeological Museum. Two fountain shaped bathtubs from the baths are now in the Piazza Farnese in Rome. Another precious sculpture, the famous Belvedere Torso, is in the Vatican Museums.
Excavation and restoration missions continued in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2015, the fashion house Bulgari financed restoration of the baths’ precious mosaics.
Guide To The Baths Of Caracalla: What To See
Even in its ruined state, the 3rd century baths are overwhelming. You just have to ignore the chill of the vicious man who was their builder.
The original red brick walls are still standing, a towering shell. They were once covered in stucco and marble, which were looted a millennium ago. The interior is a block long chamber of vaulted bath chambers and auxiliary rooms.
Click here to see the layout of the baths and the one way tourist route you’ll take to visit them. You can get an audio guide, but there are also plenty of informational placards in English as well.
Here’s everything to see at the Baths of Caracalla:
The main thermal building is the center of the complex. The central block is arranged on a single axis.
There were four main bathing rooms. In sequence, you’ll see the ruins of the calidarium (hot sauna), tepidarium (warm pool), frigidarium (cold plunge pools), and the natatio (swimming pool).
The calidarium or hot pool was comprised of seven pools, six of which still remain. Temperatures reached above 100 degrees.
The room was topped with topped with a 130 foot dome. Windows let in sunlight.
The tepidarium was a smaller transitional space. It consisted of only two smaller pools with lukewarm bath water. The warm water lessened the shock of moving from very hot to very cold water.
The frigidarium translates to “cold room.” It was located in the middle of the building and was one of the grander halls of the complex.
It was a large room with four baths set under a high vaulted ceiling. Clerestory windows helped to light the vast space.
From there, bathers would retire to one of the sitting rooms or head to the natatio. The natatio was an Olympic size open air swimming pool. Niches in the walls once held statues.
It’s probably the most astonishing part of the bathing complex. The entrance has red and gray columns and an intact mosaic floor.
In the pool, Romans would gamble, entertain clients, and listen to musicians. In the summer, they played games on tables in the pool to stay cool.
The two large rooms at either end were used for exercise.
Outside of the pools stands the incredible library. The chamber is approximately 125 by 72 feet.
The library once had three walls with 32 niches. These niches housed the volumina, papyrus rolls equivalent to our modern day books.
Like other public libraries in Rome, there were two separate rooms of similar dimensions. One was for Greek language texts and another was for Latin language texts.
In the center of this space stood a larger niche that displayed a statue of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. This goddess can also be found in the Roman Baths in England.
Floor mosaics were among the lavish decorations of the Baths of Caracalla. They varied greatly, ranging anywhere from simple black and white patterns to more elaborate and colorful designs.
Even today there are areas on the ground floor where you can see well-preserved mosaics.
The most famous mosaics were those of athletes and gladiators, which were once in the exercise courtyards and public library. In the 1960s, these mosaics were moved to the Vatican Museums.
There’s also a sprawling system of cavernous subterranean corridors, which were discovered in 1912. Since 2019, tourists can now visit parts of the area.
You’ll find a warren of tunnels with furnaces and storage areas for supplies, including wood, linens, and oil.
The vaults were tall enough to let in horse-led carts of wood to feed 50 underground furnaces. You can see 24 of the originals. The slaves stoked the furnaces to keep the baths going, using 10 tons of wood per day.
There is currently an exhibition set up in the underground area that showcases architectural pieces and artifacts found in the baths.
The underground also contains the Mithraeum of Caracalla, which was discovered only a century ago. It opened to the public in 2012 for the first time.
Excavators discovered and restored a small fresco of Mithra, as well as the original altar used by worshippers.
A mithreaum was a worship center for the mysterious religious cult of Mithraism. Very little is known about the all male Roman Cult of Mithras or its rituals. Even in antiquity, the cult was shrouded in secrecy.
What historians do know about the cult is that its central icon and hero figure is an image of Mithras. He’s a Persian god typically shown wrestling and slaying a bull in a cave, surrounded by other figures, animals, and references to the cosmos.
The temple was dark and windowless. It would have been lavishly decorated and may have been a place for feasting, drinking, and ritualistic male bonding.
Today, you can see a small square antechamber, the main rectangular meeting hall, and a partial fresco of the god. The hall has benches on either side where worshippers likely reclined. The floor was once decorated with black and white mosaics.
In the center of the hall, there’s a tunnel accessed by a staircase. Historians don’t really know what it was used for.
But some speculate that it was the scene of ritualistic sacrifices to Mithras. Initiates may have been lowered to bathe in the blood of a sacrificed bull.
Another Mithreaum was also discovered in the Palazzo Barberini.
6. Second Century Home
In the mid 19th century, an ancient home or “domus” was found under the Baths of Caracalla.
The two story home dates from the time of Hadrian, in 134 to 138 A.D. It was partially dismantled to make way for the baths.
But the discovery was kept secret. The ruins weren’t excavated until the mid 20th century. Finally restored, for the first time ever, the domus opened to the public in June 2022.
The Roman home has frescoed ceilings and a prayer room. The red and blue ceiling fresco depicts images of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry.
There are also frescos of other Roman gods and Egyptians gods, suggesting a melting pot of religion in a domestic space.
Tips For Visiting the Baths of Caracalla
1. How To Get To The Baths Of Caracalla
The Baths of Caracalla are on the south side of Rome. The address is Viale dell Terme di Caracalla 52.
The baths are a 5-10 minute walk from the Circo Massimo metro station. They’re also a 20 minute walk from the Colosseum.
The closest bus stop is Terme Caracalla/Porta Capena, reached via the 118, 160 and 628 bus routes.
The hours vary by season. But they are generally open from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm in winter and until 7:00 pm in summer. The baths close early on Mondays at 2:00 pm.
The last entry is an hour before closing. But you should really leave more than an hour to see the complex.
You will need to book tickets to the baths of Caracalla online in advance. You can do this at the Coop Culture website for 10 euros.
You can also buy tickets at the ticket office onsite or at the ticket office of the Arch of Titus.
You can also visit the baths with the Roma Pass. This pass gives you full access to public transportation, admission to two museums, and discounts on performance and exhibition tickets.
3. Guided Tours
You don’t necessarily need a guided tour of the Baths of Caracalla. But it might be helpful to have someone decipher the ruins for you.
You can book a small group or private tour of the baths. You can also book a tour that includes both the baths and the Circus Maximus.
4. Virtual Tour
You can also don virtual reality googles to recreate the past and see what the baths would’ve looked like in ancient Rome. The virtual reality viewer can be used by visitors 7 and up with adult supervision
5. Opera And Concerts
Every summer since 2014, the Baths of Caracalla are the backdrop for open air opera performances, which are put on by Rome’s opera company the Teatro dell’Opera.
The baths also serve as a concert venue for world famous musicians.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the Baths of Caracalla. You may enjoy these other Rome travel guides and resources:
- 8 ways to spend 1 day in Rome
- 3 day itinerary for Rome
- 5 day itinerary for Rome
- Hidden gems in Rome
- Best museums in Rome
- Archaeological sites in Rome
- Guide to the Borghese Gallery
- Guide to Palatine Hill
- Guide to the Roman Forum
- Guide to the Colosseum
- Walking tour of central Rome
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