Thermae Antoniniane (Baths of Carcalla)

“With the advent of Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus) began a new era of cruelty, such as had rarely been witnessed for over a century. One look at his portraits (e.g. the one in the Room of the Emperors in the Capitoline Museums), all of which indicate at least a measure of the brutality of the man, will give a good sense of the quality that lay behind so much evil. He typically had a threatening scowl, produced by the powerful contraction of his brow… the face is a believable one for a man who was capable of killing his younger brother (Geta), and instituting a new reign of terror.” (Ramage, 302). Caracalla is often represented with a short, military beard. Nothing is idealized in his portraits: he has an almost insane facial expression, which evokes his strong military background and reflects his aggressive nature. He is represented as gladiator rather than an Emperor. Caracalla’s portrait type is credited as having a profound effect on imperial portraiture in the turbulent years to follow his reign. Many of the soldier-emperors of the third century sought to legitimize their rise to power by stylistically aligning themselves with Caracalla.

The most significant public project sponsored by Marcus A. S. Antoninus known as Caracalla was the construction of the great baths that had been, most likely, started by his father. The Baths were built in the southern part of the city, away from the Roman Forum and the Palatine, with an area beautified and monumentalized by the Severan dynasty. The building campaign was probably inaugurated in 216 A.D. and the work completed in 235 A.D. The biggest baths to that date were the Baths of Trajan, started at the beginning of the 2nd century A.D. by Apollodorus the architect. Together with the smallest Baths of Titus, they became the model for the large complex situated on the outskirts of the city. The monumental complex built by Caracalla and completed under Alexander Severus, was the size of a small Roman town. It was a great urban center, like the leisure centers of the modern world, a place where you could pass perhaps a whole day sometimes even without getting wet. It was more than simply a place to get clean.

Outside the central body that included pools and halls, there were walks and gardens, providing a park-like setting for social gatherings. There were libraries for intellectual activities, lectures, and poetry readings. All sorts of shops were nearby. Beneath the imposing Baths, a whole network of underground service corridors has been discovered wide enough for carts. Water was stored in 64 cistern in the area behind the main body of the baths. The Baths were supplied by the aqueduct Aqua Antoniniana Nova, a new branch of the Aqua Marcia, built exlusively for the Bath, though a system of lead pipes .

The main heated space, the calidarium, had seven heated pools. This was the hottest room in the axial sequence of bathing rooms. The calidarium, covered by a cupola only slightly smaller than that of the Pantheon, was heated by a hypocaust – an underground heating system. Furnaces supplied radiant heat and hot water. After the calidarium, the bathers would progress back through the tepidarium – a warm passageway, and then to the frigidarium. The vast central area of the frigidarium had four cold pools at its expremities. This was the most remarkable hall of the entire complex in which the finest treasures of art were placed such as the colossal Hercules Farnese. This large space was divided into three bays and covered by three cross vaults that rested on eight colossal columns made of grey granite. It received its light through windows. The monumental hall covered by three cross vaults has inspired many buildings such as the Baths of Diocletian and the Basilica of Maxentius. The floors of the main hall were decorated with the opus sectile, or colored marble inlay. The walls were also covered with marble.

The bath complex included the laconicum or sudatorium, a hot are for inducing sweating. The unroofed, olympic-size swimming pool (natatio) was extraordinary, with niches on the walls that had a mosaic of glass paste, which created an iridescent effect with water. The niches were decorated with statues. Other fundamental parts of the bath complex, one on each end of the baths, were the spheristeria or gymnasia, the exercise courtyards.

Wealthy Romans and their private homes

What influenced the architecture of the traditional patrician Roman townhouse, or domus, were the mild climate of the Italian peninsula, its fresh air, and access to water sources. Its design differed from our modern homes in several ways: it typically had only one story, it sheltered the families and their slaves behind the tabernae through an inward-looking design with no exterior elaboration. It was a fortress-like building specifically designed to provide privacy, while keeping out the noise of the street. The windows were usually small and high, allowing a light into the interior spaces while blocking the heat of the sun. Had the windows been larger, the home would have been uncomfortably cool during the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. The Roman townhouse carefully manipulated the social space to accommodate private family life. The public entrance to the domus was a narrow passageway, the fauces, that led into the atrium with its roof sloped downward on all sides towards a large impluvium to collect rainwater. Directly above the impluvium was the compluvium, a rectangular space left unroofed through which the rain fell into the impluvium.

A visitor standing in the fauces had an axial view through to the atrium. The entire structure of the atrium was designed to insure the security of family members. This was achieved by making the house inaccessible from the outside during the night and by limiting access to certain areas during the day. The outside doors where locked from the inside and outside, and passage was impossible without the knowledge of the doorkeeper, or ianitor.

The atrium epitomized the patriarchal structure that we associate with Roman culture. “Ancient literary sources make it clear that down to the end of the Republic the atrium was that part of the house most associated with the mos maiorum, or ancestral tradition. Originally the place of the hearth, the atrium was the center of household life and the site of the shrine (lararium), of the ancestors and tutelary gods of the family. Roman religion defined the family by its descent through the male line. According to Polybius and Pliny, wax images of the male ancestors were prominently displayed in the atrium and worn by members of the family at the funeral of the paterfamilias. As such funerals took place only once in a generation, it may be that the masks and related images owed their position in the atrium to some more atavistic purpose.” (Elaine K. Gazda, “Roman art in the private sphere: new perspectives on the architecture and decor of the domus, villa, and insula,” p. 27-28). The basis of Roman ancestor worship seems to stem from the principle idea that those who died have a continual and beneficent interest in the affairs of the living. The widespread fear of the dead brought about practices to placate them. The Romans worshipped remote rather than immediate ancestors. To put it in simple terms, the atrium was considered the visible symbol of the lineage of the house. It was also The fact that this airy courtyard was charged with rituals, while also functioning as the heart of the business of the family, may have inspired diverse architectural forms as the first Imperial Forum of Augustus. The same spatial arrangement finds parallels in Roman basilicas meant for trials and imperial audiences, and in Christian basilicas of later times.

Around the perimeter of the spacious and airy courtyard, sparsely furnished with perhaps a table and benches, doorways led to small rooms normally closed with a curtain rather than a door. The end of the atrium was occupied by the principal tablinum (office? salon? study room? reception room?). This room was closed off by means of curtains or folding doors and served as a place where the tabulae (records) of the family archives and the portraits of the ancestors were kept. It could also be used as a dayroom or dining area. Located between the atrium and the colonnaded garden-courtyard, the tablinum often had an attractive mosaic floor and wall paintings. If the tablinum is approached from the perspective of a visitor entering the house, this rooms indeed expressed the interests of the owner and his self-representation. In this regards, the paintings may have worked at several levels during the salutatio: the decorative splendor of the tablinum walls would have communicated the wealth of the patron and claimed importance and high status fro him. At a second level, the carefully orchestrated imagery and specific painting style were signs of up-to-date participation in elite culture, reflecting the owner’s cultural knowledge and prestige. It seems though that the finest and most decorated room in the house was the exedra, always at the extremity of the peristyle. An alcove open on one side, the exedra was usually paved with beautiful mosaic, the walls were adorned with paintings, and according to Vitruvius “philosophers teach and speak here” seated on a curved bench. The triclinium located near the tablinum with its layout of couches placed continuously around the wall and grouped round a table served as a dining hall. One of the most beautiful triclinium for summer banquets is the one found in the suburban Villa of Livia Drusilla, fully decorated in the second style fresco with a continuous garden painting rendered in a naturalistic way. It dates to 30-20 B.C.

The peristyle beyond the atrium was the second open space of the Roman domus. If the fisrt courtyard was like a forum, the space mostly used a the business area for the family as a mini-city, the second courtyard was like the country. This space carried the characteristics of a garden, as can be seen even in the smallest houses which have room for no more than a plant tub and a painting of a garden on the walls, Ideally it would be surrounded by a colonnade. Houses with too little space for columned porticoes on all four sides might make do with at least a couple of brick pillars. Planted out with a rich variety of flowers, shrubs and trees – daphne, lilies, fruit trees (in larger gardens) etc. – the garden could be kitted out with luxury decorative and artistic objects such as statuary of animals or gods. This artificially constructed world of nature provided a suitable context for a given range of activities. Roman life was divided between the otium and negotium, leisure and business. If the atrium is the place of business, the peristyle garden is the place of leisure, of pleasure and luxury rather than work and profit.

The apartment buildings for the plebeians

During the rule of Augustus from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D., Rome’s population reached one million people. To accommodate the masses that were descending on the city for work and business opportunities the architects found a novel and ingenious solution for this problem – they invented the block of flats for the masses and called the new construction an insula. The social housing was exclusively designed to accommodate many families together within the same building. It is thought that many blocks could hold about 200 citizens. Most insulae had three of four storeys, although some were built as high as nine storeys before Augustus introduced safety restrictions placing a height limit of about 70 feet (20 metres).


The ground floor would usually be occupied by shops or taverns, and families would live in the upper floors. After the great fire of 64 A.D. Nero dictated very strict standards for the construction of the insulae, forbidding their heights over 5 floors. Also, he decreed that all apartment buildings be constructed in stone and with porches projecting from the façade and fire-fighting equipment. Trajan limited the height limits to 60 feet (18 meters). The rules were widely disregarded in the later Roman period: the insula Felicles in the Campus Martius is quoted by Tertullian for his extraordinary height.

Although these apartment buildings helped to reduce the housing problem in Rome, they were far from ideal and there were serious safety and sanitation problems. Apartments on the higher floors of the insulae would be accessible only by wooden stairs and would not have heating, running water or latrines. Juvenal and Martial give a vivid picture of life in these homes, including the danger of collapse and fire: materials used meant there was a fire hazard. Flats on the lower levels would cost more to rent as they had latrines, running water and were easier to access. The buildings would be noisy. Rooms would have windows without glass to let in light. These windows were also useful for throwing household waste (including excrement) out onto the street below – an antisocial practice that was common, even if it was not legal. Their rent was, particularly in Rome, an important source of income and business, and real speculations were put in place in some cases, saving on the quantity and quality of construction materials.



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