Bath’s magnificent ancient Roman bathing complex, complete with plunge pools, saunas and underfloor heating, set the scene for the city’s heyday as a Georgian spa resort
Hot Bath Street. Quiet Street. Comfortable Place. Perfect View. The quaint place names in Bath, southwest England, are redolent of a place of ease and relaxation. The ancient Romans certainly thought so: they chose Bath as the site of an incredible spa complex, built around a “sacred spring” thought to have healing properties.
More than a million litres of spring water gushes out of the ground every day here at a warm 46°C – which must have seemed like a miracle to the Romans. They built their lavish spa in around 70 AD, unique in the Roman Empire in its complexity and scale. They dedicated the on-site temple to Sulis Minerva, incorporating the name of the Celtic goddess worshipped by the local tribe with that of their own goddess of war and wisdom.
The baths are a masterwork of ancient engineering, with facilities that wouldn’t be out of place in a cutting-edge spa today. The hot water was channelled through lead pipes, with under-floor heating warming the chilly stone slabs and a series of chambers housing saunas, steam rooms and cool pools.
The baths were the social hub of society: people from all walks of life, from centurion to lowly pleb, could gossip, relax, flirt – and bathe, of course – in the vaporous spring waters. Snacks were sold waterside and bathers could indulge in all manner of pampering treatments.
It wasn’t all fun and games, of course. The temple and sacred spring were an important site of pilgrimage. Among the artefacts dredged from the waters and now on display in the on-site museum are coins thrown in as votive offerings, and curses written on thin strips of lead, thrown into the sacred pool for the goddess Minerva to act upon. “May he who carried off Vilbia from me become as liquid as the water,” reads one.
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