The Baths of Caracalla ☆☆

Panorama of the Thermae of Caracalla, Baths of Caracalla, Rome, Italy (Photo by Chris 73)
Panorama of the Thermae of Caracalla

The Terme di Caracalla is vast ancient baths complex and spectacular setting for opera under the stars

The largest surviving ruins of an ancient baths complex in Rome, the Thermae di Caracalla are a crumbling complex of brick walls and broken archways with some remaining scraps of floor mosaics sprawling over 33 acres.

In their heyday (they were dedicated in AD 216), the the Baths of Caracalla were fed by a dedicated acquaduct and could accomodate a staggering 1,600 bathers at a time.

The main bulding alone was 228 meters (750 feet) long, 116 meters (380 feet) wide, and 38.5 meters (125 feet) high.

Like most grand baths, the Baths of Caracalla were about more than just swimming and bathing. It was basically an ancient Roman community center, with two palaetra (gyms), two libraries (one for Greek texts, one for Latin texts), and plenty of shops.

A visit to the baths

Just like in modern times, an ancient Roman bather would first hit the apodyterium (changing room) to leave their toga (and their slave to guard it; if you came slaveless, you could hire one on the spot).

The palaestra: Working out

You'd start in the palaetra, an open courtyard for light exercise.

For men, this meant wrestling, boxing, running, fencing, or weight lifting for the men.

For women, a workout usually consisted of hoop rolling or ball throwing. Some lifted weights as well, but this activity was met with a shudder of impropriety by most ancient writers.

(Then again, those ancient writers were also often complaining that the official rules separating men and women at the baths were constantly being flouted or outright ignored; the fact that a succession of emporors kept re-issuing this ban over and over implies that the ancient chroniclers, through perhaps prudish, were right.)

After your workout, you would move on to the main event: the bathing.

The tepidarium: Getting clean

You would begin in the two-pooled tepidarium (the warm pool) to get warmed up and scrape off all the sweat and dirt.

First you'd oil up your body to loosen the dirt, then use a srtigil (a curved metal tool) to scrape the dirty oil off the skin. The better-off could hire a slave to do a more thorough job (the wealthy brought their own slaves).

During those periods of the Empire when it was fashionable to be hairless, you could go in for a bit of depiliation and hire a hair-plucker to make your skin smooth. Yes, this was for men and women alike. It also hurt. A lot. Especially when it came to the armpits.

The calidarium: Sweating out the toxins

Skin gleaming and clean (and, possibly, hairless), it was time to head to the calidarium (hot pool), in which the waters and air were heated by a hypocaust system—the floor supported by a forest of tiny brick pillars around which air, scorched by wood and coal furnaces, could circulate. It then rose up hollow brick pillars to ceiling chimneys.

This was a combination sauna and hot tub to open up your pores and get a good sweat on.

The air temperature inside the calidarium could reach above 100º F (38º C) and 100% humidity. Your slaves could help cool you down as you sweated by pouring cold water over you from a patara dish.

The frigidarium: Chilling out

The last stop was the frigidarium, a cold pluge pool to close up the pores and cool you down.

Other interesting bits of the baths

Notice in the public toilets the closely-spaced seats and lack of walls separating them into stalls. Also, the lack of separate men's and women's rooms. It was all open seating, and all together. (And, in lieu of toilet paper, you had a sponge on a stick.)

There are also the ruins of the natatioan 80-meter (262-foot) outdoor pool that once had bronze mirrors to reflect the warmth of the sun down upon the swimmers.

The end of the baths

The baths were extremely popular, and remained in use until the sixth century—even the first few waves of barbarian invaders and rulers loved them.

The barbarians known as the Ostrogoths, though, not so much. They destroyed the hydraulics and heating systems, and the baths ceased to function in AD 537.

The complex was, as were most ancient structures, subsequently looted over the centuries—you've probably seen some of its sculptures without realizing they originally came from here, including the Belvedere Torso, now in the Vatican Museums, and the famous Farnese Bull and Farnese Hercules, both now in the Naples Archaeological Museum.

Later, the complex was mined for its very stones,which made excellent pre-cut building materials to help contruct medieval Rome. (The dozen granite columns that weighed 100 tons and once upheld the frigidarium now hold up the nave of Santa Maria in Trastevere church.)

Opera at the Baths of Caracalla

The baths have into use—though not as a bathing complex—in modern times, most surreally as the setting for the gymnastics portion of the 1960s Olympics Games.

Since then, they have become most famous as a spectacular setting for outdoor performances by Rome's Teatro dell'Opera company.

For decades they did Aïda out here, complete with thundering herds of horses and other animals during the parade scene, but by the 1990s that was deemed too rough on the ancient surfaces.

From 1994 to 2000, there were no performances here, but a comprise was found and there is now a stage set up on the grass with the baths serving as a backdrop instead of the stage.

The company rotates through a schedule of dramatic, crowd-pleasing operas (Norma, Atilla), ballets (Giselle), and concerts.

You can book opera and ballet tickets at the Baths of Caracalla most years though SelectItaly.com.

 
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Photo gallery
  • Panorama of the Thermae of Caracalla, Baths of Caracalla, Italy (Photo by Chris 73)
  • , Baths of Caracalla, Italy (Photo by Trey Ratcliff)
  • The baths complex, Baths of Caracalla, Italy (Photo by teldridge+keldridge)
  • The tepidarium at the Baths of Caracalla. (Imagined reconstruction from an 1899 engraving by F.A. Genzme; Modern photo by Joonas Lyytinen), Baths of Caracalla, Italy (Photo by Joonas Lyytinen)
  • Floor mosaics, Baths of Caracalla, Italy (Photo by Harmonia Amanda)
  • The Baths of Caracalla as they looked in the Imperial Roman era (from the model at the Museo della Civiltá Romana in EUR), and today (in an aerial photograph)., Baths of Caracalla, Italy (Photo )
  • An archway, Baths of Caracalla, Italy (Photo by Avinash Kunnath)
  • , Baths of Caracalla, Italy (Photo by Karelj)
  • , Baths of Caracalla, Italy (Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST)
  • , Baths of Caracalla, Italy (Photo by teldridge+keldridge)
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Tips

How long do the Baths of Caracalla take?

Give yourself at least 45–60 minutes here—though 90 min. would be better.

Note that the last admission is one hour before closing.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).