Roman Baths at Bath: Journey with the History Guru to England and Spain

Posted on Dec 18, 2011 in category

October 1 - The Roman Baths Museum at Bath

One of the highlights of the Roman Baths Museum in Bath (Romans called it 'Aquae Sulis') is the Gorgon sculpture of Sulis Minerva, a syncretic Celtic-Roman healing deity. Greek legend tells us that the stare of Medusa, one of the dreaded Gorgons who protected the Golden Fleece, could turn things to stone. Perhaps Sulis Minerva stared at Bath as it is unquestionably, a city of magnificent stone buildings.

The Roman Bath Museum's pediment display

Voila! Virtual reality.

The Circus Apartments (1754-1768) and the Royal Crescent Apartments (1767-1775) are two of Bath's most famous Georgian buildings.

The 30 odd Royal Crescent Apartments

Visitors to the Roman Baths are first greeted by the 'Terrace', which is a late 19th century balcony solidly wrapped around the downstairs 'Great Bath'. I couldn't resist feeling the very warm 39 degrees water of the rectangular 'Great Bath' that flows into the bath via a narrow open channel. The nearby but closed to the public 'King's Bath' (the original 'Sacred Spring') is even hotter at 46 degrees.

The 'Great Bath' 19th century balcony

The Hot Spring flows into the latter Bath at 1,170,000 litres each day. Two other springs were utilised by the Romans to feed this massive Bath complex. So much hot water flows through the Baths complex that the Romans built an overflow channel.

A scale model showing the flow of hot springs' water with Sulis Minerva's Temple in the distance and the 'Sacred Spring' or 'King's Bath' nearby.

For a virtual tour of the Baths see:

The overflow channel is still in use today! The diagram above reveals the position of the 'Main Drain'

The healing properties of these hot springs were first recognised by the local Celtic tribes such as the Dobunni and Durotriges. Eighteen coins from Celtic tribes were found in the Sacred Spring most of them from the Dobunni tribe.

Celtic coins with 'triple-tailed horse'designs

Ancient Roman records refer to Bath as 'Aquae Calidae' (place of hot springs) and 'Aquae Sulis' (sacred waters of Sul). The Belgae tribe that originated from northern Gaul prior to Julius Caesar's punitive campaigns in 55-54 B.C. inhabited this area of east Somerset. Other neighbouring Celtic tribes included the Durotriges of west Somerset, the Dobunni around Cirencester in the north, the Dumnonii to the south and the Atrebates to the east.

Around A.D. 70 archaeology confirms the first major transformation of the site from a Celtic-Romano sacred natural healing spring to a more substantial building complex with the enclosing of the Sacred Spring. Large oak posts were driven into the spring's mud to provide firm foundations for the new stone structure. These poles are surprisingly still in place. For more detailed information on each of the areas of the Roman Baths see:

An inscription from a small monument in the Baths provided an A.D.76 date; therefore, the Baths were built earlier

The modern onsite museum has many archaeological marvels: a 6 layered gilded bust of Sulis Minerva with its missing helmet (it has a hole in the back of her head), many votive offerings from Celtic to Roman times including some Neronian coins and beautifully carved precious stone seals from rings found in the Baths.

Gilded bust of Sulis Minerva

An artist's interpretation of Sulis Minerva's Temple Only the steps of her Temple remain

This picture tells the story!

Precious stone seals dislodged from rings found in the Roman Baths

A model of the Baths complex: East Baths at the bottom; West Baths at the top of picture

I spent the afternoon wandering through the streets and appreciating the city's many architectural standouts:

  • Bath Abbey (1499-1611) built over firstly an Anglo-Saxon church of the 8th century and a Norman Cathedral begun circa A.D.1080. Governor Arthur Phillip is commemorated here with a plaque but he is buried in a small village church nearby called Bathampton (see later blog entry)

    A Saxon King Edgar was crowned in the earliest Saxon church in A.D.973 beginning a tradition of coronations of monarchs in churches

Bath Abbey's fan ceiling Arthur Phillip died in Bath (he 'fell' out of a window!)

  • The Mineral Water Hospital founded in A.D.1739 was an interesting find. The stone building was another John Wood the Elder designed construction. The 'Min' cared for the rheumatic sick and ailing as well as the poor.

  • The Bath Market received its first charter in A.D.1371 and a Market House was constructed in the High Street in the 1550's. A Guildhall replaced this Market House in A.D.1627 but a further improvement to the Guildhall and the market area occurred in A.D.1776. Trade was brisk with 438 stalls set up inside this new Guildhall. The present cast iron and glass structure is early Victorian in design.

    Bath Market – notice one of the King Bladud's pigs

    For the legend surrounding this British King's founding of Bath in 863 B.C. see:

  • Today was the hottest autumn day on record for some 100 years and the people of Bath were out in the parks taking advantage of the sunshine.

A dip into the history of Baths

Seneca (1 B.C.- A.D. 65) Letter 56.1-2

My dear Lucilius,

If you want to study, quiet is not nearly as necessary as you might think. Here I am, surrounded by all kinds of noise (my lodgings overlook a bath-house). Conjure up in your imagination all the sounds that make one hate one's ears. I hear the grunts of musclemen exercising and jerking those heavy weights around; they are working hard, or pretending to. I hear their sharp hissing when they release their pent breath. If there happens to be a lazy fellow content with a simple massage I hear the slap of hand on shoulder; you can tell whether it's hitting a flat or a hollow. If a ball-player comes up and starts calling out his score, I'm done for. Add to this the racket of a cocky braggart, a thief caught in the act, and a fellow who likes the sound of his own voice in the bath, plus those who plunge into the pool with a huge splash of water. Besides those who just have loud voices, imagine the skinny armpit-hair plucker whose cries are shrill so as to draw people's attention and never stop except when he's doing his job and making someone else shriek for him. Now add the mingled cries of the drink peddler and the sellers of sausages, pastries, and hot fare, each hawking his own wares with his own particular cry.

See: http:/




Petronius' 'The Satyricon':


"It would take too long to pick out isolated incidents. Anyway, we entered the baths where we began sweating at once and we went immediately into the cold water. Trimalchio had been smothered in perfume and was already being rubbed down, not with linen towels, but with bathrobes of the finest wool. As this was going on, three masseurs sat drinking Falernian (expensive wine) in front of him. Through quarrelling they spilled most of it and Trimalchio said they were drinking his health.' Wrapped in thick scarlet felt, he was put into a litter. Four couriers with lots of medals went in front, as well as a go-kart in which his favourite boy was riding - a wizened, bleary-eyed youngster who was more unattractive than his master. As he was carried off, a musician with a tiny set of pipes took his place by Trimalchio's head and whispered a tune in his ear the whole way.

We followed on, choking with amazement by now, and arrived at the door with Agamemnon at our side. On the door-post a notice was fastened which read:


See: https:/

Martial: Epigrams 3.36.1-2, 5-6

Whatever signs attend a newly acquired friendship,

These are the signs that Fabius wants me to show to him.

And so I trudge behind him late in the afternoon

To the Baths of Agrippa, though I patronize the Baths of Titus.


Funerary inscription:

[Epitaph:] Daphnus and Chryseis, freedpeople of Lacon, dedicate this to their son Fortunatus. He drowned, age 8, in a pool in the Baths of Mars.

ILS 8518 = CIL 6.16740


My name is Ursus, and I was first among the Romans

To play with grace the glass-ball game with my companions,

Cheered on (I tell the truth) by large applauding crowds

In the Baths of Trajan, Titus, Agrippa, and often Nero.

Rejoice, my fellow ballplayers, gather round my statue

And load it down with leafy boughs, with garlands of violet

And rose, dispense with loving care the pungent scents,

And with the finest wines from my ancestral cellar

Pour libations out for me, though I still live.

Eulogize old Ursus with one concordant voice:

"He was a witty, cheerful, extremely learnèd ballplayer

Surpassing all in strategy, grace, and subtle skill."

But let an old man use this verse to tell the truth:

I've been defeated, I confess, not once or twice

But often, by Verus, three times consul and my patron,

For whom I am content to be called a warm-up act.

ILS 5173 = CIL 6.9797

Excavations of Baths:

  1. Aphrodisias (Turkey): Hadrian's Baths


    Click on the '2010-2011' Archaeological Research newsletter

  2. Binchester (Hadrian's Wall)

    See: http:/

  3. Tongobriga (Portugal)
  4. See:


  5. Carsulae (Italy)

  7. Sagalassos (Turkey):


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