To understand Rome you have to understand its volcanic history and, over a long lunch that reveals food is another passion, my guide Marco explains why.
The hills whose springs fed Rome’s aqueducts also supplied the soft stone that could be worked with bronze tools. From 200BCE onwards, this tufa was embedded in concrete and faced with marble or hard travertine limestone to construct the awe-inspiring public buildings of the fast-growing city. Volcanic ash and pumice were combined to make Roman concrete, the material that allowed the construction of the Colosseum and the aqueduct, among many other engineering wonders of the time.
One of these was the Baths of Caracalla which stand near the Circus Maximus in Rome's Ripa area. Built between 212 and 216, the ruins still soar 37 meters tall, higher than most of Rome’s modern apartment blocks, and their design provided the inspiration for 1910’s Pennsylvania Station in New York. Even so, they are literally a shell of their former glory, stripped of the marble, mosaics, mirrors and statues that made them an opulent expression of Roman wealth. With two libraries, one with texts in Latin, the other Greek, gyms, shops and expansive gardens, they were a leisure center as well as a spa that held 1,600 bathers.
But it is by plunging underneath again that I get a real impression of their size. The whole structure was raised to accommodate six-meter-high service tunnels. These cool brick arches are big enough for two wagonloads of wood to pass each other. A roundabout above ground controlled traffic as slaves labored down here to feed the furnaces heating the baths. Underneath us still are the massive sewers that carried wastewater to the Tiber. “There is no spa in the world as big as this today,” says Marco. “And this was not even Rome’s biggest – the Baths of Diocletian could take twice as many people.”
Seneca the Younger, writing in around 50CE, brings the sounds of a Roman bath vividly to life: “When the body-builders exercise and strain (or imitate someone straining) to lift weights, I hear their grunts as they express pent air, followed by the hisses of their harsh inhalations. When one of the clientele relaxes to a cheap rubdown, I hear the noise of hands as they strike his shoulders, ranging from flat smacks to a cupped blow, depending on the stroke. Add to this the aggressive loud-mouth, the thief who’s been caught, the person who likes to hear himself sing in the bath, and the bathers who love to make big splashes when they jump in the pool.” Some things never change.
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