Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Caerleon: the Roman Baths

Roman Baths
  The bath house was an essential and central part of Roman life, providing exercise, hygiene and a meeting place for social contact. It was therefore even more of a necessity in a fortress to promote health and cohesion. Typically, it would contain a: "frigidarium" (cold room), "tepidarium" (warm ), "caldarium" (steaming hot) and "natatio", the swimming pool. There was also a  heated changing room, "apodyterium": all the warmth came from underfloor hypocausts which were so effective that slippers had to be worn to protect the feet in the caldarium.
  These rooms would be taken in sequence and one suspects that each soldier would develop his own preferences: at one point he would rub his body with oil which would later be scraped off with a curved bronze or copper tool called a "strigil" to remove dirt and sweat also. One of these instruments is on display. If the bather had a slave, it would be his task to clean up the resulting mess!
  Now you can gaze into the natatio and watch realistic and beautiful projections of swimmers, first single, then two or more: it is mesmerising and convincing.

In the Caerleon baths
  The baths were excavated in 1964 and 1981 and were found to have been built around AD 75 on an enormous scale covering an area the size of Wells Cathedral, 360 feet long. Bath houses were always constructed in stone rather than wood from the start because of the risk of fire. Their high roofs would have dominated the skyline.
   What we have in this building is about one sixth of the whole: part of the swimming pool, the cold room at right angles to it and remains of the changing rooms, heating channels and deep drains. The swimming pool would have extended under the walls at the far end and at the near end you can see where it was reduced in size, presumably to save water when the legion was lessened in manpower. There is no nearby natural spring to feed the pools and water had to be brought in for 5 miles through lead piping: the swimming pool needed 80,250 gallons. At the shallow end there had been an ornate Fountain House with water cascading down steps of Purbeck marble.
    Usually the bath area would have been outside the fortress but at Caerleon it is inside. As part of the complex there was a huge exercise hall and courtyard. Because of the climate there was an indoor space for wrestling, boxing, weight-lifting and ball games but the more military practices of javelin throwing and archery would have been outdoors. The men had to be ultra-fit and they were provided with luxurious facilities for keeping in peak condition.

The human angle

  Objects found during excavation reveal much about the people who used the baths. Gems were lost - or stolen if the man did not have a slave to guard his possessions - and other touching items such as baby teeth and hairpins indicate that family members were allowed to use the facilities at specified times. The strigil on display in Caerleon is made of copper inlaid with gold, silver and brass, decorated with images of the 12 labours of Hercules and was probably one of a set of 3 owned by a rich man - an up-market accessory! Games counters, dice, chicken bones, pig's ribs and broken pottery were uncovered, suggesting that there was a snack bar and space for gambling. Archaeologists surmise that there would have been high arching ceilings imitating the grandeur of Rome with painted walls, carved stonework and mosaic floors. This reads like an advertisement for the most expensive modern leisure centre!

Note the studs on the sole
 to aid durability for long marches.

Your visit
   The baths at Bath are famous and rightly so for their size and atmospheric steam rising from the hot water but the baths at Caerleon are also fascinating, less crowded and free! They are located at the back of the Bull Inn car park. For opening times click here. While you are in the town you can also visit the museum (where there are toilets) and walk on to the amphitheatre before crossing the road to the remains of the barracks (more toilets!) After that, excellent CAKE opportunities await in The Snug in the charming little mews-like Ferrum with its slightly OTT Arthurian statues. That calorie intake will give you the energy to take the no 60 bus to Usk with its castle or Monmouth, the birthplace of Henry V - or stop off at Llangybi to see and sip from its ancient well.

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