I’ve always been fascinated by the Roman civilisation. Granted the history classes in school didn’t quite resonate with me, with rigid dates and battle facts , and I found Latin class excruciatingly difficult. But there was always something fascinating about Roman ruins; the buildings, the mosaics, the fact that they seemed to have led such a luxurious and lavish life style.
One of my favourite novels through University was Marguerite Yourcenar’s ‘Memoirs of Hadrian‘. Amongst other aspects, this novel naturally depicts the past and somehow humanises these figures from Roman history that are mostly just statues to us these days.
I was interested in everything else that surrounded the Roman civilisation when visiting Roman ruins whether it was a mosaic in Constanta – Romanian harbour town by the Black Sea, the Roman villa in Lullingstone, the magnificent Via Apia in Rome or most recently Bath. In Lullingstone for example I loved seeing a piece of tile with a cat footprint on it, as the cat – typical feline – didn’t wait for the mix to dry and stepped in it, leaving evidence of it’s stubbornness that’s lasted 2,000 years.
So recently we decided to visit Bath, which is the ultimate “Roman” relic in the Anglo-Saxon English world. The weather wasn’t quite with us, but we live by the “Don’t let the rainy days spoil your holidays” mantra.
I was immediately astonished at the architecture in Bath, houses there looked much more….Italian or French with a strange British twist, rather than ‘British British’ – in that they were taller, made of stone rather than brick, with cobbled streets and the gardens we could just about glimpse in the back gardens seemed luscious, almost Mediterranean.
Because Bath is quite a small town, and we didn’t have much time ahead of us we headed straight towards the Roman baths for a visit. We weren’t disappointed.
I didn’t know quite what to expect, as I thought initially that the baths would only be a pool of water, but there was much more to it inside, and we all learned a lot.
I had to wonder though what went through those Mediterranean Latin soldiers minds when they arrived in this rainy land of Saxon tribes, thousand of miles from home, that made them think “we’ll have to make it our own. Let’s make a lavish bath!”.
The fun legend says that one of the later Roman emperors was asked by a barbarian chieftain why he bathed once a day. The emperor answered in apologetic innocence that it was because he was too busy to bathe twice.
Around 43 AD, the Roman armies landed on the south coast of England with the aim to conquer the “more civilised” south-east of England. They were quite respectful to the gods and goddesses of those they conquered. The Iron Age local tribe believed the hot spring was sacred to the Goddess Sulis hence her Sacred Spring stayed while the landscape around began to change as the Romans, in very typical fashion, started colonising and trading.
In 60 AD a rebellion broke out, led by the British Queen Boudica – it was so violent that by the end of the rebellion the province lay in ruins. It took ten years to repair damage that had been inflicted in just a few months and it is thought that it was probably during this period of reconstruction that the Romans decided to turn the native sanctuary of Sulis into a curative establishment.
So the Romans started building the baths, with very precise and elaborate systems of channels in order to tame the spring of hot water.
The excavations and archaeological diggings revealed a lot of details and were able to reconstruct what those Baths might have been like.
The Baths were elegant yet simple, with chambers for massage and relaxations, several broad walkways paved with white hard lilac slabs and alcoves. The pool was 1.5 meters deep and the hot spring water flowed constantly into the Great Bath – the water level being maintained by a bronze sluice. There are still some impressive pieces of Roman engineering at work, such as the very noisy arched overflow of water. They also had elaborate heating systems under the floors in what I imagine would have been the Roman equivalent of the “changing rooms”.
We also saw Roman artefacts that gave an idea life at the time, such as jugs, jewellery, coins and even tombstones. The building also hosted a temple for the cult of Minerva as, faced with the spring sacred to Sulis, the Romans may have thought that this Sulis was the equivalent of their own Minerva.
After the visit to the bath we strolled into town for some sightseeing and found the famous umbrellas in the Town Centre – what a brilliant idea to shelter people on a rainy day!
We also strolled along the river Avon and admired the boats turning beneath the Pulteney Bridge and the elegant Royal Victoria park.
We had a wonderful and unforgettable visit to Bath. The landscapes were beautiful as we descended the Avon Valley to Bath and this town is one of the most charming in Britain. Thoroughly recommended to all looking for a little slice of history and a fun day out in England – there was plenty of interest even for our little one who referred to the baths themselves as “amazing”.
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