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In 1930 when the Mail Coach Inn in St. Sampson’s Square in York was undergoing renovations, builders uncovered the 1,900 year-old remains of a Roman ‘caldarium’, or steam bath. The bath house was used by the soldiers of the Legio XI Hispana (Spanish Ninth Legion) who were stationed in Eboracum – modern day York – from 71AD to c.121AD.
The caldarium and the neighbouring plunge pools were excavated and the small museum, now in the basement of the Roman Bath pub displays a snapshot of the life of a Roman legionnaire.
Roman ‘caldaria’ were not just for bathing. They were more like a cross between a leisure centre and a casino where cleaning the body and dirtying the mind were de rigeur. Deals were agreed, games were played for money, exercise was done and the atmosphere was rowdy. Not too far removed from modern day pubs…
Today visitors can see the well-preserved remains of a semi-circular bath, the hypocaust – the underfloor heating system where steam from the furnaces is pushed through, warming up the floor tiles – and the apsidal walls as well as armour and weapons. Some of the tiles appear to show the official seal of the Legio XI Hispana and you can clearly see the imprints in the tiles of nails from the sandals of the soldiers.
Rumours of recent patrons hearing the ghostly sounds of splashing water and the clunk of a spear or shield are largely unfounded but for an up close and personal look at Roman life in York almost 2,000 years ago, visit the Roman Baths pub. You’re assured of a lot more than a pint and a pie!
Ancient Roman bathing
Bathing played a major part in ancient Roman culture and society. It was one of the most common daily activities in Roman culture and was practiced across a wide variety of social classes.
Though many contemporary cultures see bathing as a very private activity conducted in the home, bathing in Rome was a communal activity. While the extremely wealthy could afford bathing facilities in their homes, most people bathed in the communal baths (thermae). In some ways, these resembled modern-day destination spas. The Romans raised bathing to high art as they socialized in these communal baths. Communal baths were also available in temples such as The Imperial Fora. Courtship was conducted and sealing business deals, as they built lavish baths on natural hot springs.
Such was the importance of baths to Romans that a catalog of buildings in Rome from 354 AD documented 952 baths of varying sizes in the city.  Although wealthy Romans might set up a bath in their townhouses or their country villas, heating a series of rooms or even a separate building especially for this purpose, and soldiers might have a bathhouse provided at their fort (as at Cilurnum on Hadrian's Wall, or at Bearsden fort), they still often frequented the numerous public bathhouses in the cities and towns throughout the empire.
Small bathhouses, called balneum (plural balnea), might be privately owned, while they were public in the sense that they were open to the populace for a fee. Larger baths called thermae were owned by the state and often covered several city blocks. The largest of these, the Baths of Diocletian, could hold up to 3,000 bathers. Fees for both types of baths were quite reasonable, within the budget of most free Roman males.
The baths themselves were situated in the North West Quadrant of the city. The baths comprised a large public building, estimated to have spanned 5,500 square metres. The baths represent one of the most iconic cultural imports associated with the Roman period in Britain, along with amphitheatres, villas and roads.
The excavations carried out in 1974-1975 revealed an area of the public baths, which included a range of hot rooms, an apsidal room, cold plunge bath, a large cistern and sewer. Archaeological fieldwork confirmed that the construction of the baths began in the Flavian period and continued into the early 2nd century AD. This was a period of construction and alteration, and archaeological evidence for the presence of timber structures may represent workmen's huts built on site to service craftsmen and labourers during the construction of the baths. These structures were demolished on completion of the works before an area of hard-standing was laid down, which may have been used as an outdoor exercise area or an area for the delivery of fuel for the furnaces, and other necessary supplies for the day-to-day running of the baths. Between the 2nd - 5th centuries the baths were subject to further alterations as fashions for types of bathing changed, before eventually falling into decline.
Construction and Design
The baths themselves would have been richly decorated, with plastered and painted walls, coloured-marble cladding, and some mosaic and opus sectile floors. Supplied by a water cistern, with water drained via ditches into a main sewer, the building would have provided hot rooms, plunge pools, and other recreation areas. The cistern was massive, and water would have been hand-pumped up into the tank, before a network of water pipes, drains and sewers would have ensured a continual flow of clean water. The degree of workmanship seen within the remains during the original excavations was compared with that seen at Fishbourne Roman Palace, and the kind of sophisticated and strategic planning involved in the construction of both the Palace and the Baths is also comparable.
Purpose of the Baths
Baths were centres of recreation, but also would have fulfilled a deeper social and cultural role - imperial or local elite propaganda could be displayed through visual forms such as sculpture and painting, and the territorial scope of the empire was celebrated through the use of imported materials. People would have visited the baths daily, and it was a place to exchange gossip, meet clients, relax, and engage in activities connected with the Roman concept of 'cultus' - the care of the body as a sign of civilisation and culture. It was also one of those Roman cultural imports seen as a part of the process called 'Romanisation' - where populations joining the empire underwent a process of acculturation as a result of access to, and familiarisation with, Roman social and cultural models. Traditionally this was seen as an imperialistic policy by the Romans to subjugate the provinces:
"Hence the Roman habit began to be held in honour, and the toga was frequently worn. At length they gradually deviated into a taste for those luxuries which stimulate to vice porticos, and baths, and the elegancies of the table and this, from their inexperience, they termed politeness, whilst, in reality, it constituted a part of their slavery."
Tacitus, Agricola 21
It is now considered by archaeologists to have been a process of gradual cultural adoption of Roman ways as part of a more complex exchange of ideas, and certainly some provinces actively 'bought in' to the Roman way of life. There were however always those who would have resisted this erosion of their native customs and traditions. Perhaps not everyone would have visited the baths.
The decline of the baths is difficult to chart. Decline may have initially been slow, with the baths having experienced a lack of regular care and maintenance. The cistern and sewer system show ongoing activity until the 4th century. The lack of some finds we would expect from similar sites perhaps reveals the level of robbery in later periods, when building material, and valuable commodities such as lead and bronze, would have been plundered for re-use. The decline of the baths not only reflects the decline of Roman Chichester, but the overall decline of Roman rule in Britain, as the whole empire experienced economic and social upheaval.
However, the in-situ archaeology is not just about the Roman baths - only some of what can be seen is Roman in date, and therefore there are signs of continuity across time.
For more information, please download our gallery information sheet [934kb].
York’s Roman Baths
Located smack-bang in the centre of York, in the cellar of a rather unassuming pub, lies one of the few Roman remains still visible in the city the Roman bath house.
Originally built by the ninth legion sometime between 71 AD and 122 AD, the complex would have covered an area of around 200 square metres, although only the caldarium (hot room), a small section of the frigidarium (cold room), and a single plunge pool have since been excavated.
Late in the fourth century AD, the cold room’s plunge pool was filled up with limestone blocks, indicating that the facility had fallen out of use by that time. By the fifth century AD and the Roman withdrawal from Britannia, the remaining sections of the bath house would almost certainly have been in ruins.
Excavations of the bath house first took place in the 1930’s, when the ruins were accidentally stumbled upon during renovations to the pub above. In 1972, excavations on the other side of Swinegate revealed additional stone buildings of Roman date, some standing nearly three metres high. It is thought that these structures marked the other end of the baths.
Above: The Roman Baths aren’t the easiest to find. If you reach this door, you’re in the right place!
Nearby, archaeologists have also discovered a remarkably well-preserved Roman sewage system which would once have carried waste water away from the baths. In the soil that was taken out of the sewage tunnels were all sorts of small objects which were probably lost by people using the baths: small playing counters of glass and bone, gold beads, and engraved gemstones from finger rings.
Interestingly, this bath house is one of two which would have served Roman York. The other is located in the council buildings towards the south west of the city, which – in Roman times – would have sat outside of the city walls. The second bath house is therefore likely to have served the civilian population of Eboracum (the Roman name for York).
Today, the Roman baths are open to the public between 11am and 5pm each day, complete with a small museum. There is a small entrance charge, but this goes to help maintain the museum so it’s for a good cause! The baths are also part of the York Pass scheme.
Tours of historic York
For more information concerning tours of tours of historic York, please follow this link.
Above: A floor plan showing which areas of the baths are visible, as well as those which are still to be excavated.
Twelve facts about the Bath House:-
There were hot, warm and cold baths
Water was heated by a boiler over a fire
The hot room was called the caldarium
The cold room was called the frigidarium
Men and women used separate bath houses
The floor might be covered with a mosaic
You had to pay to use the baths
You could buy refreshments at the baths
People did weight lifting at the baths
Public slaves could give you a massage
There was no soap so people used oil instead
Sticks called strigils were used to scrape dirt off the body
This article is part of our larger resource on the Romans culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on the Romans.
For Romans, bathing was not a private activity, and it wasn’t just about keeping clean. Public Roman bath houses (thermae) were more like today’s health spas, and they allowed the Romans to socialise, exercise and bathe.
Most Roman men and women would visit the bath houses daily. Women usually went early in the day (when the men were at work) and the men usually went after work.
The Romans tended to follow a set routine when they went to a bath house.
- First they would get changed and oil their bodies. Male bathers would then go and do some exercise (such as weight-lifting, running, wrestling, ball games or swimming).
- After exercise, the dirt and oil would be scraped off their bodies using a tool called strigil, and the bathing would begin. The Romans often started in the tepidarium (a warm room), then moved onto the caldarium (a very hot pool), before finishing in the frigidarium (the cold room).
- After bathing, the Romans often went for a walk in the bath house gardens, enjoyed some food from the snack bar, or read a book in the on-site library.
Bath houses were designed to be pleasant places to spend time. They had mosaics, paintings, high ceilings and they allowed in a lot of natural light.
How were the baths heated?
The hypocaust was a heating system designed by the Romans. The floors of the bath house rooms were built on pillars, leaving a space below the floor and inside the walls. This space was filled with hot air from a furnace (called a praefurnium) and heated the room. The temperature could be increased by adding more fuel to the fire. In the hottest rooms of a Roman bath house, bathers had to wear special sandals to protect their feet from the hot floor-tiles.
Roman bath houses also contained public toilets. Marble seats were built over a continuously flowing water supply which would act as a flush.
This video clip provides some excellent information about the size of a bath house complex and clever engineering the Romans had to use to make them work.
For more information, check out this site all about the Roman baths in Bath, England, or take a look at the Primary Facts resources page for more Roman facts.
The Story Behind the Roman Baths in Bath
The history of Bath is intrinsically linked with the natural hot springs that the city is founded upon. The first shrine at the site of the hot springs was built by an Iron Age tribe called the Dobunni, who dedicated it to the goddess Sulis (who they believed possessed healing powers). In 43AD Britain was invaded by the Romans and by 75AD they had built a religious spa complex on the site, which later developed into a bathing and socialising centre called Aquae Sulis, ‘the waters of Sulis’.
Using the hot mineral water that rose through the limestone beneath the city, channelled through lead pipes, the Romans created a series of chambers including the baths, ancient heated rooms and plunge pools. The baths were a huge draw and people travelled across the country to bathe in the waters and worship at the religious temple. After the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the early 5th century, the baths were neglected and fell into disrepair, before being destroyed by flooding.
In the 17th-century, doctors began to prescribe the drinking of the thermal waters for internal conditions and illnesses. The first Pump Room opened in 1706, allowing patients to access water directly from the spring – it’s now a beautiful restaurant!
It was in 1878 that Major Charles Davis – the city surveyor architect – discovered the Roman remains of the baths, and worked to uncover these over the next few years. The site was opening to the general publics in 1897 and has been excavated, extended and conserved throughout the 20th century. In 2011, the Roman Baths completed a huge £5.5 million redevelopment, to help with accessibility and to preserve it for the next 100 years.
The baths, and the accompanying museum which houses artefacts from the Roman period, attracts over one million visitors a year, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in England.
As well as being a vibrant and thriving twenty-first-century city, Bath is a living museum. History and heritage line the city&rsquos streets, with every footstep revealing compelling cultural attractions and astonishing architecture. It&rsquos why Bath is the only city in the UK designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It all starts at the Roman Baths, the city&rsquos oldest and most famous historic attraction. The beautifully preserved ruins have been augmented by reconstructions and interactive displays illustrating how Bath&rsquos natural hot springs have been attracting visitors for thousands of years. It offers an immersive insight into the daily lives of some of our city&rsquos earliest inhabitants.
Bath&rsquos Roman roots are just part of the story. Bath is also Britain&rsquos finest Georgian city. Every street reveals another inspiring sight &ndash a wide, well-planned thoroughfare created for promenading, perhaps, or that perfectly proportioned façade, flower-filled window box or subtle architectural detail.
There&rsquos harmony and beauty everywhere. Around 5,000 listed buildings are dotted around our streets and squares. These include iconic sites like the Royal Crescent, a sweeping curve of townhouses built from honey-coloured Bath stone, and the Circus, a unique blend of classical Roman and British Pagan influences that is uniquely Bath.
The elegant Pulteney Bridge is another Bath original. Lined on both sides with shops, it&rsquos one of just four such structures left in the world. You&rsquod need to go to Venice or Florence to see another like it.
There is lots to see inside, too. Bath is home to an impressive collection of museums (more per square mile than any other city in the UK). Take your pick from the Jane Austen Centre, No.1 Royal Crescent, Fashion Museum Bath, Museum of East Asian Art, The Holburne Museum, Museum of Bath at Work and Herschel Museum of Astronomy, to name but a few.
For the full lowdown on Bath&rsquos UNESCO World Heritage status, download our audio walking tour. Taking in many of the city&rsquos historic architectural highlights and museums, it&rsquos the perfect way to explore Bath&rsquos past.
Roman Baths history
Discover more about the rich history of the Roman Baths where the continuous gush of hot mineral water, bursting from the ground, has always been a subject of wonder.
The water we see in the Baths today fell as rain on the Mendip Hills many hundreds or even thousands of years ago. It percolates deep down through limestone aquifers, heated by the earth's core and raising the temperature to between 64 -96 degrees. Under pressure the heated water rises to the surface at 46 degrees along fissures and faults through the limestone beneath Bath.
By the first century AD this part of Britain was occupied by an Iron Age tribe called the Dobunni. They believed that the hot spring was sacred to the Goddess Sulis who was thought to possess curative powers. In AD43 the Roman armies invaded Britain and by AD75 they had built a new religious spa complex around the thermal spring and the settlement then grew as a centre for health and pilgrimage. It was named Aquae Sulis meaning ‘the waters of Sulis’. To keep good relations with local people the Romans were sensitive to their gods and goddesses and the goddess worshipped at the temple here was known as Sulis Minerva combining Celtic and Roman elements.
The Romans built the baths using the 1.3 million litres of naturally-heated water that rose to the surface naturally each day. The baths combined healing with leisure and water was channelled through the baths using lead pipes and lead lined channels. Even the baths were lined with lead. People came from far and wide to bathe in the waters and worship at the temple.
In the fourth century, barbarian raids from Northern Europe and Ireland and political instability in the Roman Empire made trade and travel increasingly difficult. The number of visitors to Aquae Sulis declined, and at the same time flooding from the River Avon resulting from poor maintenance meant black mud began to cover everything. The Temple buildings collapsed and the roofs of the baths eventually crashed into the growing swamp.
By the twelfth century the King’s Bath, formed within the shell of the Roman reservoir chamber, was enclosed within the precincts of the post- Roman monastery. Medical practice promoted bathing in the thermal waters to cure ailments as belief in its power re-emerged in the legend of the prehistoric Prince Bladud: in the ninth century BC, it was said Bladud contracted leprosy but was cured by the thermal waters of Bath.
In the late seventeenth century doctors began recommending drinking the water as a remedy for internal conditions and the first Pump Room, opened in 1706, placed drinking prescribed quantities of the water at the heart of the emerging spa culture.
In 1878, the city surveyor architect Major Charles Davis, worried by a leak from the King's Bath spring, decided to explore the ground around it. In doing so he found Roman remains and by 1880 had uncovered large parts of the Great Bath. The site was opened to visitors in 1897 and throughout the 20th century was progressively extended, notably with the east baths in the 1920s and later when the Temple Precinct was excavated beneath the Pump Room in 1981-83. A new learning centre will be opened up for the public in an area of Roman remains to the south of the site, where several underground vaults and tunnels lead into some currently inaccessible remains from the Roman bath house and town.
Find out more:
- Weddings at the Roman Baths and Pump Room - This very special venue is available for wedding ceremonies and receptions.
- Dinners and receptions at the Roman Baths and Pump Room - All you need to know about hosting drinks and dinner at the Roman Baths and Pump Room.
To book a private event at the Roman Baths, please call 01225 477786 or complete our enquiry form.