Lancaster Roman Bath House

by Carla Scarano D’Antonio

 

The ruins of the Roman bath house are behind a railing near a 1970s grey concrete building. Its stones are partly hidden by dead leaves. There is an empty packet of crisps in a corner, a plastic bag behind a wall. It was part of a bigger building, maybe the commander’s villa or a hotel, and was used by the troops of the Roman fort, which was on Castle Hill.

It was probably built during the period of the emperor Trajan or Hadrian (second century), when the empire was at its apex and had reached its greatest territorial extension. The walls of the two main rooms are still clearly shaped: the tepidarium, or warm room, and the caldarium, or hot room. Parts of the furnace of the hot room is visible as well as the stone pilae that supported the floor. The fire burning in the furnace heated the rooms; the caldarium, which was above the furnace, was like a sauna, unbearably hot but tremendously relaxing, especially for a soldier who had his watch in the bitterly cold and windy weather. It must have been an immense relief to lie in a properly heated room and finally take their ease.

The Romans didn’t use soap but scented oils to anoint the body. The dirt, sweat and oil were scraped off by a slave with a strigil, or blunt knife. Afterwards they could take a bath in the frigidarium, a pool inside the same building. Terence, a playwright of the second century BC, wrote that one felt ‘perfumed and comfortable after a bath, your mind at ease (otiosum ab animo)’. Certainly, having a cool bath after a sauna is one of the divine things on earth.

Bathing was vital for the Romans, it was a way to wash, keep clean, have a rest and also have a bit of leisure time. In the warm and hot rooms they could play board games or dice, drink and eat. Coins, dating 250-300 AD, were found in the hot room in Lancaster’s bath house. It was an important part of their life so the walls were decorated with painted plaster with geometrical green, red, yellow and brown patterns.

In big cities like Rome, large public bath houses (thermae) were also a place to meet people, talk of art and literature, have a chat or clinch a deal. Everybody was naked so the rank or social class (often linked to clothes and uniforms in Roman time) wasn’t clear. People mixed, had fun, maybe had sex or got drunk and eventually were clean. Emperors could grant free entrance to the baths and free oil to win the favour of the populace. And though having a bath every day was considered immoral and could weaken the body or soften the character, having a private bath house meant wealth and success in business, ‘for healthy men wash themselves even when it is unnecessary.’ (Artemidorus)

I was inspired to research for Castle Park Stories because I found it a very interesting project that involved a lot of different people and could give a different perspective of the Vicarage Fields area. I was interested in the Roman bath house because of all the history involved in it and because the ruins were a great starting point for an art work.

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