Mosaics In Roman Baths

To say that the ancient Romans were obsessed with bathing would not be a great exaggeration. At it’s heyday, around 100 AD, the city of Rome had over 30 public baths and a host of private establishments. Rome was extremely well watered, with eleven great aqueducts bringing a huge amount of water into the city – some estimates give a figure as high as 1000 liters per day per person (about four times as much water as a modern American would use). Water-borne sewage, in a vast network of sewers laid under the streets, kept the city clean and healthy. Much of this abundant water was allocated to the “thermae” or public bathing facilities.

A Roman public bath, in imperial times, was very impressive facility, in many respects a combination of a sports centre or gym and a country club – though the larger ones would have dwarfed most similar modern facilities. Besides spacious halls for the swimming pools, there were suites of rooms, containing the equivalent of modern Turkish Baths (steam) and Scandinavian style Saunas (dry heat), Jacuzzis (warm pools), ice-cold plunge pools as well as exercise halls, massage rooms, toilet facilities, lounges and even public libraries. Extensive gardens surrounded the main structures and there were exercise yards for the athletically inclined.  

The prestigious public baths in Rome and in many of the other important cities were endowed personally by the reigning emperor and were a means of stressing his importance, status and power. A large portion of the water from the aqueducts was reserved for the baths and one aqueduct – the Aquis Alexandretta was built specifically for this purpose. What is interesting, is that the facilities were not confined to the use of the upper classes and were open to all free citizens of the empire, though there may have been a very nominal entrance fee of a couple of copper coins. Public decorum was preserved and there were separate times set at the public baths for the bathing of women and men.  

In order to embellish the massive halls, with their acres of concrete pavements and  many enclosed suites of hot and cold rooms, the medium of choice was always mosaics. Artists were commissioned to create works on a huge scale and on a variety of themes – though water-related themes, such as playing dolphins,  representations of waves and the depictions of water gods such as Neptune prevailed. Using mosaic motifs for floor and wall covering was both decorative and practical, for it not only added to the sense of luxury and elegance, but it also waterproofed and prorected the base concrete and made the surfaces easy to keep clean. An important consideration was that the use of brilliant white marble or other light coloured tesserae (mosaic blocks) for larger areas of background in the art work ensured that maximum use was made of reflected light to brighten up the rooms.  

As an example of imperial splendor, the Baths of Caracalla at Rome remain the most impressive. They were built on a massive scale and, even in their ruined state, one can get a sense of the opulence and grandeur that they once represented. This was recognised by the Italian dictator Mussolini and since his time the great halls have been used as a most impressive  backdrop for  seasonal night time operatic productions.

Millions of baked clay bricks and tons of concrete were used in the building of the Baths and the original mosaic floors would easily have covered several football fields. Most of the floors were covered with repetitive geometric patterns of coloured tesserae, but there were also cheerful dichromatic works featuring dark figures of dolphins, charioteers, bulls and musicians, picked out skillfuly, against brilliant white marble backgrounds. The artists have managed to capture a great sense of movement and vivacity in their work, using just these two colors of tesserae.

One cannot but be amazed at the planning and care that went into setting out artwork on such a scale to cover these huge areas of floor – Where did they get all the mosaic artists and artisans, capable of maintaining the unity and spirit of these enormous pieces?  

Not far to the east of Rome, where the Tiber meets the sea is the ancient city of Ostia. This  seaport was the entrepot of Rome and was a well laid out, compact port city of merchants, shipwrights, tavern keepers and prostitutes – an industrial / commercial city that had the responsibility of despatching food and produce to the mother city. It was primarily a functional trading town, but nevertheless,  possessed  great public facilities.

There was a fine amphitheatre, a forum and other public spaces, many splendid temples, water-borne toilets and, of course, well appointed public baths (thermae). The two preserved baths were lavish and spacious, with floor coverings of exquisite dichromatic mosaic art – much of it still in good condition. The baths took up a sizeable area of the central city and were obviously of great importance to the hard working populace, who would have been mainly middle class merchants and dockyard workers.    

In England an ancient Roman villa has been lovingly restored at Chedworth, near the town of Cirencester. There were two luxurious bathing suites attached to the buildings of this extensive homestead. Each of the bath houses had several beautiful mosaic floors, featuring geometric patterns and borders, but also displaying motifs such as figures, birds and flowers. A number of these bright floors were set up on stubby hippocaust columns and hot air was drafted through the space underneath, to provide central heating to chase away the winter chill. The floor mosaics themselves were set out with a small palette of whites, greys, yellows and browns, all cut from local stones.

However the prominent terracotta red tesserae were re-cycled ceramics, from baked roof tiles. The villa was in a remote area, a great distance from the heart of the empire, and it is not plausible that the necessary artistic skills and mosaic techniques would have been found locally, in order to produce such impressive work. The owner’s of the farm must have been wealthy enough to have imported the services of migrant professional mosaic workers, presumably working under contract, to embellish their home. Incidentally it was the mosaics themselves that led to the re-discovery of the villa, which had become buried in time, following its abandonment in the fourth century. Burrowing rabbits had unearthed loose mosaic pieces (tesserae) and these colourful blocks were noticed by some woodsmen on a hunting expedition, who then informed the local squire.  

We can still see many of these wonderful mosaics of the Roman world looking as bright and cheerful, as the day they were first laid out. A 2000 year testimony to the durability of this versatile medium. For some photographs of mosaics in Roman baths, you can visit the site