Looking to visit ancient Roman sites without all the tourist crowds? Stop by the Baths of Diocletian - and explore where Romans got their gossip 2,000 years ago!
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I don't know about you, but no matter how many ancient sites I visited on my first trip to Rome, I sometimes struggled to conceptualize the magnitude of the structures at the height of their grandeur. Imagining most buildings coated in marble helped a bit (as did watching Rome on HBO, if we're honest), but the hordes of tourists with backpacks put somewhat of a damper on the imagination. Certainly not to say I didn't enjoy my time in the city; just that the historian in me struggled to visualize a past that distant.
That said, the sheer scale of the Baths of Diocletian vastly sped up my historical adjustment. Standing, dwarfed by the towering walls of the ancient baths, I began to conceptualize what it must have meant to have this bath house filled with hundreds of bathing, toga-clag (or not toga-clad ah!!) Romans, nearly 2,000 years ago. Crowds are non-existent, which is of course not historically accurate, but perhaps better for our psyche and imagination.
Baths of Diocletian's Location
The Baths of Diocletian literally could not be more conveniently situated within the city. In fact, the Baths actually leant their name to the train station that serves as one of Rome's main travel hubs - the Latin name of the Baths, Thermae Diocletiani, was corrupted into the Termini we know (and love?) today!
For all the centrality of its location, the Baths are strangely out of the way - and easily missed, not only geographically and visually in a bustling city, but also in the sense that they sometimes fail to make it onto tourists' to-do lists in a very crowded city, full of ancient and modern treasures. We stayed relatively nearby on our first trip. That, combined with our love of ancient history, lead us to visit - and given the location, there's really no excuse not to!
Additionally, after you visit the Baths, if you're looking for some quick refreshment, you can stop by and check out the famed Piazza della Repubblica and the adjacent Palazzo Naiadi - a palatial hotel directly on the Piazza. We walked from the Baths down to have a quick outdoor lunch at Madonna dei Monti - our favorite piazza in Rome, and on the way back toward some of the "main" attractions.
History of the Baths of Diocletian
Known today largely in English as the Baths of Diocletian, their Latin name, Thermae Diocletiani, were built between 298 and 306 A.D. Emperor Maximillian began the baths as a tribute to Diocletian - his co-emperor, in 298; however construction was continued after a dizzying series of abdications and deaths of the emperors and were finally completed by Constantine's father in 306 - a mind-blowing rate of construction for such a large project in ancient times. The shopping mall near my house is going to take longer than that!
The Baths are located on Viminal, the lowest of the 7 Hills of Rome, and are the largest of the public baths built during the Empire. If you've visited Bath, England, though the baths there are 18th and 19th century, you can see during a visit that the Roman original in the colonial outpost of Bath never would have even compared to what you're exploring at Diocletian's site in the capital. When finished, the complex covered 32 acres of land. Yup, you read that correctly.
Starting in 537 A.D., the Baths fell into disrepair, after a siege of the city by the Goths damaged the water supply. Who wants giant public baths with no water? And of course, with the Fall of Rome, maintenance of large public spaces fell off the to-do list. (And as I think of this, I inevitably mentally put The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire back on my to-do list, even though we all know it's not going to happen).
In the 16th century, a portion of the Baths, which were no longer used for their original purpose, was re-designed as a church, in honor of Christian martyrs who, the Pope then stated, had died during the construction of the Baths in ancient times. Michelangelo incorporated the original baths into the basilica. Finally, the government-run museum was established in 1889 and the Baths were reinforced to maintain the structure as you'll see them today.
Visiting the Baths of Diocletian and The Roman National Museum
As I mentioned, what I'm referring to as "the Baths" includes not just the Baths of Diocletian, but also the Roman National Museum, which is a more traditional museum with artifacts, and the courtyards and non-Bath spaces that you've seen throughout the post.
First, upon entry, you'll tour the Baths, which are absolutely stunning. They're scattered with artifacts - columns, statues, trinkets, from ancient Rome. The Baths originally contained the swimming/relaxing pools of various temperatures (a hot one, a cold one, etc.) in addition to gymnasiums and a library. More like a community centre, than just a spa. I've heard that the increase in the prevalence of "cold bathing" (rather than hot) may have been the result of the Romans having cut down all the trees nearby their baths in the process of heating them, so it became in vogue just not to heat them anymore. Pragmatic.
A number of small rooms came off of the larger bath rooms, including private bathing areas, changing rooms, meeting areas, etc.
After the Baths, you'll continue through the rest of the museum - if your interest is beginning to slow down, I'd focus on the structure itself, at the expense of the artifacts in the "museum" area (which is what all the other tourists appeared to be doing as well).
Plan to spend a fair amount of time exploring both the Baths and the Roman National Museum itself. Rarely crowded, it's certainly a relief from the tourist circuit and one of the best places I've been able to experience in Rome to help me truly feel the magnitude of the public spaces created by the ancient Romans.
Thanks so much for stopping by! If you're into the ancient Romans, you'll also want to be sure to visit Ostia Antica, for many of the same reasons as the Baths!
Don't forget to leave your comments about your favorite ancient sites in Rome! xx
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