Discover the history of the Roman Baths and life as a Roman in Aquae Sulis.
What is the Sacred Spring?
Aquae Sulis (that’s Bath to you) has three hot springs. The spring that has the most water coming out from it is special to the goddess Sulis Minerva. She was worshipped here even before us Romans arrived! People travel far to visit the spring, pray to her and ask for her help.
The Spring is in the middle of the site you can visit. It’s here that water gushes up from the ground as a natural hot spring. It’s 46° C so it’s hotter than the water in your bath! The water is full of different minerals, even more than the bottled spring water you can buy in supermarkets. The orange colour around the Spring comes from the iron dissolved in the water. In Medieval times the Spring was given the name 'King’s Spring' after King Henry I and the name stuck.
How did the Romans use the Spring water?
There is a stone tank around the Spring. It’s sealed with lead to stop the water from leaking away. It can only go two ways: to the baths or through a big drain out to the river.
The roof over the Spring was added later. Statues of gods and goddesses stand in the water. Plants grow on the walls and sometimes birds fly through the windows. It seems more like a pool in a wood than a water tank in the centre of a town.
The stone tank still surrounds the Spring, although the roof fell down sometime in the 6th-9th centuries. The water still goes either to the Great Bath or through the Roman drain to the river Avon. So the Roman plumbing is still working!
How did the Romans speak to the goddess?
The Spring is a direct link with the Underworld. People visit it to pray to the goddess Sulis Minerva. They throw presents like jewellery and money into the Spring. She will look after them and their families.
If someone has stolen something from you, you can write a note to the goddess about it. Sulis Minerva will help to get the stolen things back to you and then punish the thief! The notes are written on lead, which is quite soft, folded up and thrown into the Spring.
Lots of things have been found in the Spring: brooches, bracelets, jugs, and over 12,000 coins! They were all thrown in by Romans as gifts for Sulis Minerva.
We call the notes to Sulis Minerva 'curses'. Sometimes they were written back-to-front or in mirror-writing to make sure only the goddess could read them!
What did the temple look like?
Next to the Spring is the temple of the goddess Sulis Minerva. The temple is built on a mound of earth we call a podium. It makes the temple higher than the other buildings near it. It’s over 50 feet high (you’d call it 14.5 metres). You can get to the temple by running up the steps. The temple has four columns holding up the decorated front. In the centre of the front is a strange carved face.
The only parts of the temple you can see today are three steps that led up to it. Some of the stones that made up the front have been found and fitted back together. The Romans used 'feet' and 'paces' to measure with. A Roman foot is 29.6 centimetres long.
What is a Gorgon?
This is what the front of the temple looks like. The scary face is the god of the waters. Some people say he is Medusa, the Gorgon that Minerva has on her shield. Gorgons had snakes instead of hair and if you looked at them you turned to stone!
What do you think it looks like? Around him are all sorts of things carved in the stone:
- Victories with wings (they celebrate war victories) hold victory wreaths of oak leaves
- Helmets (because Minerva is a warrior goddess)
- Tritons (they’re water gods) blowing trumpets made of shells
- An owl (because Minerva is also the goddess of wisdom)
No one is sure who the face is meant to be... Medusa is usually a woman but this face has a moustache!
Where was Minerva's Head?
Inside the Temple of Sulis Minerva is a huge golden statue of her. We’ve never seen it as only priests can go into the Temple. Sulis Minerva looks after all the people who make things, like the potters and blacksmiths in the town, doctors, soldiers and anyone who comes here to be healed.
The statue was made of bronze and covered in gold leaf. It would have been quite an amazing sight. The inside of the Temple would have been lit by burning coal. The flickering light from this would have been reflected from the statue and it may have looked as if she was actually moving!
We’ve only found the head of the statue. It’s just a bit bigger than an adult’s head. It was probably broken off when people became Christians and stopped believing in Sulis Minerva.
What happened in the Temple Courtyard?
The Temple is in the middle of the open air Temple Courtyard. This is where most of the ceremonies take place. In front of the Temple is the great altar where the priests make sacrifices to Sulis Minerva. They kill cows, sheep and pigs and give them to the goddess.
On each side of the courtyard are other big buildings. The gateway to the Spring building has a picture of the sun at the top. The other building has pictures of the four seasons: winter, spring, summer and autumn.
Lots of people would have come to visit the huge Temple. We only have some of the stone from the other buildings but from them we can guess they would have been large and grand.
What were the baths like?
The hot Spring supplied water for the bath house. This has the sort of rooms that most Roman towns have. The only unusual room is the Great Bath: a huge hot swimming pool. We can only touch the bottom with our toes if we go under water!
All the rooms are roofed and many have high ceilings. They have colourful painted walls and some have mosaic floors. Many ill people visit the baths because they believe they will get better if they swim in the waters of Sulis Minerva.
Roman baths were like our leisure centres. They were big buildings with swimming pools, changing rooms and toilets. They also had hot and cold rooms more like modern Turkish baths.
The water in the Great Bath now is green and looks dirty. This is because tiny plants called algae grow in it. In Roman times the roof over the bath would have kept the light out and so stopped the algae from growing.
Were all the rooms in the baths hot?
When we go to the baths we go through the...
- Apodyterium (that’s a Changing Room): Where we take off our clothes and leave them in cupboards. Here you can pick up a towel.
- Caldarium (that’s a Hot Room): This is very hot! It's heated by the hypocaust (that’s underfloor heating) and the floor is so hot you have to wear wooden shoes or jump about a lot! This is where you sweat lots.
- Tepidarium (that’s a Warm Room): Here there is warm water in the pools and adults sit in them and relax. You might rub yourself with olive oil in this room.
- Laconicum (another Hot Room): This is a small round room where you can sit and sweat even more!
- Natatio (a Swimming Pool). This is a long pool where you can swim or splash about with your friends. The water is warm here and comes from the Spring.
The Romans didn’t use soap: they rubbed olive oil onto their skin, when they had sweated lots they scraped off the oil and dirt with a special shaped tool that they called a 'strigil'.
What else did the Romans do in the Baths?
When Romans go to the baths they don’t just get clean, they can also:
- Have a snack: we like fruit or cakes but mum and dad prefer oysters, chops and spare ribs
- Play board games like tabula
- Meet with friends
- Get a rub down
- Play ball games: like trigon (that’s a game of catch with three balls and three friends and is very difficult!)
What else was in Aquae Sulis?
Around the Temple and baths is the big town of Aquae Sulis. This is Latin for 'waters of Sulis'.
There are houses, shops, places to stay and other bath houses. There is a temple which is round (we call it by its Greek name of tholos). There is a theatre. The main part of the town with all the important and big buildings in it is now walled and so you enter it through gateways. The town is famous throughout the Empire and tourists come to stay and visit the Temple and baths.
We know people visited Bath, because it’s mentioned in a Roman travel book! We have also found the gravestones of people from different parts of the Roman Empire, who died in Bath.