Walking With the Ancients at the Roman Baths, Bath, England

Actors portray Romans

Actors portray Romans

“It isn’t fair,” says the elderly Roman rather tipsily. “We aren’t invaders. Who on earth comes wanting to fight?” He swigs from his stone bottle and offers it, a little unsteadily, to the camera-laden tourist sitting beside him on the stone bench.

The tourist wisely declines. “So why did you come?” he asks. A passing Roman soldier tuts loudly as he walks past. I step away, shaking my head, before one of them can catch me and force me to try out the one word I remember from my Latin classes. (It’s ‘salve’.)

Ancient and Modern – The Roman Legacy

This is all a little bit surreal, but in fact I think I recognise the drunk. He must be Sulinus, a stonemason/sculptor and one of those who helped to build England’s most famous Roman monument, the baths at Aquae Sulis (nowadays the imaginatively-named city of Bath). And the soldier – surely he’s Vespasius, the Belgian legionary? I’ve just learned all about them both in the excellent museum.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Quite frankly, they’re the best run and most interesting historic visitor attraction I’ve been to in years – if not ever.
  • Bath has many terrific attractions. If you’ve only got time for one – do this one.
  • The interpretation is fabulous and really brings this World Heritage Site alive.
  • Great for archaeologists and Latin scholars.

The baths at Bath (this will get confusing) are supplied by Britain’s only natural hot springs, bubbling up at 46 degrees Centigrade. A focus of both worship and health tourism since before the Romans, they were the source around which the city developed and for which it became known long before the Roman created their baths and temple. And development has gone in the centuries since: I’m astonished to learn that the terraces and statues surrounding them — where Sulinus continues to bore his poor victim — actually date from the late nineteenth century.

The original Roman outlet to the spring lies beneath the modern buildings

The original Roman outlet to the spring lies beneath the modern buildings

Deep below the ground, though, the original Roman baths are still there – or rather, the remains of them are. The overflow and stonework at the spring is coated with thick, red iron-rich oxides (that must be what gives the water both its dubious taste and its alleged health benefits) and you can walk through the artfully-lit chambers where the Romans took the plunge in the tepidarium, the frigidarium and all the other various chambers.

Interpreting the Stones

In truth I’m not really one for the stumps of old pillars: I don’t have an eye for what once was there, of how it might have looked and so I struggle to envisage the piles of stones beneath the Victorian edifice as the centre of Roman Bath. But somehow that doesn’t matter. By the time you get through the entrance hall and down to the Baths themselves you’ve been artfully routed through the ruins and – crucially – through the exhibition galleries of one of the best museum galleries I’ve ever visited.

This is where you’ll make the acquaintance of Sulinus and Vespasius (both, apparently, really were denizens of Aquae Sulis) and many others. The museum focuses on the people who lived here and whose stories are told by the inscriptions they left behind on their tombstones and in the scraps they flung into the waters as wishes or vows, prayers or curses. The latter are by far the most interesting – coins, clothing and agricultural implements have been lifted and the aggrieved victims have named and shamed the suspected thieves. One of the curses, with dodgy spelling, appears, says the sign, to have been written by a dyslexic.

The Museum shows what the original baths complex may have looked like

The Museum shows what the original baths complex may have looked like

After this it’s really no surprise to emerge at the level of the baths and the murky green waters and find Romans. The fusion of past and present is artfully, and completely, achieved. Sulinus, or his ghost, will still be here in centuries to come.

“The tribes all made peace with us,” he insists as his unwilling listener finally breaks free and makes his way towards the exit with me in his wake. “We aren’t bad. We aren’t.” And he takes another swig from his flagon.

On the way out I pass the sacred spring where a notice asks visitors to cast a coin in for the goddess Minerva (or rather, the continued upkeep of her temple) and make a wish. And I fish out a coin and toss it in and cheer myself with the thought that though traditions change and the gods we worship may have shifted from Minerva to Mammon, there’s nevertheless a pleasing continuity about this ancient monument that doesn’t just take me back over two thousand years – it makes me feel that nothing has really changed.

Practicalities

  • It’s expensive but definitely worth it – an adult standard ticket is £12.75 (around $20) but you can get a joint ticket for the Baths and the fashion museum for £16.25 ($26).
  • The Baths themselves are right in the centre of the city. Bath is so closely tied up with the history of its hot spring that they’re in the same complex as the Pump Room (which is free).
  • At such a popular attraction in such a small and busy city, you’ll almost inevitably have to queue. You can reduce the wait by going first thing or in the evening – in July and August the complex is open until 10pm. I went at seven and it was busy, but not intolerably so.

Comments

  1. says

    This brought back fond memories of visits to Bath – the first was a school visit, combining Jane Austen and the Romans in one visit! I must go again.

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