Roman Baths - Bath

Roman Baths - Bath

The water used in the baths over the centuries is a natural hot water spring which has been known for nearly 3000 years, maybe more.  The first known shrine at the site of the hot springs was built by Celts, and was dedicated to the goddess Sulis, whom the Romans identified with Minerva. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his largely fictional Historia Regum Britanniae describes how in 836 BC the spring was discovered by the British king Bladud who built the first baths.  Early in the eighteenth century Geoffrey's obscure legend was given great prominence as a royal endorsement of the waters' qualities, with the embellishment that the spring had cured Bladud and his herd of pigs of leprosy through wallowing in the warm mud.

Roman Baths circa 1860.   photo from webmaster's own collection

The name Sulis continued to be used after the Roman invasion, leading to the town's Roman name of Aquae Sulis (literally, "the waters of Sulis").  The temple was constructed in 60-70 AD and the bathing complex was gradually built up over the next 300 years.  During the Roman occupation of Britain, and possibly on the instructions of Emperor Claudius, engineers drove oak piles to provide a stable foundation into the mud and surrounded the spring with an irregular stone chamber lined with lead.  In the second century it was enclosed within a wooden barrel-vaulted building, and included the caldarium (hot bath), tepidarium (warm bath), and frigidarium (cold bath).  After the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the first decade of the fifth century, these fell into disrepair and were eventually lost due to silting up and flooding.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests the original Roman baths were destroyed in the 6th century.

The Roman Baths themselves are below the modern street level.  There are four main features: the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the Roman Bath House and the Museum holding finds from Roman Bath.   However all the buildings above street level date from the 19th century being completed in 1897.

Roman Baths circa 1897.         photo from webmaster's own collection      

About 130 curse tablets from Roman times have been found.  Many of the curses related to thefts of clothes whilst the victim was bathing and this collection is the most important found in Britain.

Visitors can see the Baths and Museum but cannot enter the water.  The water that flows through the Roman Baths is considered unsafe for bathing, partly due to its having passed through the still-functioning original Roman lead pipes, and up until World War II, it was advertised on the basis of the radioactivity it contained.  However the more significant danger is now considered to be infectious diseases.  It is reported that in 1979 a girl swimming in the restored bath swallowed some of the source water, and died five days later from amoebic meningitis.  Tests showed that a species of amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, was in the water and the pool was closed.