Sunday, January 10, 2010

Studying the Baths of Diocletian

A model of the baths of Diocletian

A Sketch of the remains of the baths by Ettienne Du Pérac 16th Century

Aerial photo of the baths

Overview on the architecture of the baths of Diocletian
One of the most fascinating monuments in Rome, is The Bath of Diocletian, located in the northeast of the Viminal hill – which is found in the heart of today’s Rome. It took around seven to eight years, from 298 AD to 306 AD, for it’s completion. Looking at the plan of the baths one can see that the area of ninety meters square is divided into six main compartments, the caldarium- a circular room where the hot bath is found, leading to an oval room called the tepidarium which are the warm baths, leading to the frigidarium, a cold pool and to the natatio, a lukewarm pool. On the sides of the frigidarium are two palaestras, which were areas to wind down, relax, socialize, and even exercise. This large structure was able to provide accommodation for over 3200 bathers. It was the largest and grandest public bath built at its time. Its exterior was made of white stucco giving the visitor the impression that it’s white marble. The interiors were lavishly decorated with marble, mosaic, and statues. Today, the great vault, which is a rectangular room with an area of around 60 by 24 m rests, it is visually supported by three 15m columns of Egyptian granite but in fact it lies on eight large concrete piers.

It is interesting to note that these baths were built by the Roman emperor Diocletian (as the name of the bath suggests), who built this grand building after dividing the Roman empire. Therefore, the purpose of the building was to compensate for the losses or turn a blind eye to the failures and try to appeal to the public eye by building an impressive public structure.

Our view on the building
Discovering this fact reminded us (of an interesting quote we had come across in Spiro Kostof’s ‘History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals’, “…repeatedly civilization has exemplified Patrick Geddes’ dictum that the perfection of the architectural form does not come till the institution sheltered by it is on the point of passing away.”
The Baths of Diocletian, show both, the advancement and ‘perfection’ of engineering expertise as well as their ability to shape their environment and thus have some degree of control over it. After all the baths were built by a man who wanted to display his power and control through this monument after losing his power and control over the Roman Empire.

How important was the bath of Diocletian to its surroundings?
The baths in ancient Rome, I think, could be equivalent to today’s malls. Romans went to the baths everyday in the afternoon to meet friends, socialize, unwind and enjoy their free time. During the time of Hadrian baths were not mixed, the baths either had separate timing for women or had separate baths for women.
If you were to go back in time and visit a bath, the first thing you would probably do before entering is pay a fee and enter a dressing room with shelves around the walls called apodyteria. You would then enter the hot baths, the caldarium, and then spend time in a heated hall, similar to a present day sauna, called the tepidarium. And finally dive in the frigidarium, which is a pool for swimming open to the sky.

Do Roman baths have any significance in today’s architecture and society?

It is interesting to note that although baths no longer exist in the West, in the East, especially in Islamic cultures, baths still exist and going to a public bath is still part of people’s everyday lives. One example is the public bath of Tripoli called hammam AlAbed, North of Lebanon. Although the concept and purpose of the hammam is similar to the Roman baths, the architecture is Ottoman.

Where did all the water come from?

It is important to note that all this large supply of water for the baths came from aqueducts – channels built with waterproof cement and covered with slabs of stone that directed water into reservoirs. The aqueducts themselves are a work of architectural wonder. They were usually built with materials that were readily available, usually, stone, brick, or concrete. Some were set on arches while others ran underground. The very first aqueduct to bring water to Rome was built in 312 B.C. Today, some aqueducts are still in use. For example, the source of water for the Trevi fountain still comes from an aqueduct built during ancient times.

1. A World History of Art, Hugh Honour and John Fleming – Revised seventh edition. P. 209
2. Encyclopedia Britannica, Online, 01 Nov 09,
3. The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Helen and Richard Leacroft – Brockhampton Press (Leicester) U.K., 1969, P. 22 – 25


  1. it is a very interesting and powerful architecural design reflects the social life and needs of people during this era,as well it still exists as a tradition in Islamic societies and Arab countries. i really liked the fact that it is composed of several components of different shapes..they are all linked to each other in one way or another

  2. the orders in the interior of baths and high arches are very intersting.the baths represent function and design at the same time.romans were pioneers in many architecural fields and made use of their architectural theories and inventions in their baths.for instance,acqueducts were the major source and supply of water.

  3. its great what an emperor can do to make people accept him and show how strong and useful his reign could be. And I think that it could have pushed other leaders and civilisation to construct baths in their societies like the ottomans did later.
    The use of concrete is very fascinating at the time!

  4. Reading the comments above helped us come to realize how architecture is not only shaped by circumstances but shapes societies and civilizations to come. The thought of having one man, in this case the emperor Diocletian, to build a bath to show his strength and grandeur then having a whole civilization borrow the concept of the architecture centuries later is fascinating. The architecture with its perfect symmetry in plans and elevations is breathtaking. Since this assignment was to write a brief profile of an ancient building we did not mention that the baths were later on converted to a church by Michelangelo, the church of S Maria degli Angeli. The conversion spoiled some of the ancient architectural significance (the floor of the hall was raised by 2 meters and paint and plaster replaced the marble and mosaic), but nevertheless, we found it fascinating how ancient Roman baths could serve as a space for worshiping centuries later during Renaissance. It is intriguing to discover that even in the past people thought of flexibility in function of spaces… maybe the ancient Romans did not but during High Renaissance modernist views of spaces can be observed. It is also quite ironic how the baths of Diocletian built by an emperor notorious for persecuting Christians was converted into a Church where Christians practice their faith. It’s also interesting to note that the Baths of Diocletian is the last great building built in Rome by the Romans. We want to thank everyone who commented and found our blog interesting.
    Anahid Simitian & Nicole Saba

  5. I thought baths were purely hygienic (or a place for sodomy to run rampant in ancient times). I now realize that lots of effort went into making and maintaining this monument of progress and culture in ancient times.

    Even though MichelAngelo's church is amazing itself, it echoes a pattern seen in all parts of the world where new civilizations and religions build on the remnants of those before them...

    My favorite part though was the one about the aqueducts! =D

  6. What a wonderful, detailed article!

  7. Great job, though it should be noted that the baths were built under the rule of Maximius, by Christian slaves, not Diocletian himself (as he was dead).
    Maximius had the structure built as a sign of respect towards emperor Diocletian.