Bath, a Tourist Hotspot

In quo spatio magna et multa flumina, fons calidi opiparo exculti apparatu ad usus mortalium: quibus fontibus praesul est Minervae numen, in cuius aede perpetui ignes numquam canescunt in favillas, sed ubi ignis tabuit vertit in globos saxeos.

In [Britain] there are many great rivers, and warm springs sumptuously appointed for the use of mortals. The presiding spirit of these is Minerva, in whose temple the eternal flames never whiten  into ash, but when the fire dies away, it turns into stony spheres (embers).

SOLINUS, Collection of Curiosities


AT CALLEVA Atrebatum, two main roads leave from the western side of town. One heads south-west towards Durnovaria (Dorchester) and Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter), while the other runs north-west to the colonia of Glevum (Gloucester), former base of the Legion II Augusta. Julius Severus and his party will want to take the latter route if their next destination is Aquae Sulis (Bath), travelling on it for some 12 miles (19km) as far as Spinae (Speen, near Newbury).

Just beyond Spinae, the road to Aquae Sulis branches off (south of Wickham1) and continues for 15.5 miles (25km) west to Cunetio (Mildenhall).*1 Cunetio possesses a regular street plan and public buildings, including a twenty-four-roomed mansio in the town centre,2 but its origins pre-date the Romans. It lies on the southern bank of the River Kennet and at a pivotal crossroads, where several major roads converge on the river crossing. Narrow barges make their way slowly along the water, carrying grain downstream towards the Thames, into which the Kennet ultimately flows. Wheat and barley grow on the well-drained soils of the surrounding chalk downs, whose slopes are dotted with still-modest villas.3 To the south and west the open downland gives way to the rolling hills, dense with oak trees, of the Savernake Forest. Pottery is made in this area; the forest provides a plentiful supply of firewood and charcoal for the potters’ kilns.

Just past Cunetio, the main route west crosses the road that connects Venta Belgarum (Winchester) with Corinium (Cirencester) and continues across sarsen-strewn Overton Down.*2 Here, the high chalk downland grasses provide pasture for sheep. The area is also home to the farmers of pre-Roman settlements near to ancient trackways such as the Ridgeway, over which the road now passes.4 In places, the old field layout has been reorganized, and irregular ‘Celtic’ fields of the Iron Age have been overlaid with rectangular fields laid out from double lynchetted trackways—trackways running between fields with embankments (lynchets) formed by the soil slippage from many years of ploughing.5 Following the River Kennet to its source, west of Cunetio, the governor’s entourage will enter an extraordinary prehistoric landscape full of ancient monuments charged with ritualistic significance. The road proceeds straight from the site (at West Kennet) of a huge longbarrow, built in about 3,500 BC, to the foot of the great Neolithic monument of Silbury Hill, which was used as a sighting point in laying out the road west.6 This hill is still revered as a religious site, and ritual shafts lie in an arc around its base.7 Its peak—should you care to climb it—offers a fine view to the north, towards the massive henge at Avebury, constructed in 2,500 BC.*3 Most sacred among the streams and springs in the locality is the Swallowhead spring, regarded as the source of the Kennet. Passing through the roadside settlement at Silbury Hill, which has an inn to accommodate both pilgrims and passing travellers,8 the road crosses the downland to just south of Verlucio (Sandy Lane), a market centre surrounded by villas and settlements, which lies roughly midway between Cunetio and Aquae Sulis.*4 Here, travellers can rest and seek refreshment, mustering their energy for the final 14 or so miles of the journey.

Lying in the crook of the River Avon, at a crossing point where several major roads converge, Aquae Sulis occupies the centre of an area rich in corn, wool and quarry stone, and boasts a nascent pewter industry. West of here, the road from Calleva continues to the port of Abonae (Sea Mills) at the mouth of the Avon. An ancient track, running south-east to an Iron Age port (Hamworthy, on Poole Harbour), also crosses the Avon at this point. Here the road meets the great Fosse Way, which cuts diagonally across Britannia, connecting Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter) in the south-west to Lindum Colonia (Lincoln) at its north-eastern terminus.*5 The Fosse Way marked the initial western frontier of Roman rule in Britain after the conquest, a neat division between the more pliant and (to an extent) Romanized south and east and the unknown and decidedly non-compliant north and west of the island.

A fort was probably established here at the time of the conquest, and a small settlement grew up at the crossroads, initially to serve the soldiers, although the military soon moved on. But Aquae Sulis has always been more than a crossing point on a river. With its phenomenal natural hot springs, held sacred since prehistoric times, it became a cult centre and is now the biggest tourist attraction in Roman Britain. Today, people come here to worship the goddess and to bathe in the thermal waters that issue from the sacred spring. Its temple and adjoining baths are dedicated to Sulis Minerva—a union of the Celtic deity Sulis with the Roman goddess Minerva.


Throughout the empire, temples, shrines and sanctuaries are places of pilgrimage and simultaneously centres of tourism. People visit them not solely to worship the deity associated with them, but also to participate in all sorts of related activities, such as buying souvenirs and admiring the paintings, tapestries and sculptures that are displayed in and about the temples and their precincts.

It is true that in today’s empire the principal tourist destinations, apart from the coastal resorts around the Bay of Naples, are Greece and Egypt: the latter can offer, among its numerous attractions, the Valley of the Kings and the pyramids9, and you can even visit Crocodilopolis (Arsinoe) to watch the sacred crocodile being fed and having its teeth brushed.10 (This year while in Egypt, Hadrian and his wife Sabina will be visiting the talking statue at Thebes, believed to be Memnon, child of the goddess of Dawn, the King of the Ethiopians who had died at the hands of Achilles at Troy.11)

Local beauty spots also draw the crowds, such as the source of the River Clitumnus, just off the Via Flaminia in Italy.*6 In addition to its beauty, this site also boasts an ancient temple to the river god Clitumnus, who issues prophetic oracles from his shrine, as well as boat rides, swimming, public baths and tourist hotels.12 While Britain cannot offer the magnificent and ancient architecture of Greece, Egypt or Italy (perhaps excepting Stonehenge), there is Aquae Sulis and its ancient and wonderful spring—far more dramatic and unusual, in fact, than the gently meandering source of the Clitumnus.*7

The hot water that bubbles up from the ground at Aquae Sulis was once rainwater that fell over the Mendip Hills to the south and gradually percolated deep into the ground through carboniferous limestone, flowing north beneath the Somerset coal field to a depth of between 2,700 (8,860 feet) and 4,300 metres (14,100 feet). Here, the earth’s heat raises the water’s temperature to between 64 and 96 degrees Centigrade. Under pressure, it then rises to the surface through fissures and faults in the Jurassic rocks under Aquae Sulis to emerge in the form of three hot springs.

The force and volume of water created by the largest spring (the King’s Bath stream), where it bursts out of the ground, created a valley between two small hills before running down to the Avon. The springs were known to Mesolithic hunters who once camped among them. At the time of the Roman conquest, the area lay in the territory of the Dobunni, who held the waters to be sacred. For pre-Roman pilgrims the experience must have been deeply awe-inspiring, for they would have approached the bright green, bubbling waters (as hot as 46 degrees Centigrade) through a swamp of alders, along a rubble and gravel causeway edged with small stakes. The mystery of the waters was enhanced by the steamy mist rising from them and the lurid orange-red stains from the iron salts around the edge of the pool. Here the Dobunni worshipped Sulis, goddess of the spring, and made offerings to her. As did the Romans at Clitumnus, the Dobunni threw coins into the waters as gifts to their deity.*8

The scene today, however, would be unrecognizable to the ancient Dobunni. Since Boudicca’s rebellion, the whole site has been thoroughly and spectacularly transformed, very possibly as part of a policy of reconstruction and active ‘Romanization’ following the devastation wrought by the British queen. Tough Suetonius Paulinus, who won the decisive victory against Boudicca, was replaced as governor soon afterwards by Petronius Turpilianus, a man who—according to Tacitus—‘they hoped would be more merciful and readier to forgive offences to which he was a stranger’.13 His successor, M. Trebellius Maximus, governor from AD 63 to 69, was apparently also someone who ruled with comitas, or civility. Under him the native Britons ‘learned like any Romans to condone seductive vices’, a policy pursued by Agricola during his governorship from AD 77. As Tacitus described it, ‘temples, market buildings and houses were built and by means of porticoes, baths and elegant banquets the Britons gradually succumbed to the blandishments of vice and enslaved themselves in the name of civilization’.14

Whoever was responsible for developing Aquae Sulis as a religious centre and tourist attraction, the site has received a thoroughly Roman treatment, including the waters themselves, which have been channelled in a brilliant piece of engineering.*9 In order to build over and around the spring, the flow of over a million litres (250,000 gallons) of water a day needed to be properly contained. Highly skilled surveyors and engineers, undoubtedly seconded from the army, constructed a huge drainage system to remove the excess water. They did it with characteristic thoroughness and foresight, blocking the natural stream, which drained away from the spring to the Avon, and building a new drain lined with stone to channel the huge volumes of continuously flowing water away to the east. This ensured that the main drain did not run under any major buildings of what would be the temple complex but could be accessed from rectangular manholes in the street. The drain is big enough for a slave to walk along with a shovel to clear away any built-up sediment; it is the sort of job that a convicted criminal is condemned to perform.15

With ruthless efficiency, the Roman engineers consolidated the swampy ground around the spring by driving oak piles deep into the mud. They next enclosed the ground with a two-metre-high wall, which they waterproofed with clay and massive sheets of lead from mines in the Mendips, each sheet weighing nearly half a ton. This caused the hot springwater rising through the underlying rock to fill this container, its sandy sediment settling at the bottom of the tank so that only clear water was channelled through to the baths. This reservoir could be flushed clear of sediment whenever necessary by opening the sluice and allowing a great rush of water through it. As soon as the sacred Celtic spring was tamed by the power of Roman engineering, building work could begin on the large temple and baths complex adjoining the spring.

Visitors to the sacred spring now enter the huge temple precinct by the east gate, first having to battle, no doubt, with the touts and dodgy guides who plague tourist sites across the empire. They are notorious for rushing up and offering to explain everything, however obvious, in ways that are exaggerated or simply wrong.16 They may well drive pilgrims to pray to Minerva to protect them, as tourists elsewhere in the empire have implored: ‘Zeus protect me from your guides at Olympia and you, Athena, from yours at Athens!’17

As at other tourist sites, there is doubtless plenty of merchandise on offer.18 If you are a pilgrim you can buy silver offerings for the goddess, such as fine silver pans, their handles decorated with tendrils, leaves and flowers, and with ‘D.SULI’ (‘for the goddess Sulis’) picked out in dots on a panel. Or you might plump for bronze pans with brightly coloured enamelled decoration in red, blue and apple-green. This distinctively British style can also be found in the souvenir cups and dishes made for soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall. Attractive enamel brooches are popular too; they come in the form of horses and riders, or hares, and can be found at many places in the province.19

The cups or dishes dedicated to Sulis Minerva are used to pour libations to the goddess before being thrown into the spring. Pilgrims may opt, of course, to make offerings to other gods at temples around the town—the dedicatory panels on the offerings are left blank, so that they can be inscribed with the name of the chosen deity on purchase. There is something to suit all tastes and pockets: portable altars, miniature lamps and pots, and large leaves or feathers of silver (or gold or bronze) to be hung up or displayed near the cult image. As this is a centre to Minerva, the merchandise is rather less obscene than the pottery on sale around the temple that houses the renowned nude statue of Aphrodite on the island of Cnidus: there, you can also get attendants to unlock a back door for a better view of the goddess’s celebrated bottom.20

Having got past the stalls at Aquae Sulis, and either eluded the guides (or even engaged one), you will pass through the main entrance in the precinct’s eastern wall. Here the Lex Sacra (Sacred Law) is usually posted, informing visitors of temple etiquette and providing such details as which offerings are appropriate and at what time of day certain rituals should be carried out. On entering the precinct, you are confronted by a great sacrificial altar, which lies between the entrance and the temple and is directly aligned with both. The spring and its reservoir lie open to the elements, enclosed by a low balustrade, in the south-east corner of the large courtyard.21 The inner precinct—the area in front of the temple and around the main altar—is paved with massive limestone slabs, while the surrounding area is gravelled.*10

Immediately to the west of the altar is the temple of Sulis Minerva, set on a high concrete podium and approached up a steep flight of steps. If its massive entrance doors are open, you will be able to espy the glittering cult statue within the temple. The four 8-metre-high Corinthian columns of its entrance porch support an ornate triangular pediment. It is a dramatic and curious piece of sculpture, and it has as its central decoration a circular shield, bordered by oak wreaths, which is held up by two winged figures of victory each lunging towards it from globes. The wreaths signify the civic crown for courage awarded to emperors since the time of Augustus, and the shield held by the Victories is a clear signal of Roman power and domination over the world. Here is a work symbolizing power and martial triumph, and any Roman guide might convincingly interpret it in this way.

In the corners of the pediment are figures of Tritons,*11 and beneath the shield in the spaces between the Victories and the lower edge of the pediment are two helmets, one in the form of a dolphin’s head and the other with an owl perched on top of it. Both owl and dolphin are attributes of Minerva. Moreover, the association of martial Minerva with a Gorgon’s-head breastplate will cause no surprise to visitors familiar with Classical iconography. But the head depicted is not the female Gorgon of Classical mythology but that of a frowning man with a swirling moustache, wild hair and staring eyes—unmistakably Celtic in appearance. His hair, streaming out in all directions—as if he were floating on his back in water—coils all around his head and merges into wings and serpents. Is it evoking the powers of Sulis, Celtic goddess of the spring?


A Romano-British guide might well read the Gorgon’s head differently. For the Celts, the sun and sky gods are linked not just with heaven but with water and the underworld too. And both sun and water are related to healing. So a Celt with no Classical training who is looking at the pediment might see a depiction of the sun and of the water in the form of the sea snakes and the dolphin. The owl, too, might have connections with the underworld in Celtic belief. And the oak leaves would not necessarily signify a victory crown so much as they suggest an oak grove, associated with the Druids.

The Druids were priests who, according to the elder Pliny, cut mistletoe from oak trees with golden sickles as part of their ritual.22 They had a high status in Celtic society as teachers and judges and, according to Julius Caesar, they were philosophers and astronomers who taught that the soul was immortal.23 The Druidic doctrine was said to have originated in Britain, and people in Caesar’s day who wished to study it more deeply travelled to the island to do so. Yet the Romans disapproved of the Druids heartily, and abhorred their practice of human sacrifice—in their sacred groves ‘no woodland nymphs found a home, nor Pan, but savage rites and barbarous worship, repellent altars erected on massive stones; and every tree made sacred with men’s blood’.24 Claudius is said to have ‘utterly abolished the cruel and inhuman religion of the Druids in Gaul’.25

Although the Romans subject criminals to all sorts of exquisite deaths in the arena, they make a fine distinction between the execution of criminals according to the law and blood sacrifice to the gods. Any creature that is sacrificed for religious purposes must be brought ‘willingly’ to slaughter. From a political point of view the Druids were also deeply suspect because they were absolute judges in all aspects of life, with the authority of life and death over those brought before them, a privilege in the Roman Empire accorded only to those specially invested with it by the emperor. They were also, in their own society, ‘exempt from paying taxes and military service’.26

In sum, the Druids were completely and utterly independent of everything that Roman authority imposed on its subjects. They were thus dangerously subversive, having everything to lose and nothing to gain from Roman rule. Rome therefore sought to extinguish them.

The Druids in Britannia made their last stand on the island of Mona (Anglesey), which the governor Suetonius Paulinus attacked just before the outbreak of Boudicca’s revolt. As his troops approached, they were confronted by ‘a motley battleline, densely armed standing on the shore, among whom were brazen-faced women shouting curses, their dress wild and their hair loose as though they were Furies; and also Druids, their hands held high, fulminating their angry prayers to heaven’. This disconcerting scene initially made the soldiers freeze to the spot, until Suetonius managed to snap them out of it by telling them not to be scared of a bunch of fanatical women.27 Thereupon the soldiers conquered their fear and the island and destroyed the sacred groves ‘devoted to Mona’s barbarous superstition’.

Nowadays at Aquae Sulis, a temple guide (depending on the nature of his audience) might point out that just as the Romans contained the forces of the Druids and their native religion, so Romans had also contained the forces of nature in the sacred spring. There is other potential symbolism and allusion too. The six-point star burst atop the pediment could be a pun on Sulis / Solis (the Latin for sun being sol; genitive: solis), or it might invoke the imperial cult. But were our temple guide to warm to his Druid theme, he might allude to the fact that the Romans had first brought light into what the poet Lucan described as a sacred ‘grove which from the earliest time no hand of man had dared to violate; its chilly nooks hidden from the sun; its tangled, matted branches imprisoning the air within’.28 The Druids worshipped their gods in sacred groves, just as Sulis had been worshipped, before the Romans came, in her mysterious alder-fringed pool.

As for the pediment’s breastplate, it was the tradition for Roman generals to dedicate weapons taken from their enemies, as when Marcus Vettius Bolanus dedicated a breastplate ‘torn off a British king’ when governing Britannia in AD 69–71.29 Might the temple pediment proclaim that the Romans have conquered the native priests, by displaying the head of a Celt on the shield of the Roman martial goddess Minerva, just as they have tamed the sacred spring now contained in its great pool?

Firmly contained within the walls of the temple, at the end of the single cella (chamber) beyond the porch, stands the life-sized cult statue of Sulis Minerva. When the temple doors are open, she can watch over the sacrifice being made in her honour at her altar outside. Made of gilded bronze and clothed in martial dress, wearing a breastplate with the Gorgon’s-head mask,*12 she glitters in the light of the perpetual flame tended by the priests who serve her, the lumps of burning coal never being allowed to whiten into ashes.30 The light also catches dozens of pairs of eyes made from glinting coloured glass, which are embedded in the tin, bronze and perhaps even silver masks pinned up as votive offerings, on walls in and around the temple.*13

Shining, too, is the regalia of the priests, their crowns, diadems and masks enhancing their mystery and that of the goddess they tend. In processions, and when officiating at certain ceremonies, they carry sceptres—symbols of their authority and status which, like wands, are invested with special powers. Most British sceptres are wooden shafts, with strips of copper alloy wound in spirals around them, and crowned with terminals depicting gods, animals, birds or even emperors.*14 While men recruited from the curial or governing classes serve as part-time priests, to enhance their social status, others are ‘career’ priests. One of the latter was G. Calpurnius Receptus, whose freedwoman and dutiful wife, Calpurnia Trifosa, erected a monument in his honour, when he died at the age of seventy-five, in the cemetery on the other side of the river.31


After the flickering intensity of the temple interior, the natural light will seem staggeringly bright to anyone emerging into it. Directly in front of the temple, the great sacrificial altar, 2.4 metres square, has a slightly dipped surface made shiny from the viscera of sacrificed animals. At each corner of its base are depicted resolutely Classical gods, among whom are Bacchus holding a thyrsus (wand) and pouring a drink for a panther squatting at his feet; Hercules Bibax (Hercules ‘the drinker’) sporting his lion-skin cape, the lion’s paws knotted around his chest, and holding a large drinking vessel in one hand and a knobbed club in the other; and Jupiter, with a trident in his hand and an eagle at his feet.*15

Aquae Sulis’s importance as a religious centre is underlined by the distinguished presence of a haruspex, a specially trained priest who can divine meaning from the entrails of sacrificed animals. The existence of such a personage here is a clear indication of the status of the site, for otherwise such a man is unheard of in the province. Whereas an augur interprets the movement of birds’ flights and the meaning of dreams, a haruspex possesses even more arcane knowledge, which enables him to read marks on an animal’s liver, understanding the connection that each part of the organ’s surface has to a particular god. It is an extremely powerful job, and it is one that demands the greatest amount of tact and intuition, for a haruspex will need to be able to divine the mood of the person—be it Julius Severus on an official visit, or some other high-ranking official or prosperous merchant—who has paid for the sacrifice and wishes validation for his future actions.

Hadrian, as emperor, is the pontifex maximus (chief priest), and Julius Severus—as Hadrian’s representative in Britannia—will be expected to officiate at religious ceremonies as part of his duties. Just as he is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the correct procedures are carried out according to the law in civic society, so Severus must preside over religious rites with the same sort of care. To be neglectful and fail to observe the correct proprieties risks causing offence to both men and gods. While Severus cannot do much to prevent natural disasters or unforeseen catastrophes, he must ensure that none of them can ever be ascribed to his disregard for religious observance.

A sacrifice is conducted according to elaborate ritual. The spilling of the animal’s blood must be expiated by rigorous observance of certain rites, and the ceremony is fraught with the danger of ill omen. On major feast days, and to mark special occasions such as the visit of the provincial governor, a heifer will be sacrificed for Minerva: a female animal offered to a female deity. It is a carefully orchestrated spectacle, in which everything and everyone must play their due part. Centre stage is the sacrificial victim, wreathed with garlands, its horns gilded, perhaps. It must be led calmly to the altar, so that it meets its doom ‘willingly’. Flute players accompany the procession to drown out any sounds that might be interpreted as unpropitious, and the effect might well create a soothing atmosphere for the animal’s last moments. Incense lies on the air, burning on the main altar and on numerous smaller votive altars in the precinct.

Julius Severus, officiating, will greet the processional group with his toga pulled over his head to keep out any sights or sounds that may be deemed unlucky and jeopardize the sacrifice. Mola salsa, flour mixed with salt, is sprinkled between the cow’s horns, and a couple of its hairs are cut to symbolize purification. Other participants in the sacrifice will also have ritually cleansed themselves before the ceremony.

Now an attendant fells the animal with a pole-axe, stunning it before the knife is plunged into the beast. (Some axes are partly modelled in the form of the animal they are about to slay.32) The heifer’s liver is removed for the haruspex to interpret. The heart and viscera are also extracted—to be declared, it is hoped, uncorrupt—and burnt, with the prized thigh fat and wine poured as a libation. After the gods have been given their due, the remains of the animal will be taken away to be roasted, then returned to the sacred enclosure for a celebratory feast.

All around the temple courtyard are numerous smaller altars and statues decorated with flowers, their dedicatory inscriptions picked out in red paint. Some of the altars are smoking with incense, others still shining from the gore of sacrifice. A statue to the goddess Sulis, dedicated by Lucius Marcius Memor, a haruspex, stands near the great altar.33 Two small altars in memory of retired centurion Marcus Aufidius Maximus have been erected by the slaves whom he had set free,34 while Priscus, son of Toutius, a stonemason of the Carnutes, from around Autricum (Chartres, in northern France), has set up an inscription to the goddess.35 He may have come here as a tourist, or on a business trip to buy stone from the Bath quarries, or perhaps to work on a building project here.

Another stonemason, called Sulinus, son of Brucetius,36 whose name recalls the goddess Sulis, has dedicated his altar to a collection of local deities, the Suleviae. Perhaps he, too, was on business here. He came from Corinium, some 30 miles (48km) to the north, where he dedicated another altar to the Suleviae.37 Pilgrims wishing to buy altars to dedicate to their favourite deities are able to get them ready-made from men like Sulinus, who manufacture them in bulk but leave a space for personalized inscriptions.


The baths of Aquae Sulis lie immediately south of the temple. Constructed in the late first century AD they are now being altered.*16 Their unique feature is the sequence of thermal swimming baths, fed by the sacred spring, which are contained in a monumental aisled hall, more than 33 metres (108 feet) long by almost 20.5 metres (67 feet) wide. The simple grandeur and careful design put them on a par with anything west of Rome—or arguably within Rome itself. The building is cleverly conceived, so that the whole focus of the main hall’s interior is the view of the sacred spring and altar beyond: these can be seen through three large windows in its north wall. Additional light comes from a clerestory, or high-level tier of windows, under a pitched timber roof.38 The walls of the hall are plastered with thick red mortar and painted in blocks of colour. In the centre of the hall is a large pool (the Great Bath) containing the naturally warm spring water, with a smaller pool beyond it. Heated swimming pools, especially ones as large as this, are extremely rare, for heating water is a very costly exercise. Pools that are naturally heated by thermal waters are unique in Britain and uncommon elsewhere—their existence is regarded as truly miraculous.

Broad-pillared arcades, paved with huge slabs of white lias limestone, run around the side of the hall. Alcoves are set into the walls, three on each side. Here, you can sit and gaze upon the waters. In other baths it may be common to play games, eat and drink, conduct business, flirt and gossip, or even have your armpits or other body hair plucked. But since this is part of a sacred zone, the activities carried out immediately around the pool are likely to be of a more religious or contemplative nature. There might be a sanctuary or shrine in the north-west corner of the main baths, and there are other small votive shrines and statues in and around the pools. Priests and perhaps even doctors are in attendance. (Oculists and other purveyors of potions and remedies operate elsewhere in the town.)

The Great Bath occupies almost the whole central area of the hall.*17 All four sides descend, in four steps, into the water, and the entire pool (including steps) is waterproofed with sheets of lead. In the middle of its north side there is a fountain, fed by a lead pipe from the sacred spring.*18 The bath itself is supplied by a pipe that links directly to the reservoir of the spring. Water from here also feeds the other pools, and the excess is removed through a drain in the north-east corner. The water level is maintained in the bath through a bronze sluice.

In addition to the thermal pools, you will also be able to enjoy more conventional baths. The original entrance hall and baths suite to the west of the pool have recently been adapted to accommodate an additional, large, cold plunge pool and sauna. After changing in the new apodyterium (changing room) and perhaps taking exercise in this part of the baths, you can gradually acclimatize to the increasing levels of heat in a warm room (tepidarium). Before proceeding to the very hottest rooms, your attendant will rub you with oils. Then, it is on into the caldarium (the hot steam room) and the laconicum (hot dry room) to work up a good sweat. Having had the oil scraped off with strigils, you will be ready to descend the massive stone steps and plunge into the cold waters of the large circular bath.*19

At the other (east) end of the baths, the smallest and narrowest of the three pools has recently been replaced by a new suite of baths, which has its own separate changing room. Such an arrangement might allow men and women to use the baths at the same time. The men no doubt are given access to the larger western suite and main bath, while the women use the eastern baths and smaller thermal pool.*20 It was, after all, Hadrian’s decree (following Augustus’s example) that the sexes should bathe separately (‘lavacraprosexibus separavit’), and in places where there are no separate facilities, they will need to bathe at different times.39

The Roman attitude to nudity and to mixed bathing is complex, and opinions have changed from generation to generation. In the days of the republic, Romans were shocked by the Greek habit of exercising naked and were averse to being seen naked in public, to the extent that (according to Plutarch) Cato the Elder refused to bathe with his son.40 But that anecdote is making a point of describing an exceptionally austere and old-fashioned character, and Augustus’s subsequent attempts to segregate male and female bathers may have been a reaction to an over-enthusiastic public acceptance of nudity. This is the age, after all, in which the poet Martial wrote: ‘The gymnasium, the baths, the stadium is in this part: get back! We have taken off our clothes, spare us the sight of naked men!’41

While there are plenty of salacious references to women being at the baths at the same time as men and revealing their bodies, it is rarely clear what this means in practice. When writers criticise women for being naked, they may not necessarily mean that they have taken off every stitch of clothing. It might mean that the women are simply wearing very little. For exercising, women wear a form of bikini;42 leather ones can be bought in Londinium.43 Perhaps, to conservative folk who expect ‘respectable’ women to cover up from head to toe, anyone wearing such a skimpy item may as well be ‘naked’.44 Quintilian, writing in the AD 90s, wondered whether a woman bathing with men could be taken as a sign of adultery, while Juvenal described a woman ‘who goes to the baths at night, bossing around her slaves with perfume jars, all because she delights to sweat among the crowds’. Having exercised with heavy weights, the woman enjoys a massage with a happy ending, the masseur ‘forcing a cry from his mistress, as he strokes the surface of her thigh’.45 Salacious satires these might be—but they are only amusing because there is some truth in them, and because they send up familiar characters and situations.


As with inns or taverns—or anywhere, in fact, where strangers mix—unsavoury characters lurk, ready to exploit those away from home and in a vulnerable situation. In Aquae Sulis, as you take to the waters you are inevitably separated from your clothes and personal possessions by your state of undress.*21 Bath thieves (fures balnearii) are a hazard of all bath houses, and Aquae Sulis is unfortunately no exception. It is advisable to bring your own slave to guard your possessions while bathing, or failing that to try to hire an attendant from the baths (who might be able to offer other pleasurable services as well).46 But if you are too poor to do either, you will have to take a risk. Although anyone caught stealing is punishable under Roman law and may end up condemned to the mines, plenty of thieves get away with their crimes.

If you are the unlucky victim of an elusive thief, then your only recourse may be to magic.47 Among the many offerings thrown into the sacred spring are curses (defixiones), in which the wronged seek justice from Sulis. In sometimes dubious and often extremely vivid Latin, prayers entreat the goddess to bring down terrible vengeance on the thieves of cloaks, sandals, rings and petty cash. They are written on small sheets of lead or pewter, tightly rolled up and consigned to the waters, testament to countless incidents of theft and petty squabbles experienced by the more humble visitors to Aquae Sulis.48

Throughout the Greek and Roman world, curse tablets are used in quite specific ways. They can be devised with ease. All you need to do is, as one set of instructions directs, ‘take lead from a cold-water pipe, make a tablet and write on it with a bronze pen…’49Using pseudo-legal language, as if pursuing a claim in court, curse tablets express a contract with the deity, whereby the victim promises to give the god something in return for punishing the offender. As such, the lowly curse tablet reflects the quid pro quodeals that, in many ways, characterize Romans’ relationships with their gods. It is the sort of relationship implied on votive altars too, with their common shorthand ‘VSLLM’ (Votum Solvit Laetus Libens Merito), ‘fulfilling his/her vow gladly and freely as it is merited’, and its variants.50

Curse tablets are written all over the empire, but no other province has quite such an obsession as Britannia with cursing people over theft and property rights. Elsewhere, passions are more likely to be raised and curses meted out to rival lovers and opposing teams in chariot races.*22 Some of the British curses are quite chilling. One, from a rural shrine (at Uley in Gloucestershire), north of Aquae Sulis, vividly implores Mercury to punish an embezzler with lack of sleep, unknown diseases and ailments; for good measure, his whole family is also to be rendered seminudi, edentuli, tremuli, podagrici sine cuiusque hominis misericordia, ‘half naked, toothless, tremulous, gouty, beyond human pity’.51

Every single curse text from Aquae Sulis is unique, despite the formulaic nature of curses.52 They are written in shaky capital letters by the barely literate, or in nonsense language, or in mirror text, or in anagrams, or in Latin using Greek letters.53 But in one respect there is a theme: in contrast to the names of Roman citizens that appear on the altars and inscriptions in stone at Aquae Sulis, the curse tablets are predominantly populated with Celtic names. Although some of these people are evidently used to writing and have a stylish hand,54 the spelling and choice of words in the tablets reflects the novel way that Britons pronounce and use Latin.55

The humble curse tablets are in striking contrast to the more valuable objects thrown into the spring, including a bag with thirty-three engraved gemstones, the items of silver, the pewter and enamelled bronze cups, and brooches, as well as tens of thousands of coins. Curiously, votive deposits depicting parts of the body are largely absent from the waters of Aquae Sulis, suggesting that people do not come here primarily to secure a cure from the goddess.56


Having bathed, sacrificed and feasted, you will find there is plenty to see outside the confines of the sanctuary. Beyond the precinct, to the north of the baths, is a monumental theatre built on the same axis as the temple. Such a building is fairly rare in Britannia but is found in this sort of relationship to large temples in northern Gaul. Judging by the workmanship, it may well have been built with the help of Gaulish craftsmen such as the aforementioned Priscus. The theatre is twice the size of the temple, and visitors from warmer climes may note wryly the larger-than-life-sized gargoyles, which disperse the rainwater that accumulates in the gutter cut into the cornice.*23

Most extraordinary of all is a huge and elaborately worked tholos, a Greek style of temple consisting of a circular inner cella encircled by a colonnade. It is highly unexpected in a north-western province, and in Britannia is little short of astonishing. It stands on the same axis as the temple of Sulis Minerva, exactly mirroring its proportions. The building is new, and it surely reflects the influence of the emperor himself. After all, it would have been unusual for Hadrian not to visit Britannia’s premier tourist destination during his tour in AD 122; perhaps it amused him to commission a Greek-style building in such an outlandish place, and so to spread his craze for all things Greek even to the north-western boundaries of his empire. Hadrian was certainly in the mood for commissioning building projects at the time, for on leaving Britannia and crossing to Gaul he built a basilica ‘of marvellous workmanship’ at Nîmes, in honour of Plotina, Trajan’s widow and Hadrian’s adoptive mother.57

Beyond the sanctuary, there are also two other natural hot springs, situated in the south-west quarter of the town. One (Cross Bath) is an open pool contained within a large, oval, walled enclosure. Immediately south of the other spring (Hot Bath), into which pilgrims like to throw coins, is a large and elaborate suite of baths.*24

Although visitors have been travelling from far and wide to the Romanized springs for decades, and there are more splendid and extraordinary buildings here than in the average Romano-British town, Aquae Sulis remains much smaller than any civitas capital. The whole focus of Aquae Sulis is on the temple and baths complex, and the place remains undeveloped as a town, without a formal street grid. The town’s resident population, the lesser temple and baths staff, the tourist guides, craftsmen and shopkeepers all probably live on the level dry ground to the north, along the Fosse Way in the direction of the ford, and across the river. The spa is popular with the military, and many soldiers choose to spend their leave or even retire here. Some die here: Gaius Murrius Modestus of the Second Adiutrix from Forum Julii (Fréjus, in the south of France) did not live long enough to become a veteran, dying here aged twenty-five. Julius Vitalis of the XXth Legion, recruited in Gallia Belgica and based at Deva, died at the age of twenty-nine, after only nine years’ service. His funeral costs were paid by the guild of armourers, to which he belonged. It is not clear whether fifty-eight-year-old Rusonia Aventina of the Mediomatrici (a tribe centred on Metz, in eastern Gaul) died here while on holiday or after having made Aquae Sulis her home. Peregrinus, son of Secundus, was a Treveran (from the area around Trier) and, perhaps feeling homesick, he offered an altar to Mars Loucetius and Nemetona, gods from his native eastern Gaul. Tactfully, he placed it outside Minerva’s precinct.

Having exercised all due diplomacy themselves by making the appropriate religious observances and bathing in the sacred waters, our travellers must take to the road again, heading north-west out of Aquae Sulis—and into Wales.

*1 Spinae is named on the Antonine Itinerary, suggesting that in the third century AD, at least, there was a posting station here. Cunetio is also mentioned in the Itinerary.

*2 The route passed through modern Marlborough. The sarsen stones were later known popularly as the ‘grey wethers’, being likened to a flock of grazing sheep.

*3 Roman coins have been found on the summit, recorded by the antiquarian William Stukeley in the eighteenth century.

*4 Its status as a market centre is conjectural.

*5 The road from Calleva meets the Fosse Way at Batheastern.

*6 Between Spoleto and Trevi in Umbria.

*7 Stonehenge was visited in the Roman period, although we have no record of what anyone thought about it. The sacred waters and temple of Minerva at Aquae Sulis are among the few features of Britannia to be mentioned by the third-century writer Solinus in his Collection of Curiosities.

*8 Eighteen coins have been discovered, most minted locally.

*9 The system was so well built that the spring water still enters the Great Bath through the Roman channels in the twenty-first century.

*10 Later in the second century there were radical alterations. The temple, altar and spring were enclosed by a colonnade; access was restricted to the spring, which was roofed with a massive vaulted chamber; and the temple was remodelled and doubled in size.

*11 Too little is left of these figures to be absolutely certain that they are Tritons.

*12 Her gilded bronze head was discovered in 1727. A relief carving of Minerva found in the Great Bath shows her wearing a breastplate in the form of a Gorgon’s-head mask.

*13 A tin mask found in the sacred spring has hollowed-out eyes, thought to be for coloured glass, and six nail holes: two on top, and two on each side. See Cunliffe (1988).

*14 Sceptres were also made of iron or copper alloy. Minerva’s priests at Aquae Sulis might have had sceptres terminating in a bust of the goddess, such as the one with an iron core found at Stonea in the east of England. It is not known to what extent ‘British’ and Celtic customs, in terms of crowns and sceptres, were used in apparently ‘establishment’ centres like Aquae Sulis in the Hadrianic period.

*15 The fourth god is too weathered to identify.

*16 They underwent further changes over time, remaining in use until the late fourth or fifth century.

*17 Its dimensions being 22 metres by 8.8 metres, and 1.5 metres deep (72 × 29 × 5 feet).

*18 This was later replaced by the smaller fountain that is still visible today.

*19 Measuring 9 metres (30 feet) in diameter and 1.2 metres (4 feet) deep.

*20 The idea that this might represent separate changing rooms and have been so devised for the separation of the sexes is purely conjectural.

*21 References to sets of clothes for the baths could mean either bathing costumes or robes worn after a bath. A curse tablet found at Aquae Sulis refers to paxsa(m) ba(ln)earum et [pal]leum, ‘my bathing tunic and cloak’, which has evidently been stolen from the baths.

*22 Only twenty of around 1,300 known curse tablets elsewhere in the Roman world are concerned with theft. But in Britannia only one paltry possible love charm from Old Harlow has been found, and not a single curse on a sportsman.

*23 Knowledge of buildings in Aquae Sulis beyond the temple and baths is very incomplete. The identification of this monumental building as a theatre is conjectural. Most of it lies unexcavated under Bath Abbey.

*24 Both springs might have had small temples attached to them.

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