The Roman city of Bath is famous for its hot spring baths, whose healing water cleanse and rejuvenate. The waters were revered in Roman times as a god and people came to worship the bubbling pools, to offer up their thanks and prayers, their treasures and their curses.
The Roman Town
Bath was both a major religious centre and a locally important economic centre. It was next to the Fosse Way, the major Roman road between the South West and the Midlands, at the point it converges with roads to London, Poole Harbour and Sea Mills.
28 villas have been found within a 24 KM radius of Bath, suggesting the relatively high economic and social level of the inhabitants.
Major trades included quarrying and masonry of stone and the production of Pewter. Coal was a common fuel in the region and was used to light the altar of Minerva Sulus. It may have been used to heat the sauna like rooms of the Roman bath complex. It is not clear the extent to which coal mining was an industrial activity, on a level similar to tin mining in nearby Cornwall.
Bath was a relatively important city and it may have “survived” the “dark ages” as a continuously inhabited urban complex. Some historians have suggested that the Battle of Badon was fought near Bath, when King Arthur beat the Saxons. The battle is first mentioned about 400 years after it was supposed to have happened by the monk Nennius, whose work also contains some clearly mythic stories. The first post-Roman mention of the town in a less disputable historical text is in 973 when the town hosted the coronation of Edgar.
Bath was a town of some local importance throughout the medieval period. It again came to prominence following a visit by the sickly Queen Anne. Fashion followed and the town became the play pen of the beautiful people of the Eighteenth Century. Today, Bath retains its regency charm and the ancient bath complex merges into the corniches and columns of its circuses and crescents.
The bath complex disappeared at some point in the early medieval period. Subsidence may have been to blame. It was only in the Victorian period that the complex was rediscovered. The current buildings were restored in 1896 in a Roman style, which wasn’t wholly accurate but is evocative.
Roman bathing was a complex social ritual involving many stages. Although the majority of bathing centres would have been small, it was commonly a social activity enjoyed by all classes and level of society.
The Roman baths are large and contain several rooms and pools. The most important pool is the holy spring. Here the worshippers could see the bubbling waters and feel the heat. Roman Engineers channeled the water from the spring into resevoirs.
The first room a bather would visit would be the Apodyterium, a changing room where they could be massaged in oil. Here they stored their clothes and any valuables they normally kept about the person. Thefts happened.
The bather then progressed into a series of hotter rooms (tepidarium, caldarium), which acted like a dry sauna. They sweated out the dirt. They would then scrape the oil off. They followed this by a lunge pool (frigidarium).
Most waters of most Roman baths were not heated due to the immense expense. Bath was unique in this respect and was likely a welcome relief from the rigours of the British winter.
The major bathhouses could also act as cultural centres and often contained libraries and acted as municipal art galleries.
The waters are closed today for safety reasons, but they were likely not as healthy as the Romans thought them. The hot springs meant that the water was at the perfect incubation temperature for bacteria.
The Roman baths in Bath was not just a bath complex. It was a religious centre of some importance dedicated to the local goddess of the waters.
It has also been suggested that the baths operated as an incubation centre, that is a place where people could stay over night. This meant that unwell people could be looked after, but more importantly receive dreams from healing gods. Images of Asclepius survive. He was the healing god par excellence and his temples acted as de facto hospitals and dream factories, where people prayed for a visit from the god at night.
A particularly fascinating aspect of worship in Bath was the deposit of curse tables into the sacred waters. These are pieces of lead inscribed with curses in Latin. Possibly curses in other materials were deposited but did not survive. They often seem to be about relatively minor thefts.
Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty [my] bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman or whether slave or free unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.
Many valuable metal goods were also deposited in the spring.
The central god worshiped in bath was the goddess Minerva Sulis. Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom. Sulis was a Celtic mother goddess. The Romans also conceived of Sulis as a local god, a genius loci, the protective spirit of the place. It has been suggested her name is cognate with sol, the sun.
The nature of Romano-British religion is complex and it is probably wrong to suggest that Sulis and Minerva were considered to be the same individuals with different names.
Celtic gods were often associated with Roman gods in complex and contradictory ways. The most interesting example of this is Mercury who is commonly portrayed in Celtic art with cockerels and dogs. He seems to have been venerated in the city of Corinium (the modern city of Cirencester, directly connected to Bath on a straight Roman road, 30 miles away). Images of Mercury (Hermes) with a dog have also been found in Bath. Dogs may have been considered to have healing properties. A statue of a dog was found in the remains of a Romano-British temple in Lydney Park (about 40 miles a way, but the other side of the Severn estuary). This sacred association between dogs and Hermes may have led to a particular veneration of the Egyptian god Anubis within Britain. In Britain, the worship of Egyptian gods is less attested relative to other provinces of the Roman Empire, but Anubis seems to be proportionally more popular than he was in other regions. That said, we have no proof of Egyptian gods from within Bath itself. Mercury is often portrayed with the Cadeus, two serpents twisted round a rod, which is similar to the the staff carried by Asclepius. A question that needs unpicking with rigorous academic study.
Other gods were worshipped including Bacchus, Jupiter, Hercules and Apollo.