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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Roman Era in Britain

by John Ward

published by Methuen & Co. Ltd.
36 Essex Street W. C., London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.


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Chapter V



The forum may be regarded as the market-place, but it stood for more to the Roman. With its adjuncts, of which the basilica was chief, it was the centre of civic life and movement, combining the functions of market, town hall, law courts, exchange, and a gathering-place where the townsfolk discussed matters of mutual interest, settled points of difference, gossiped and idled — where public notices were displayed, and games were often held and religious festivals celebrated. It was the rendezvous for all classes and for all purposes.

Two forums have been explored in this country with great success, the one at Silchester and the other at Caerwent. They substantially agree in their planning, but the former was the larger and the more elaborate structure, and a short description of it will be sufficient. The whole group of buildings — forum proper, with its porticoes and shops, basilica and offices — covered an oblong space about 315 by 278 ft., and was almost entirely surrounded with a portico supported by stone columns. The open square within was 142 by 130 ft., and the basilica formed its west side, the remaining sides having a similar portico to the external one, except where interrupted by the chief entrance on the east side. Between the two porticoes was a range of rooms, probably of two storeys. Most of these seem to have been shops, but some of them were of a different shape and may have been municipal offices, and it is just possible that one near the centre  p92 of the north side, which had the form of a large apse, was the sanctuary of the city lares. The chief entrance was on a grand scale and in the form of a triumphal arch, not less than 45 ft. wide, and, to judge from the fragments of large columns and other carved stones found on the site, must have been architecturally imposing. Besides this, there were two minor entrances, the one on the north and the other on the south, both next the basilica.

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Fig. 31. — The Forum and Basilica, Silchester (75 ft. to 1 in.)

The basilica was 233 ft. long and 58 ft. wide. It was originally divided into a nave and aisles by two rows of lofty Corinthian columns; but subsequently it was partly rebuilt, with a single row dividing the space into a nave and a single aisle. In its earlier condition, it had at each end a semicircular tribunal, but these were replaced by rectangular ones, and in each case their raised floors projected into the hall. Along the west side were several apartments and a spacious central apse with a raised floor reached by three steps and probably adorned with a large statue of a female with a mural crown, fragments of which were found. The basilica was evidently entered on its east side, but the wall here is in too reduced a condition to show the remains of doorways or other openings. That the interior of the building had a certain splendour is not only indicated by its architecture, but by the pieces of marble wall-linings found about the tribunals and the fragments of painted wall-plaster generally diffused on the site.

The forum of Caerwent was smaller and it lacked the external portico. Its plan was similar, but simpler. The basilica was divided into nave and aisles by two rows of lofty columns of Corinthian type. The tribunals were rectangular, and one of them is of special interest as the sill of its timber cancelli remains. As the wall next the forum is level with the floor and has on its external side two continuous stone steps, it may have been the sleeper of an arcade or a colonnade stretching the full length of the square. This was the usual arrangement in the headquarters of the forts, and it is equally applicable to the basilica at Silchester.

The remains of the basilica at Wroxeter indicate that it was 229 ft. long and 67 ft. wide, and was similarly divided into a nave and aisles by Corinthian columns. The entrance was apparently at one end and a tribunal at the other. Sufficient of the basilica  p93 at Cirencester has been excavated to prove that it was of larger dimensions than any of the above, and had the usual nave and two aisles. It had a large semicircular tribunal at one end, and some indications of a porch at the other, and as at Silchester, pieces of marble lining were found. At Chester and Lincoln, the remains of massive structures and colonnades have been exposed, which with little doubt related to the forums and basilicas of those towns.


Remains of about a dozen amphitheatres are known in this country. Those of Dorchester, Caerleon, Richborough, Silchester, and Cirencester are conspicuous and well known; others, less known, are at Charterhouse on Mendips, Caerwent, Colchester, Maryborough near Penrith, Wroxeter, Aldborough, and elsewhere. With the exception of the Caerwent example, they are in their present condition elliptical depressions surrounded with a bank, the Maumbury Rings at Dorchester being the largest in this country. These amphitheatres are essentially earthworks, their arenas having been excavated, and the soil derived therefrom utilized for the portion of the surrounding bank above the old natural level. It is to this mode of construction they owe their present conspicuousness, that of Caerwent being wholly on the common level was quite unknown until its remains were brought to light by the spade a few years ago. This amphitheatre is exceptional in another respect. It is within the walls of the ancient town, the others mentioned above being outside their respective towns or stations.

The Caerleon amphitheatre, popularly known as King Arthur's Round Table, was sufficiently trenched in 1909, to show that its bank or cavea was supported externally by a strong and buttressed wall, and its foot by a thinner wall, the slope for the spectators having a width of 35 ft. The external dimensions are about 274 by 226 ft., and those of the arena about 70 ft. less. Remains of three entrances — on the north, east, and south — were found, and the floor of the arena was indicated by a thick layer of sand. It is estimated that this amphitheatre would accommodate 4000 people.

The exploration of the Maumbury Rings as been in progress since 1908. The external dimensions are roughly 345 by 333 ft., and it has an entrance at each apex. This great earthwork was utilized for a fort during the Civil War in Charles I.'s time, and in adapting it for the purpose, was considerably altered and disfigured. The excavations proved that the arena was 196 ft. long and about 20 ft. less in width, and was covered with gravel. The spectators' entrance was at the north end, and at the south end were remains of an enclosure opening to the arena and entered at the back by a descending path from a south entrance. This enclosure is supposed to have been the 'den' in which the beasts were impounded when waiting their turn during the performances.

The Richborough amphitheatre was imperfectly excavated in 1849, when an elliptical wall, enclosing a space 200 ft. by 166 ft., was brought to light, as also the remains of three entrances. The account of the work is meagre, and it is not clear whether this wall represented the inner or the outer ring.


The process of the Roman bath was practically identical with that of the Turkish bath among us. Reduced to its barest essentials, the Turkish bath may consist of two rooms, the first a 'cooling-room,' and the second a hot room, provided with a hot-water tank and a seat; but the intervention of a moderately heated room to which the shampooing and washing processes are relegated, is so advantageous as to be practically a necessity. The cooling-room serves very well as a dressing-room, but a separate apartment may be provided for this. In large public establishments it is usual to have separate shampooing and washing rooms, and two or more sudatory rooms at different temperatures: and besides the necessary plunge-bath, which may be in a special room, there may be a swimming-bath. The equipment must, of course, include a laundry department, and  p95 various offices for the management and the attendants. But, broadly speaking, the rooms used by the bathers are resolvable into three sets — cool, moderately heated, and very hot.

Vitruvius and other Roman writers, in describing the baths of their times, refer to certain apartments by name. Three of these — the frigidarium, tepidarium, and caldarium — are frequently mentioned; and as the names etymologically explain their uses, or rather temperatures, they provide a means of bringing the Roman baths into line with the modern Turkish baths. Galen mentions them respectively as the apartment passed through in rotation, and gives instructions how his patients were to be undressed in the frigidarium, to be anointed in the tepidarium, and after a stay in the caldarium, to be bathed in the plunge-bath of the first apartment upon their return. Other apartments are mentioned by these writers, as the apodyterium or spoliatorium, the dressing-room; the elaeothesium or unctuarium, where the bathers were anointed, or the unguents were kept; the lavatorium, or washing-room; the sudatorium, or sweating-room; and the laconicum, which perhaps is simply an alternative name for the sudatorium. It is clear, however, that some of these apartments were not always present, even in large establishments; also, that the names were not always used in the same sense. Again, the ancient writers differ considerably in the order in which the baths were taken. Perhaps the fashion of bathing changed from time to time, but more likely the order was a matter of personal caprice, and the complex plans of many of the public baths seem arranged to meet this contingency. What is certain is this — the Roman, like the modern Turkish baths, always present a series of apartments from cool to hot.

Several points in the procedure of the Roman bath should here be noticed. As far as we know, soap was not used at all. After perspiration, the body was scraped with the strigil4 to forcibly remove the dirt and dead portions of the cuticle. This was followed by the sponge, and delicate people often dispensed with the strigil altogether and used the sponge alone. The place where this scraping process took place would, of course,  p96 be one of the hot rooms, sometimes perhaps a special room. At a later stage, when the body was sufficiently cooled, perfumed oil or ointment was rubbed into the skin. These various requisites — strigils, oil, and unguents — were often brought to the public baths by the bathers, especially by the wealthy, who also brought slaves to attend to them. But these could be obtained on the premises, as also the services of attendants; the poorer bathers, however, scraped and anointed themselves. Physical exercise was a concomitant of the bath. Even domestic baths sometimes had their tennis-court (sphaeristerium), as had Pliny's. In most of the public baths there was a spacious court (palaestra) with porticoes, exedrae, swimming-bath, etc., and other conveniences for outdoor recreation, ball-playing being a favourite pastime.

Many remains of Roman baths have been discovered in this country. Those at Wroxeter and Silchester were town baths of considerable extent and intricacy; several in the vicinity of forts were military baths; but the majority were private baths attached to country houses, and these were, as a rule, of small size, consisting of only the more essential rooms. But in all, the general principle and the method of heating the rooms were the same. A compact little bath-house was excavated at Caerwent in 1855. The two plans (Fig. 32) of this building are at different levels in order to show (1) the rooms used by the bathers and (2) the heating arrangements below. It contained the following sequence of rooms, each opening into the next by a narrow door:—

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Fig. 32. — Plans of Baths, Caerwent; the first on the floor-level, and the second showing the hypocausts. (10 ft. to 1 in.)

The first, A, a narrow anteroom, was entered apparently from an open court. On its left, or south side, was a cold-water bath in a large recess, B, with a flagged floor 3 ft. below that of the room, and its sides were of fine concrete painted red. On that next the room was a sill or dwarf wall, 9 ins. high, and within it a step or seat. The drain was in the middle of the south side. The second room, C, lay to the north, and was considerably larger, with a shallow alcove between projecting piers at the farther end. The third, D, was the largest of the series, a simple square room. The fourth, E, was provided with a hot-water bath at its west end. The contiguous walls which  p98 formed three sides of this alveus were lined with vertical flue-tile communicating with the hypocaust below, the opposite wall of the chamber being also similarly lined. The bottom was of a single flag which rested upon the hypocaust pillars, and its sides were of red stucco, with a drain at the south end. The fifth and last room, F, was immediately behind the furnace.

The floors of all these chambers were supported upon roughly squared sandstone pillars, and the intervals between these were spanned with large flagstones, upon which rested the concrete of the floors. This in the first three rooms was overlaid with plain mosaic, the total thickness being about 14 ins. The openings between the rooms were probably covered with rugs or thick curtains, as there were no indications that they had been fitted with wooden doors.

The second plan illustrates the heating of the apartments. The furnace projected into a sunk yard or shed, which would be provided with suitable storage space for the fuel. The aperture was flanked by two strong cheeks or platforms of masonry, 5 ft. high, a usual feature in the furnaces of baths, in order to carry the tank or cauldron in which the water was heated. The hot gases of the fire passed through an arched opening into the hypocausts of the rooms, and the upright wall-flues in room E would induce the necessary draught. It is almost certain that room D, and probably C as well, had also a few wall-flues, to ensure the passage of some of these gases into their hypocausts. The pillared substructure under the anteroom was evidently an arrangement to keep its floor dry, as there was no opening by which these gases could pass into it.

It is evident that there would be a gradation of temperature, that of each successive room from the first one entered being higher than the last, the last being the hottest. C was probably a combined cooling and dressing-room, with a seat in its alcove; D, the tepidarium; E, the caldarium; and F, a specially hot room or sudatorium. This last room, however, was usually omitted in the domestic, and even in larger baths; and in most instances the alveus occupied the space next the furnace.

This Caerwent building is typical, except in its compactness, of the smaller baths in this country. The rooms usually have a  p99 linear arrangement, with the entrance at or near one end, and the furnace at the other. Of the military baths, the remains of those at Great Chesters are the most complete. The main block, exclusive of the furnace-house, was 48 ft. long, and was entered from a yard, at one end of which were the latrines. The first room had a flagged floor, a cold-water both on the left, and a door into another flagged room on the right. Neither room was heated, and the second may well have been the apodyterium. In the side of the anteroom facing the entrance was the door into the tepidarium, a small room, and beyond this was the caldarium, a spacious room, with a large alcove on either side and a hot-water bath in a large recess at the end. Beyond this was the furnace and its shed. The remains of the military baths at Chesters are more extensive, but less complete. Those of Gellygaer have recently been excavated, and they indicate an irregular building due in part to alterations and extensions. The main structure in its final form was about 87 ft. long, and was remarkable for its large cold-water bath, about 26 ft. by 15 ft., and one of its hot rooms being circular.

The public baths of Calleva underwent so many alterations and extensions that it is difficult to make out its plan for any period. The greatest length that the main building attained was 148 ft. In its original form it was entered from the street under a portico, and this gave access to a peristyled courtyard, which subsequently was enlarged. Next was a spacious apodyterium; then a frigidarium, with a marble labrum in the centre and a cold-water bath at one end; and finally several heated rooms with hot-water alvei. All these rooms were at one time or other altered and extended. The public baths of Viroconium were on a larger scale. The plan of the portion which has been excavated is suggestive of a symmetrical building consisting of a central block and east and west wings. The central block seems to have contained a grand entrance-hall with large rooms behind, and beyond these an open court with a large recess on either side (probably exedrae), and in the centre the remains of a paved swimming-bath; but all these remains were very indefinite. The excavation of the west wing gave definite results and revealed a series of rooms heated from a furnace-house at the west end.  p100 On the east side of the central block were the remains of other heated rooms which corresponded, as far as they went, with those of the west wing, and strongly suggested an east wing of similar character. If so, the total length of the range of building, exclusive of furnace-houses, would be 208 ft., and the whole was apparently enclosed in a great peristyled courtyard. It is probable that the one wing contained men's baths and the other, women's.

The Author's Notes:

1 See Romano-British Buildings and Earthworks for more detailed information, chap. ix.

2 Romano-British Buildings and Earthworks, chap. ix.

3 Romano-British Buildings and Earthworks, chap. viii.

4 Fig. 63.

Thayer's Note: For another good picture of a strigil, and further explanations and links, see this section of the article BALNEAE of Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

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Page updated: 14 Dec 20