It has been ages since I went to visit the Roman baths at Bath. I think the last time was a school trip when I was somewhere around year nine – certainly not for a while. (I don’t count the very nice afternoon I spent there a couple of days after returning from the US for a friend’s hen do, as the purpose of that visit was strictly to visit the Pump Room rather than the baths themselves.) I recently had the opportunity to go along and visit the baths properly on my travels, and I thought now was as good a time as any to refresh myself with the evidence for the baths that we have. I’ve been trying to incorporate as much material from Bath into my teaching as I can – this is part of a broader pedagogical commitment to using as much Roman Britain evidence as possible, partly for my own professional development and partly to incorporate provincial evidence alongside more mainstream Roman and Italian approaches. Last year’s Religion, Myth and Ritual course, for instance, made good use of Bath as a site that demonstrates syncretism (the combination of local and Roman deities, as in Sulis Minerva), and also the expansion of Roman religious structures into the provinces. It has turned up less in this year’s Roman Life Course teaching, but I wanted to see the site for myself and decide what I made of it.
The site is well presented and preserved – the free audiotour, narrated by Alice Roberts, also gives you plenty of light background information on what you are seeing (although I will say I found it rather less informative than I would have liked – something I didn’t feel with the audiotour of the Royal Academy’s Bronze exhibition, even for commentary on the Greek and Roman items). The visitor is quickly given a sense of the scale of the complex, how little of it is actually on display compared to how much is buried beneath the streets of modern Bath, and the sort of activities that would have taken place there. The intersection of bathing and religion is a fascinating one, particularly given the provision in the bathing complex of a pool of water pumped directly from the sacred spring (courtesy of a surviving lead pipe similar to the one found at Carleon); the reconstruction of buildings from the temple complex also suggest that the practice of incubation took place here. This is the posh name for when people seeking an oracle or healing slept overnight in a small purpose-built structure in the temple courtyard; they would then report their dreams to the local priest, who would interpret them. The act of sleeping in the god’s domain overnight was also itself supposed to act as a cure.
Bath is also the home of the famous curse tablets, little scraps of lead inscribed with life’s vitriol and thrown into the spring for the goddess to take action against whoever had offended the writer. They’re fantastic records of the small petty irritations of life – someone has had their cloak stolen and wishes manifold nasties on whoever is responsible; someone else complains about the loss of a ploughshare (apparently the only agricultural implement recorded in these kinds of curses); someone else has had money stolen. What’s even better about them is the range of punishments they dream up for the people who have committed these crimes – that they should go blind, mad, “be accursed in blood and eyes and all his limbs”, or “become as liquid as water”, to give but a few examples. These items are well displayed in good light, and sensible translations – as, for that matter, are the various altars set up by visitors to the temple in honour to fulfil vows, and the gravestones that were also found around the site. The museum does a good job of representing the various religious activities that took place here, and the ways in which they overlapped – although I did find the use of the word ‘pilgrim’ a little off-putting, mainly because of its strongly Christian connotations, and thus to my mind more suitable for discussions of Canterbury Cathedral.
Some of the reconstruction work is great. I was particularly taken with the video reconstruction of the temple court area, which unobtrusively gave visitors a sense of how the temple complex was laid out and the relative scale of the buildings. It made it much easier to get my head around the remains visible to me without getting in the way of those remains – an unobtrusive but extremely helpful use of technology. I was, I will admit, a bit less taken with the reconstruction of the temple pediment (that one with the famous river god head in the centre) – there was something about the Victories holding up the head that just looked a bit too Victorian for me – but other than that, the pediment is beautifully displayed, and you get a real sense of the unusual mix of local and imported architectural styles.
One other detail that I particularly liked was one gallery devoted to the practical side of building the baths – this is located over the overspill drain from the sacred spring, good Roman engineering still in operation, thus really driving home how talented the Romans were as builders. This section covered issues around practical masonry (like how one actually lifts jolly big stones and masons’ marks), as well as demonstrating how more delicate stonework like the finials on the top of the baths would have been produced. Given my familial background in property, I suppose these sorts of details are the kind of thing that I like to see given proper attention – after all, the buildings that have survived this long are a credit to their creators.