Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Bath, Part Three: The Roman Baths and Pump Room

The Great Bath
with Bath Abbey rising above it

When the Romans arrived in Britain in the early first century CE, they found in what is now Bath a Celtic settlement of the Dobunni tribe near a thermal spring sacred to the goddess Sulis. Over the next four centuries, the Romans built up an elaborate complex of buildings on the site, including a temple to Minerva Sulis (incorporating the sacred spring) and public baths. The Roman settlement itself was called Aquae Sulis. Oppidum Aquae Sulis parvum erat, thermae maximae, says the Cambridge Latin Course, which sets the the action of Unit 3 in Roman Britain. Above, you can see me holding Unit 3 of the CLC next to the warm green waters of the great bath.

The baths are fed by the bubbling waters of the sacred spring, the only thermal springs in England. The water, steaming in the cool January air, is heated deep under the earth to a temperature of 115°F. Bubbles of gas frequently rise and break on the surface, creating an effect which impressed the ancient Celts and Romans with the presence of the divine.

After the collapse of the Roman occupationof Britain in the fourth century, the bath complex began to fall into decay. Eventually the roof caved in, and the great bath was filled in with rubble. The sacred spring became part of the monastic complex of Bath Abbey, and the reputation of the waters and their curative properties endured. Finally, in 1706, a spa opened on the site, and people flocked to Bath to "take the waters." The warm, iron-flavored water contains 43 dissolved minerals, and was believed to cure gout and other common upper-class eighteenth-century afflictions. Calcium and sulphate are the most abundant dissolved ions in the water. In 1790, the current Pump Room building opened; it was to this building that Mr. Allen in Northanger Abbey would have come to drink his three glasses a day. The Greek words above the Corinthian columns are ARISTON MEN HYDOR, or "water is best."

In the Victorian age, workers working in the basement of a building on Stall Street uncovered a large sculpture of a bearded face, seen here in a reconstruction of the pediment of the Temple of Minerva Sulis. Subsequent late-19th and 20th-century excavations uncovered the full extent of the ancient Roman Baths, the largest Roman bath complex in northern Europe.

Even on a cool weekend in January, Bath was heaving with visitors, both tourists and shoppers. Milsom and Union Streets—main 18th-century thoroughfares that are prominent in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey—seemed like rivers of people. Outside the Pump Rooms, we stopped for a few minutes to watch this street performer juggle fire while balancing on a tall unicycle.

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