Roman Bath

Greetings, Laguna Blanca Latin!  Some of you might know of me, but for those of you that don’t….that’s your loss.  🙂  I’m just kidding.  I know your teacher.  Anywho, the reason I’m writing this post is because yesterday I took a trip with a colleague of yours, William Jones, to a place that is relevant to your studies as Latinists.  Studying Latin makes you a student of history, culture, and literature as well a student of language.  As you get better at Latin, this becomes more obvious.  Our trip was to a place in England called Bath.  I’m going to tell you a little bit about Bath as I take you through our adventure.  Hopefully, this won’t be too boring for you, and maybe it will provide a nice break amidst the bustle of your action-packed Latin classes.

So, we took a train from Cardiff to Bath.  Cardiff was our starting point because that’s where Will is from and where we’ve been staying.  I booked the wrong train tickets so we had to go really early in the morning.  That’s the story I gave Will, but really I wanted to go that early. Please don’t tell on me.

Our first and most significant destination was the Roman baths.  I’ll need to give you a brief history lesson here, so please bear with me.  To the ancient Greeks and Romans, Britain was seen as a land of mystery.  Many thought that it didn’t exist.  Those that did hardly knew anything factual about it. Some knew that the land was abundant in the metal tin, and the name Britain comes from a Phoenician word “Baratanic” which means “Land of Tin”.  It was only a matter of time before the rapidly expanding Roman empire came into contact with the island, though.  When the Roman general Julius Caesar was conquering the Gauls in Germany around 55 BCE, he came up with a plan to invade Britain.  Why?  Caesar claimed that the Britons were helping the Gauls fight the Romans, so he wanted to punish them.  Suetonius, the Roman historian, says that Caesar was looking for gems, and Cicero writes about how disappointing it was that no gold or silver was found. In other words, Caesar might have been looking for $$. Either way, Caesar’s first invasion of Britain was a big fail.   By the way, reading Suetonius in Latin is awesome.

Not one to be easily deterred, Caesar came back in the winter of the same year (55 BCE), this time with more men. Caesar was too cocky to really accept defeat. This time, when he landed he was able to form a base on the island and won a number of battles against the locals. One king surrendered and swore allegiance to the Romans, but most of the Britons were still up in arms against Caesar. Deciding to leave while he was ahead, Caesar went back to Gaul. But when Caesar left this time, the Romans had a foothold in England, and the scene was set for a later invasion.

Augustus Caesar, first emperor of Rome, had some invasions planned but he flaked out because he had other, more important things to do. A few decades later, in 40 CE, the political situation in Britain had changed, and no Britain kings were sympathetic to the Romans anymore. The emperor at the time, Caligula, a young fellow who went mad while he was emperor, decided to attack Britain. If Suetonius can be trusted, Caligula had his army form up on the beach and throw spears into the English channel, as if they were attacking people. He then had them gather sea shells from the ocean as plunder. If this sounds absolutely nutty, it’s because it was. If you don’t know about Caligula, fix that.  Unsurprisingly, Caligula was assassinated. His replacement, an interesting fellow named Claudius, decided to actually invade Britain. People thought Claudius wasn’t much of a warrior, and they were right, but Claudius wanted to prove them wrong and did so. After Claudius’ invasion, the Romans successfully subdued most of the tribes throughout Britain, and set up their own military outposts and colonies. You might notice that a lot of towns in England are named something-chester (manchester, winchester, etc). This is because the chester ending comes from the Latin word castrum, which means military camp. Those -chester towns were founded on earlier Roman military towns. The Romans stayed in England until the 4th century CE, at which time their empire was being assaulted on all sides by Goths, Huns, you name it.

Yawn! So wasn’t I talking about Bath? Yes. When that Claudius emperor fellow was conquering Britain, he came across a local, Celtic town named Sulis.  Sulis had a remarkable hot spring, a bath if you will, and the locals had a shrine there dedicated to a local divinity, also named Sulis. The Romans thus called the town Aquae Sulis, the waters of Sulis. They identified Sulis with their own goddess Minerva, and Minerva became the favorite goddess of the city. The city flourished as a Roman colony until the 4th century when, after being evacuated by the Romans, it fell into disrepair. Eventually, the city got rediscovered and rebuilt by the British, and it was given its modern name of Bath.  About a thousand and a half years later, Will and I got off the train at the thriving modern city of Bath:

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If it looks gray outside, it’s because it is. For those that don’t know, the weather in the UK is perpetually horrendous. Like Caesar, though, Will and I are not easily deterred, and we set off in search of the old Roman baths. Even though I am directionally impaired, Will got us there pretty fast. We knew we were close when one the buildings had this on display:2013-04-26 16.06.22

Cool. This was set up by the British to commemorate the old Roman baths. The funky looking inscription on the top that isn’t in English is in Ancient Greek, but the English put it up there. I learned Ancient Greek at college before I learned Latin, and I encourage anyone who is seriously interested in the history of ideas and culture to study this foundational language (along with Latin, of course). The inscription you see is in Greek capitals, which you might see later in the names of fraternities or sororities in college…ΑΡΙΣΤΟΝ ΜΕΝ ΥΔΟΡ, or in lowercase Greek, αριστον μεν υδορ. To write out the sounds in English letters, it would sound roughly like ariston men hudor. In English this means “The water is best.” Our English root hydro, which means water, ultimately comes from the ancient Greek root hudor. Lots of English words come from ancient Greek, and lots of Latin words come from ancient Greek as well (note: Latin came from other languages, and compared to other languages Latin is downright young). Anyway, “water is good”. This is kind of the motto of the town. Really, couldn’t they have come up with something a little better than “the water is good”??? Wow, British people. Then we saw this statue outside which confirmed that this simple saying was all over the place. Look on the base of the statue. 2013-04-26 09.05.05

Although simple, you can ask Ali that I generally believe in this principle. You should drink 5-6 liters of water a day, and I’d say that about one third of health is drinking the right amount of water (really). But the Romans and also the modern British think that the water at Bath is particularly healthy to bathe in, not just to drink. That’s because through the complicated process that it undergoes underwater, it gets treated with sixteen different minerals. We’ll talk more about this later. So, Will and I found the modern museum that is built on top of the ancient Baths and got started. I pretended to be a student so I got a sweet discount on my ticket. At first we had a top down view of the waters. The building around it is 18th century British, not Roman. The Roman foundations are mostly underground. Some of the statues around the top, though, are ancient.

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These waters are hot. You might notice the bits of steam drifting off of the surface. This water is not considered safe because the Romans used some lead pipes when they were piping the water around their system of baths. Apparently it’s also chock full of infectious diseases and bacteria (a girl got meningitis swimming in it and died). For safe exposure to the wonderful waters of bath, the modern Spa pipes in the hot springs in a safe fashion. There’s enough water to go around, since the hot spring sends up more than a million liters of water a day. The modern Spa is wildly popular. In full disclosure, Will drank the water a little later and was fine! I warned him against it, but whatever. Anyway, check out the statue at the end:

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Anyone recognize this goddess? She’s the patron goddess of the city, Minerva (or as the Greeks would say, Athena). That word “patron”, comes from the Latin word patronus, which means protector. Any Harry Potter fans out there? Exspecto Patronum! JK Rowling was all about the classics. Anyway, scope out the acronym on her statue base: SPQR.  That stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus: Roman Senate and People. Although far away from Rome, people from these distant colonies were basically just as Roman as their Italian counterparts, politically speaking. Our curiosities sufficiently piqued, Will and I went indoors to look at the exhibitions on display. The first thing we saw was a small chunk of an ancient inscription. You can read the museum’s caption for an explanation.

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This inscription shows that a lot can be done with a little. Obviously we don’t have the whole thing, we only have a fragment of the beginning: VES.VII.  VES is an abbreviation for the name Vespasian. Because we know how other inscriptions like this are set up, we can tell that this means “in the seventh year of Vespasian’s consulship. Have your teacher tell you more about consuls, but it was a significant political position in the Ancient Roman Republic. Once Emperors came around, Emperors were also the consuls (emperors don’t usually like sharing power). Vespasian was a really good emperor, especially compared to, say, Caligula. Anyway, just with that little bit of info VES. VII, we can date the inscription, because we know when Vespasian was emperor from literary sources. So, we can tell Bath was around at this time (76 CE), and this is the earliest inscription we’ve found at Bath. Around the corner was a drawing that showed the ancient layout of the city. Look closely and you can see a check out the theater near the baths.

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I like how neat and tidy everything looks, although inevitably this is a simplification that doesn’t do justice to the hustle and bustle that the ancient city really would have been like. Also, notice that the buildings have colored roofs. When people think of ancient Rome and Greece they often think of statues and buildings of white, polished marble. In the ancient world, though, those statues and buildings would have been painted with vibrant, juicy colors. I say juicy because some of the dyes were actually made from plant juices. Extra note: Roman women sometimes dyed their hair with berry juice. To see more closely, what the bath complex would have looked like, take a peek at this:

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As you can see, this is quite a complex of buildings and hallways. The building in the top left of the picture is a temple to Minerva, and in the back right there is a small, round temple called a tholos style temple. It’s the only one of its kind found in Britain. Before I get into the topic of Roman bathing and why these baths were so big, I want to talk a bit about the temple to Minerva that would have been here in the ancient world. Unfortunately, the temple has not survived because in the 4th century CE the Roman empire, or at least the people in positions of power, converted to Christianity. At this point, the temples to the Roman gods and goddesses were either converted into Christian churches or destroyed. This temple didn’t make it. We can tell from the ruins in the ground, though, what it may have looked like. They’ve made a reconstruction of the temple in Sydney, Australia (random, I know), and here it is for your viewing pleasure:

Inside the temple a cult statue of Minerva was kept. Gorgeous Corinthian columns, and fascinating pediment sculpture. The pediment is the triangular bit at the top. We know what was at the top of the pediment because bits of it survive, and those bits are kept at the museum. Will and I walked down the stairs to see this:

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Good guesswork by archaeologists can give us a glimpse at what it would have looked like in full, and the museum projects a visual display on top of the ruins so that you can see what the whole thing would have looked like. Pretty cool, IMO:

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But wait: if this is a temple to Minerva, what is that weird, bearded dude doing in the middle? Why are there snake-like things coming out of his hair?  This is a source of great controversy amongst those that probably care about it a little too much, and as one of those people I’ll spare you all of the theories. Suffice it to say that it could be the god Neptune, who was sometimes paired up with Minerva, and maybe he’s shown here lying in the bath with his hair all wet. The thing is, we just don’t know. Scholars generally agree that local Celtic craftsmen helped the Romans make this, so maybe there is something totally different going on here. The takeaway point here is that we don’t have everything figured out, and probably far less than we think we do. Another takeaway point is that these baths were a place of worship as well as leisure, thought as well as play. Appropriately awed, we progressed through the museum. At this point, we were hoping it would never end. The next bit of the museum showed as artifacts that had been found in Aquae Sulis. Look at this one, an gravestone with a dedicatory inscription.

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A horse is trampling a man to death in the image, which is perhaps a hint as to how this fellow got killed?! The Latin is not easy to make out because of the crumbled state of the gravestone, but it can all be made out. Latin inscriptions are loaded with abbreviations, but some of them are quite common so that we know when we see an F lying around it probably means filius. Also, since the Romans only had a few first names, and Lucius was one of them, when you see an L lying around it’s probably Lucius. If you are interested in Roman names, pester your teacher. If you aren’t interested in Roman names, pester your teacher about something else.  I’m going to transcribe the Latin for you, which means just writing out the Latin as I see it. When something is abbreviated, I’ll fill out the word, but in parenthesis so that you can distinguish between what is on the stone and what is implied. I’ll break it up into the lines that you see on the gravestone.

L(ucius) Vitellius Ma            [note: the M is pretty much obliterated]                                                                                                                     ntai f(ilius) Tancinus                                                                                                                                                                                                            cives Hisp(anus) Caurie(n)sis                                                                                                                                                                                           eq(ues) alae Vettonum C(ivium) R(omanorum)                                                                                                                                                                                                      ann(orum) XXXVI stip(endiorum) XXVI                                                                                                                                                                       h(ic) s(itus) e(st)

Does that look intimidating? Perhaps. Let me rewrite it now in just the Latin that it is:

Lucius Vitellius Mantai filius Tancinus cives Hispanus Cauriensis eques alae Vettonum Civium Romanorum annorum XXXVI stipendiorum XXVI hic situs est. 

The name and father of this fellow you can see in the first five words. His name is Lucius Vitellius Tancinus, and you can see that he is filius Mantai, son of Mantaius.  Mantai is genitive singular. It seems to be a shortened version of Mantaii. Anyway, cives is a third declension noun meaning citizen, it’s nominative singular, and it’s in agreement here with Hispanus and Cauriensis, all of which are referring to our man Lucius.  Caurium was a Roman colony in Spain, and Cauriensis is a third declension, i-stem (ask your teacher) adjective that basically means Caurian. So, we learn that this fellow Lucius is a citizen of Caurium, and he’s Spanish (hispanus). Yes, Spain get’s it’s name from Latin. Moving on, eques means Knight, and ala, alae is a first declension noun that means either the wing of a bird or the wing of an army, like a squadron. Here it means squadron. It’s in the genitive case, so Lucius is a knight of the squadron of the Vettones (Vettonorum, genitive plural of Vettones). The Vettones were a Spanish tribe that existed even before the Romans conquered Spain. The next lines let us now that Lucius died when he was of 46 years. Yay for Roman numerals. It also notes that he is stipendiorum XXVI: of 26 years of military service (stipendium, neuter – military service or pay). The final line is common on many gravestones, and finally gives us the one and only verb of the sentence!  Hic situs est.  Situs, a, um is an adjective that means “placed” or “laid down”.  In this context hic is an adverb that means here, and est is the third person singular of the verb to be.  Lucius is still our subject.  So we might say “Here Lucius lies.”  This gravestone shows us how interconnected the Roman empire was, such that a Spanish (but still Roman) soldier might end up in England and die there. I think it’s pretty cool. Moving on, we saw this. The caption says it all:

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Awesome!  Next up we saw a few odds and ends from Bath that gave us a fresh reminder that the Romans generally had lives like ours with coins, spoons, knives and uhhhh, not sure what’s on the bottom right.   In the picture below, you see combs and other assortments. Not sure what a few of them are.

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I like seeing this sort of stuff because I’m interested in the regular aspects of Roman life as well as the sensational things that we read in our literary sources. In the past fifty years there has been more attention given to the study of normal people, not just the elites. This is because MOST PEOPLE WERE NORMAL. Anyway, we found something that didn’t seem very normal, namely a statue of a woman with a pretty whack hairstyle:

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Not exactly attractive in my book, but different, exotic hairstyles like this could become all the rage in the ancient world. I can’t say the times have changed too much, as celebrities these days do pretty loopy things with their hair as well sometimes. I’m going to show you one more inscription, and I promise you that it’s easier than the last one.  It’s very sad, so get the tissues out.

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Now, first up look at the big letters in the top right and left corners.  D and M.  These are letters found on thousands of gravestones from ancient Rome, and they are abbreviations for Dis Manibus, or Deis Manibus, both of which are dative plural. This means “To the divine shades”.  Shades are spirits in the underworld. So this kind of means, “to the spirits of the dead”. The Latin origin of dis manibus is actually kind of tricky, so I don’t want to get too into it, for fear of losing you all, half of which I probably already have. One last note on DM before I move on. Even though D M is clearly tied in with pagan Roman ideas about religion and death, later Christians also continued to use D M on their gravestones, as in this one here which also has some ancient Greek on it for those that care:

On a general note, Christians decided to keep using Latin and Greek as the official languages of the Church well after the Roman empire had been destroyed and Latin had turned into the modern Romance languages.

Back to our inscription! Here’s my transcription of the Latin, which is pretty easy to make out. The trick is knowing when to put spaces in, because there aren’t many spaces in the inscription:

D(is)    M(anibus)

Merc(atilla) Magni l(iberta)

alumna vixit an(num) I

m(enses) VI,                D(ies) XII

Or: Dis Manibus, Mercatilla magni liberta alumna vixit annum I, menses VI, Dies XII. 

Mercatilla is the proper name here, and it’s feminine, singular, nominative. So we are dealing with a girl here. Agreeing with Mercatilla is liberta and alumna.  A liberta was a freedwoman, in other words a slave that had been freed by their master. An alumna was a girl foster child, or someone nourished and raised by another.  When you say that you are an alumnus or alumna or your school, you are saying that your school nourished you. So, we know so far that Mercatilla was once a slave, but she was freed and then in fact adopted by her master.  And who was her master? Well look at the word before liberta: magni.  She was the freedwoman of Magnus (Magni is genitive singular of Magnus).  So, next we have our verb: vixit.  This is the verb vivere in the perfect tense, which you may or may not have learned yet. Long story short, it’s a past tense verb, so Mercatilla lived.  Then we get some items in the accusative.  What did she live?  annum I, menses VI, and dies XII.

 Mercatilla lived 1 year, 6 months, and 12 days.  She must have been a pretty cute baby to get freed and adopted so fast!!!  But I don’t mean to joke; I’m really crying on the inside.

Anyway, Will and I kept moving through the museum, and our eyes were drawn to this mosaic from the floor of one of the rooms in the bath complex.  It’s hard to say what exactly these animals are, but a plaque told us they are meant to be sea creatures. Seahorses maybe?

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I’ve always been a fan of mosaics. For art on a smaller scale, check out these gemstones that have been carved and drawn upon. Sorry that I only have the side view and I didn’t bother to rotate the image because I’m sometimes really lazy.  The actual gemstones are found on the top and below are some enlarged versions so that you can see what is on them.




I want us to loop back for a second at something we saw earlier, the plan of the bath complex. The reason why there are so many chambers isn’t just because so many people would come here to bathe on a daily basis. A traditional Roman bath also had a few different chambers, and the bather would take something of a route through them all, going through a variety of cold, hot, and warm chambers until completion.  For Romans, going to the bath was something of a social ritual. This was a place where the elite would sit shoulder to shoulder with lower class citizens, and at many of the baths, women would be alongside men. At some baths they were split up (what’s the fun in that?).   In cities all across the Roman empire, having a bath complex was a sign of their Romanitas, or Roman-ness, if that makes any sense.  This practice of bathing the Romans probably stole from the Greeks, but the Romans designed their own style of bathing complex and heating methods, because they were architectural wizards.  Here is a little chart that shows some of the intricacies of the bathing process:

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Pretty awesome.  The baths at Aquae Sulis were special because they were drawn from those special underground springs, which treated the water with minerals. One doctor as late as the 1700s observed that, “If they can’t be cured by drinking and bathing at Bath, they will never be cured anywhere.”  Modern doctors are a bit more cautious, but some still observe that there may be some therapeutic effects of bathing in hot mineral springs. For a similar experience, there are hot, mineral springs in Ojai, California which, when not frequented by creepy local dudes, is actually really awesome.  Will and I saw many more things than this, but I hope my selection of things to show you managed to at least mildly interest you.  On our way out, we noticed in the guidebook how people from all over the world come to see these remarkable remains of the ancient Roman culture that is so similar yet so different from our own:


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But our story isn’t quite over.  Upon leaving the Museum, one is struck by a massive structure on the other side of the road, a magnificent abbey called, unsurprisingly, Bath Abbey.  Take a peek:

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This abbey has a long history, founded in the 7th century CE and repaired and restored a number of times because somehow the British were always either fighting themselves or fighting other people up until the end of World War II, and the abbey got damaged along the way. But, after restorations and additions, the abbey is now a splendid piece of architecture.  Take a peek at the inside:


But I’m not as concerned with beautiful churches as much as I am beautiful Latin, and this is why I was drawn to the door to the abbey, a stunning piece of woodwork:

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Latin was the language of the church, remember? (and to a certain extent, still is).  It was also the language of philosophy and history up until the 18th century, which is why learning Latin is so important for those that want to read closely the history of ideas and of the Western world generally, and for those that want to read some of the world’s best literature in its original language.  But here I am getting sidetracked from the door. Look at the Latin on the ribbon, beginning on the bottom left with Ecce.  Can you make it out?  I read: Ecce quam bonum et quam iucundum est.  Ecce means behold, and quam in this context means how.  Behold how good and pleasant it is!  It is of course the door.  Cool.  It is indeed good and pleasant.

Leaving the Abbey behind, Will and I checked out the river and crossed it.

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We took a pause in a nearby Park:

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We took just enough time to get refreshed and mentally prepared to see Iron Man 3 because, you know, you can’t spend all day learning, and balance is key.  As to why Iron Man 3 was out in the UK before it’s out in the US? Another one of life’s big mysteries  IT WAS AWESOME:

Over and out,


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