Decorative Display in Roman Public Baths: Intention and Reception
Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, New York, NY, USA
"What is so bad as Nero; what is so good as his baths?" quipped Martial (Ep. VII.34.4-5), reminding us that architecture could bolster a ruler's reputation. And indeed, between 25 BCE and 337 CE, the emperors built eight spectacular public baths in the city of Rome to great acclaim. I examine for the first time the extensive marble decoration in all media of the best preserved of these baths, the Baths of Caracalla; that decoration's popular reception; and its involvement in promulgating imperial agendas - critical elements in the Baths' design that have not been adequately addressed in previous scholarship.
Marble decoration was integral and vital to the visual experience of the Baths, promoting movement through the built environment. The Hercules Farnese, for example, was displayed between the frigidarium (room with cold pool) and Room 14E, an antechamber between the frigidarium and palaestra (exercise court). To understand the sculpture's narrative, Hercules resting after his final Labor, one was prompted to move from room to room to view the statue frontally and from behind, where the Apples of the Hesperides were revealed behind the hero's back. Marble decoration was a carefully strategized ensemble, being deliberately situated to encourage a bather's progress through the complex and inviting interpretation of the Bath's architecture.
This research illuminates a critical aspect of Roman life and one of the emperor's most potent means of communicating with his subjects. Given the popularity of the baths and their daily use, these were crowded spaces. On a purely functional level, the mechanism of strategically displayed marbles helped to maintain a steady flow of bathers through the complex. But on a symbolic level, the baths were connected with broader concerns of dynastic legitimacy and imperial largess, and their marble iconographical programs played a critical role in articulating these themes.