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Baths of Agrippa

Baths of Agrippa

The earliest of the great public baths of Rome, these baths were built by Marcus Agrippa (63 B.C.-12 B.C.), stateman and general, in 25 B.C. They were regularly restored and remained in use until late antiquity. The baths, which were adorned with important works of art such as the Apoxyomenos of Lysippus, were fed by the Aqua Virgo, the aqueduct built by Agrippa. They were located adjacent to the Pantheon, which Agrippa also commissioned. Remains of the vaulting of a dome in the central bath block can be seen today in the Via Arco della Ciambella.

Thermae Agrippae

From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 518-520.

The earliest of the great baths of Rome. According to Cassius Dio (LIII.27.1) Agrippa built a hot-air bath (τὸ πυριατήριον τὸ Λακωνικόν) in 25 B.C. at the same time as the Pantheon (q.v.); and at his death in 12 he left to the Roman people, for their free use, a βαλανεῖον (LIV.29.4; Sid. Apoll. carm. 23.496: balnea . . . quae Agrippa dedit). As the Aqua Virgo (q.v.), which supplied these baths with water, was not completed until 19 B.C., it is probable that the laconicum was the original part of what afterwards became a complete establishment for bathing, which was then regularly called thermae. Agrippa adorned these baths with works of art, among which are mentioned paintings (Plin. NH XXXV.26), and the Apoxyomenos of Lysippus, which was set up in front of them (id. XXXIV.62). The hot rooms he is said to have finished with fresco on tiles (id. XXXVI.189).

The thermae were burned in 80 A.D. (Cass. Dio LXVI.24: βαλανεῖον), but must have been restored by Titus or Domitian, for they are mentioned by Martial (III.20.15, 36.6) as much frequented. Another restoration was carried out by Hadrian (Hist. Aug. Hadr. 19: Romae instauravit lavacrum Agrippae; cf. also a reference in CIL VI.9797 = AL 294). An inscription (VI.1165) of 344/5 A.D. recording a restoration by Constantius and Constans of 'termas vetustate labefactas' was found near the church of S. Maria in Monterone close to the west side of the baths of Agrippa, and therefore probably refers to them. They are mentioned in the Regionary Catalogue (Reg. IX), by Sid. Apollinaris (loc. cit.), and in the sixth century (Greg. Magn. Reg. VI.42; IX.137; Kehr I.98). By the seventh century the destruction of the building was well under way, and that its marble was burned into lime is shown by the name Calcararium, applied to the immediate vicinity somewhat later (Mirabilia 23; Jord. II.439; LS I.25). They are, however, mentioned as Thermae Commodianae in Eins. 1.4; 2.4; 4.8; 8.6.

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Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    88. The Baths of Agrippa. Commentary.

    Even before Augustus had consolidated his power, he and Agrippa (Augustus's trusted military partner) turned their attention to developing large stretches of the Campus Martius, continuing (as so often elsewhere in the city) work begun or envisioned by Julius Caesar and extending it with newly conceived projects. The Baths of Agrippa, the Aqua Virgo, the Pantheon [90.], the Basilica of Neptune (a portico between the baths and the Pantheon), the Sun Dial [94.], the Altar of Augustan Peace [95.], and the Mausoleum [96.] were all projects undertaken in the reign of Augustus, in addition to the completion of the Voting Pens [83.] and Ballot Office [84.].

    The Baths of Agrippa, the first of Rome's great bathing complexes, evolved in several stages, beginning simply as an exercise area with a dry sweat bath (the Laconicum, or “Spartan Bath”). Agrippa's subsequent construction of the Aqua Virgo allowed for something much more elaborate. Low in elevation, this aqueduct entered Rome from the north and emerged on the river plain where the Spanish Steps are today. An arcade (visible in sections and still supplying the Trevi Fountain with water) crossed the Via Lata and extended almost to the Pantheon, from where its waters were delivered by pipe to various parts of the developing Campus as needed.

    Agrippa made use of the water not only for the central part of his baths, but channeled some of it into a canal called the Euripus, which ran from the bath complex and joined the Tiber just upstream of today's Ponte Vittorio Emanuele. This canal was used for swimming, or for a cold plunge [88.4], functioning in effect as the cold swimming pool built into the later imperial baths. In between his baths and the Tiber, Agrippa also excavated a large pond (the Stagnum Agrippae), which was apparently ornamental in nature, like the ponds in city parks today, and surrounded it with grounds for strolling. Nero's inventive mind found other uses for the setting [88.6].

    88. The Baths of Agrippa. Sources.


    [In 25 BC] Augustus finished these wars and shut the gates of Janus, which had remained open because of the fighting. Agrippa, meanwhile, was beautifying Rome. He completed the Basilica named for Neptune in honor of their naval victories, and distinguished it with the painting of the Argonauts, and built the “Spartan Bath” as well (it was called this with reference to its own gymnasium, where patrons exercised naked and oiled, a practice associated above all with Sparta at the time).

    Dio, History 53.27.1-3


    When he died [in 12 BC], Agrippa willed over to the people his gardens and the baths named after him, and gave Augustus some estates to support the baths so that the people might bathe free of charge. Augustus then turned these estates over to the state.

    Dio, History 54.29.4


    But it was Julius Caesar who by his own example especially encouraged the public display of art, and after him, Marcus Agrippa, though he was a man more given to rustic than sophisticated pleasures. In the warmest part of his baths he placed small paintings framed in marble, which were recently [c. AD 70] removed when the baths underwent repairs.

    Pliny the Elder, Encyclopedia 35.26


    [As I age, my exercise and bathing habits have changed radically.] I, the great lover of cold water, who used to greet January 1st by plunging into the Euripus, celebrating the New Year with a jump into the Aqua Virgo's water as naturally as I might read, write, or speak, have had to alter my habits, transferring my allegiance first to the Tiber, and now to this plunge-tub warmed by the sun.

    Seneca the Younger, Letters 83.5


    My dear and distant friends, my thoughts are filled with you,

    With my beloved wife back home and our sweet daughter.

    Seeing it all in my mind, as if in Rome, I leave

    Our house and visit again the sites of that beautiful city:

    I see the forums, the temples, the theaters robed in marble,

    And stroll down colonnades that stretch over leveled earth

    To the green grass of the Campus bordering lovely gardens;

    I see the pond, the channels, and the Aqua Virgo waters.

    Ovid, Letters from Exile 1.8.31-38


    To give the impression that he enjoyed himself in Rome more than anywhere else, Nero held banquets in public places and used the entire city as if it were his home.… One time he had a special partyboat constructed which was towed around the Pool of Agrippa by other boats, all of them finished in gold and ivory and having for rowers male prostitutes grouped according to their age and erotic specialty. He supplied it with birds and animals imported from distant lands, and sea-creatures from as far away as the Atlantic. Brothels were constructed on the shores of the pond and stocked with well-born ladies; on the opposite shore, out in the open, naked prostitutes danced and gestured obscenely. As dusk fell, the adjoining grove and the surrounding buildings resounded with song and glowed with lamplights.

    Tacitus, Annals 15.37

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