Antonine Baths, Sheldon, p. 1
The Antonine Baths

Kyle McGimsey

Located on the seaside at the north-eastern corner of ancient Carthage, the Antonine Baths today retain very little of their former splendor. Of the largest bath complex in the African provinces and the third largest bath complex in the Roman world, measuring about 35,000 square meters[1] , only remnants of the substructures remain, yet these fragments hint at the enormity and vastness of the original structure.

Bathing was a critical part of Roman society. Many Romans, in fact, spent a great part of their day at the bath houses. A Roman man would conduct the majority of his business in the morning and then find himself at the baths by early afternoon, where he would remain for several hours.[2] The baths, however, were for much more than just hygienic purposes. While cleanliness certainly contributed to the popularity of the baths, what was probably a greater factor was the sheer enjoyment that was derived from spending time there. Pools of clear water, magnificently decorated walls, floors, and vaulted ceilings, and soothing warmth radiating from the floor and walls could not but make the baths a premier attraction. Even the luxury of the baths was not the extent of their lure. Many bath complexes were equipped with exercise facilities such as simple open air, peristyle areas called palaestra and running tracks. These exercise areas would have been used as a regular part of the bathing ritual, taking place before the bath itself. There were also changing rooms, libraries, gardens, and spaces for other sorts of entertainment. The bathing practice that had originated from the Greek gymnasiums and Italian folk practice had evolved into a full-blown social club.[3]

Before examining the Antonine Baths specifically, it will be helpful to gain an understanding of the basic structures that are common to all Roman bathing complexes. While not all baths were outfitted with all of the amenities listed above, there were certain facilities that they did have. Always present were the major bath chambers. Each of these was heated to a different temperature. The caldarium was heated from the chambers in the basement floor, the hypocaust, where the furnaces produced hot air to warm the marble floors and walls of the upper rooms. The frigidarium was, as the name suggests, the room that contained the unheated pool. There were also other rooms of varying temperatures in between, and the number of these rooms depended on the size and quality of the bath house. As mentioned above, the hypocaust was located in the basement levels and supported the floors above with brick or stone pillars or, in some cases, vaulted archways.[4]

The specific date of the construction of the Antonine Baths is difficult to pin down, but epigraphic evidence provides scholars with a relatively narrow range of dates:

[Ex] permissu [--] Optimi Maximique principis Imp(eratoris) Caes(aris) / T. Aelii Hadria[ni Antonini A]ug(usti) Pii [Britt(anici ? Ge]rmanici Dacici, [po]nt(ificis) / maximi, cos(ulis) IIII, t[ribunicia]e potesta[tis -]I, p(atris) p(atriae), pro[consulis -] / et M. Aelii [Aurelii Veri Cae]s(aris) ceterum[q]ue liberorum [eius - / -- aquam magno u ?]sui futuram pra[eterea ? -- / an unknown number of lines are lost / --]s et orn[amentis -- / -]bus colonia Con[cordial Iulia Karthago - / -] beneficiis eius au[cta -- / -]us Val[.] (CIL, VIII, 12513; ILTn, 890; Cagnat, RA 1887, p. 170-179).

This inscription gives scholars a terminus post quem for the baths of 145 CE, when Antoninus Pius became emperor. It is also relatively safe to assume that the baths would have been finished during his reign, which would have been before his death in 161 CE. That date is further narrowed down by the names Germanicus and Dacicus, which were given to Antoninus in 157 CE. Thus, the date of the dedication of the baths can be placed somewhere around 157-161 CE.[5] This inscription indicates that the Antonine Baths are not a true imperial bath complex. According to the inscription, these baths were constructed ex permissu, “by permission,” of the emperor, rather than being identified as a benefaction of the emperor himself.

It is very important to distinguish the Antonine Baths as an imperial therma, as opposed to an ordinary balneum. While these two words were sometimes used interchangeably, certain trends evolved that separated the two classes of bath facilities. Perhaps the most important distinction between the balnea and thermae was the scale to which each was built. In general, a balneum was a smaller, less ornate bath complex, and did not always offer the same range of amenities that the larger baths would. These were ordinary, local complexes that could be found throughout the city. According to two censuses taken in the 4th century CE, Rome contained 856 balnea, but just 10 or 11 thermae.[6] The balnea were also often privately owned, and therefore charged a small fee for use of the facilities, although this fee was low enough so as to allow even the poorest man to use the baths. The imperial thermae were gigantic, magnificently decorated structures, generally constructed by the state, which were able to offer all of the services listed earlier. They were a way for everyone, from the common townsperson to the wealthy elite, to experience the lifestyle of the emperor, and often at no cost. The thermae often had similar layouts and designs, and it is into this category of bath that the Antonine Baths fall.[7]

The layout of the Antonine Baths follows very closely the example of other imperial thermae at Rome.[8] It is built around a central axis line, from which two symmetrical halves spread, just as the imperial thermae of Trajan were designed before these, and just like the baths of Caracalla would be designed (see images 1.1, 2, and 3). The placement of the bath chambers is also typical of other same-caliber complexes. The frigidarium occupies central position, placed directly on the axis line. Directly above and still on the axis is the caldarium, and below is the natatio, a large swimming pool, though there was probably less swimming done here than socializing. Extending outwards from the central axis are mirroring chambers of varying temperatures, as well as two palaestra.

Even though the Antonine Baths are, for the most part, a typical imperial bath complex, there are some aspects of the design that make it interesting and unique. First, the complex’s location makes its architecture very unique. It lies on the shore of the Mediterranean, and as such, it takes full advantage of the scenery. The natatio is open and faces the sea for a stunning view. Second, the complex rest at the bottom of the slopes of the Byrsa and the Hill of Juno. This makes it very easy to channel water to baths, which was necessary for an area where water was at a premium. Because of the scarcity of water, it is not surprising that the baths were only constructed after Hadrian had the Zaghouan aqueduct, which fed the Bordj Djedid cisterns, which in turn fed the Antonine Baths, built.[9] Being at a low spot topographically was essential for an easy supply of water. Last, the Antonine Baths are interesting architecturally because of the construction of the hypocaust. Because the complex was so close to the sea, it needed deeper than normal foundations. As a result, the hypocaust could not be placed in a basement level like it normally would have been. Instead, the hypocaust occupied the ground floor and the actually bathing facilities were on the levels above. It is the remains of the hypocaust that are still visible at the site. There is little of the upper floors at Carthage because, once the baths were no longer used, the floor collapsed into the hypocaust at ground level, and much of the stone was taken to be used in construction elsewhere.[10]

Again, comparing this floor plan with those of its counterparts at the capital will show that, by and large, the North African bath resists North African influence. This is a bit surprising since, even though North African society seemed to readily conform to Roman culture, many pre-Roman influences appear. For example, Ba’al Hammon and Tanit are identified with Saturn and Juno Caelestis, and pre-Roman tomb design appears in the form of the tower mausoleums. The bath houses do not seem to have been so susceptible to the same influence. It is likely that this is because there was no real pre-Roman equivalent to the baths to which the pre-Romans could assimilate their own beliefs and practices. As a result, the design of the Antonine Baths is extremely close to those at Rome. That is not to say that the Carthaginians did not adapt the design of the baths to their own culture at all. Keeping in mind that the Antonine Baths were not built by Antoninus, but rather by his permission, it would be easier to influence the designs of the building. Influence of pre-Roman ideas might be seen in the warm bath chambers. The typical caldarium in North Africa was cruciform and the pools in the warm chambers were rectangular.[11] However, as seen in w, the warm chambers are polygonal in shape, with smaller rooms surrounding the central caldarium.[12] The relatively circular shape of these chambers and the domes that would cover them (see image 1.2) are very reminiscent of the domes in depictions of country estates like the Mosaic of Master Julius. These domes are theorized to represent private bath complexes at the villas. Thus, there could be some pre-Roman influence in the design of the Antonine Baths.

The Antonine Baths were used up until the end of the Byzantine rule in 6th century CE, but by that time, they retained little of their former grandeur. After control of Carthage was retaken from the Vandals, the floor plan of the baths was severely reduced (see image 1.3).[13] Once the Arabs took Carthage from the Byzantine Empire, the Antonine Baths fell out of use and the main floor would later collapse.

Image 1: Antonine Baths, Thebert, 2003, p. 593

Image 2: Baths of Trajan, Neilsen, 1990, p. 85

Image 3: Baths of Caracalla, Neilson, 1990, p. 88

Annotated Bibliography
Web Resources
Sheldon, Natasha. “The Antonine Baths at Carthage: the Design and Layout of North Africa’s Largest Bath Complex.”

This is a very brief article that gives a description of the interesting features of the Antonine Baths, including design, unique features, and information on the archaeological site. It is a good jumping off point for anyone interested in the Antonine baths, although it would better serve that purpose if it had a more extensive bibliography at the end to aid the reader in further research.

Resources for Students
Nielsen, Inge. Thermae et Balnea: the Architecture and Cultural History of Roman Public Baths. vol. 1. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1990.

In Volume 1, Nielsen catalogues the major bath complexes of the Roman world. The baths are divided by territory (Rome, Western Provinces, Britain, North Africa, and Eastern Provinces). Nielsen then gives a general description of the baths found in these areas, making specific references to relevant sites. What makes this book of particular interest is that it is a survey that covers baths all over the Roman World. This is an excellent source for students. The descriptions are easy to understand, and the author provides general trends in the archaeology of the baths as well as specific examples.

Ibid. Thermae et Balnea: the Architecture and Cultural History of Roman Public Baths. vol. 2. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1990.

Volume 2 of Nielsen’s book contains pictures and design plans of all of the baths that were mentioned in Volume 1. Again, it is an excellent resource for students, and teacher would appreciate it for having all the images needed in one place.

Yegül, Fikret. Bathing in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

This book provides an excellent overview of the Roman bathing world. It approaches it from a cultural and archaeological standpoint. There is a good introduction to the evolution of baths, and then it surveys baths around the empire by region. This is an excellent source for students. The studies of the individual bath complexes are not too detailed, and the author writes in a very readable fashion.

Resources for Teachers
Lézine, Alexandre. Carthage-Utique: Etudes d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1968.

This article is something of a grab bag of Carthaginian and Utican archaeology. The part that concerns baths focuses specifically on the similarities of between the Antonine Baths and the other imperial baths at Rome. This would be a good resource for a teacher, although knowledge of French is a must.

Thébert, Yvon. Thermes Romains d’Afrique du Nord et leur Contexte Méditerranéen. Rome: École française de Rome, 2003.

This is a very extensive catalogue of all the discovered baths in Roman North Africa. The beginning of the book provides an extensive study of baths in the Roman world and how they fit into the North African area specifically. The entry on each bath complex includes dating information as well as general description of the site, followed by more detailed information on specific aspects of each bath complex. It is divided by country (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia). Each entry also provides bibliographic information for further study. After the catalogue, there is a collection of inscriptions found at all of the sites. Last, there is an image catalogue that corresponds to each bath complex. This is an invaluable source for teachers, since it provides essentially everything that would be needed for study of any given bath in North Africa. It would also be a good source for a very advanced student. It is written in French, so knowledge of French would be essential.

Wilson, Andrew. “Water Supply in Ancient Carthage.” In “Carthage Papers: the Early Colony’s Economy, Water Supply, a Public Bath, and the Mobilization of State Olive Oil.” JRA (1998; supplementary series 28): 65-102.

This article provides a detailed look at the water transportation and storage systems in Carthage. It has little to do with the baths at Carthage, but there are some references. Even so, water transportation and storage is an essential part of the bath culture, and this article would provide good foundational information for the study of baths. The article might be too dense for students, so it would be good for teachers, who could break down the information into something easier for students. It also provides an extensive bibliography at the end for further study.
  1. ^ Thébert, 2003, p. 141
  2. ^ Yegül, 2010, p. 11
  3. ^ Ibid, p. 42-47
  4. ^ Ibid, p. 81-84
  5. ^ Thébert, 2003, p. 490
  6. ^ Yegül, 2010, p. 2-3
  7. ^ Ibid, p. 48-49
  8. ^ Nielsen, 1990, p. 87
  9. ^ Wilson, 1998, p. 81
  10. ^ Sheldon, p.1
  11. ^ Nielsen, 1990, p. 89-90
  12. ^ Thébert, 2003, p. 142
  13. ^ Ibid, p. 143