Rome is an incredibly rich archaeological site; filled with ruined temples and buildings, it’s a heaven for anyone interested in ancient times. But when you’re looking at a ruined temple with perhaps only three columns left standing, it can be really difficult to imagine what it would have looked like unless you’re a scholar of some sort. Buildings from different time periods in Roman history lie ruined, some on top of others, all jumbled together.
We recently visited Rome and found that it can be easy to feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of ruins and lack of information in some sites in Rome (I’m looking at you, Forum). The husband and I came to the conclusion that a sort of virtual reality display would help you make sense of what you were actually looking at.
Later that evening as we researched what else we could see in Rome, I discovered that the nearby Baths of Caracalla had that same day launched a virtual reality tour; it sounded just like the sort of thing we wished existed elsewhere. We were sold, and put the Baths of Caracalla straight on our must-visit list.
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The Baths of Caracalla (Terme di Caracalla)
The Baths of Caracalla are about a 10 minute walk from the Circus Maximus, away from central Rome, on the ancient Appian Way. Construction was begun by Emperor Septimus Severus and the work was finished about 10 years later by his son and successor, Caracalla, in 216. The complex was Rome’s second largest public baths, and was mentioned as one of the seven wonders of Rome.
At the Baths of Caracalla, Romans relaxed in a series of small baths in a calidarium (hot room), tepidarium (lukewarm room) and a frigidarium (cold room). They heated the rooms using a hypocaust, an under-floor heating system, and the water was supplied by an aqueduct.
There was also a huge swimming pool and several large halls for athletics training. In the complex there were many smaller side rooms for things like oiling or meeting, and some small saunas. Outside there were two libraries, and an athletics track in the large courtyard. The capacity was around 1600 people at a time, and up to 8000 people would visit on any given day. Suffice to say that it was definitely an important social hub for ancient Romans.
The baths were used from 216AD until the 6th century when Ostrogoths cut off Rome’s water supply, which obviously proved to be somewhat of an issue. Over the years of disuse, the baths crumbled; the ceilings caved in and the marble tiles were looted. Many of the statues and the large marble fountains were moved to museums and other Italian cities so you won’t find any ancient treasures on display today.
Instead you can walk through part of the baths; through the frigidarium, the large halls either side, and the former swimming pool. The tepidarium and calidarium are off limits, but you can catch glimpses of them through the fallen archways in the frigidarium.
And thanks to new technology, you don’t have to use your imagination to picture the grandeur of the baths – you can see it for yourself.
The Virtual Reality Tour
So how does the virtual reality at the Baths of Caracalla work?
When you arrive just ask at the ticket desk and you’ll be given a set of goggles which have a small tablet inside. Using the dials on the goggles you can select where you are on the map. Numbered signs dotted about the complex tell you which option to select, and the menu navigation is pretty intuitive.
Peer through the goggles and the room you’re standing in will be transformed into its former glory. In a flash, the tiled polished marble walls return, the shattered mosaics at the side of the halls are complete, and as you look up to the ceiling, vaulted arched and windows are back in their original place.
The digital reconstruction places you in the centre of each room, but it’s sensitive to the direction you face so you can look around the whole room, up and down, and the reconstruction moves with you. A fairly unobtrusive commentary tells you the history of the baths and specifics about each area. For example, I looked after the kids while the husband listened to his commentary and I didn’t notice it blaring out. You’re not going to be deafened by lots of people using it at the same time.
The only issue may be for those who wear glasses – you might have to either remove your glasses or hold the goggles slightly away from your face.
What to see at the Baths of Caracalla
The first thing that strikes you when you arrive at the Baths of Caracalla is their size. The walls are still about 30m high and the complex must have been one of the grandest public buildings in Rome in its heyday.
Once you’ve got your VR goggles, you can enter the baths. You begin your tour walking through one of two large halls, or palaestra. These would have been pillared, with a rectangular area in the centre open to the sky. Colourful mosaics covered the floors and remnants of these are found in patches around the hall, still in remarkably good condition.
It’s thought that these palaestra were used as possible gym areas as mosaics of athletes were found in one of them (the mosaics are now in the Vatican Museums). Vast domes would have been over the doorways leading to other parts of the baths as you can see in the above photo.
The palaestra leads into the frigidarium, which would have been one of the largest rooms at the Baths of Caracalla. When you look through the VR goggles, you can see the large red marble fountain that separated the frigidarium from the swimming pool.
In this part of the reconstruction you can hear from Seneca (an advisor to Nero) lamenting the noise that emanated from the baths daily. To be fair, it does sound as though the baths were a bit of a nuisance to the neighbours!
To your right would have been access to the tepidarium and calidarium. Unfortunately you can’t go into these areas but they would have been hugely impressive, especially the circular, windowed calidarium, which stood several stories high and had a domed ceiling.
Continue through the frigidarium and you’ll find another hall, the mirror image of the one you began the tour in. Again, it’s thought that this room was used for athletics training. A huge statue, the Farnese Bull, once stood in the centre of this hall. The statue survives to this day and can be found in the National Archaeological museum in Naples, but you can see the reconstruction through your goggles. The Farnese Bull is the largest sculpture ever found from ancient times.
Don’t forget to find some of the marble decoration still clinging to the walls and look for more mosaic fragments.
The next room that you’ll come to is an old changing room. This is where you’ll see the most complete examples of the mosaic flooring. The changing rooms would have been a couple of stories high and the remnants of the stairs can be seen at the back of the room.
The changing rooms lead through to the natatio, or swimming pool. Olympic-sized and open-roofed, huge bronze mirrors would have reflected sunlight into the pool, where Romans relaxed after spending time in the hot and cold baths. They played games here too – look out for the game chiselled into one of the pool slabs.
This reconstruction shows the far side of the swimming pool. You can see the alcoves where the statues once stood in my photo immediately above.
After you’ve look around the baths, take a walk around the peaceful gardens outside. There are more ruined buildings to see out here, like the libraries, and you can just sit quietly (if your children let you) and take in the ruins.
The Baths of Caracalla are surprisingly quiet. They’re not really that far off the tourist trail and it was nice to visit somewhere that wasn’t absolutely stuffed with other tourists.
Even if you don’t hire the VR goggles you can still appreciate the ruins, but we thought the VR really added to the tour. The Cub looked through the goggles but honestly, at 4 she’s a little young to fully understand or be that interested! She was much happier just running around with her brother. But the VR is definitely something that will help to pique the interest of older children and teens.
Perhaps we’re just unimaginative philistines, but we hope that virtual reality technology gets rolled out across more ancient sites. For us it really added to the experience, and allowed us to understand so much more about the Baths. It also made the site much more memorable – personally I can remember many more details about the Baths of Caracalla than I can about the Forum, for example.
We didn’t find that the virtual reality detracted from the ruins either. You can still take in the amazing ruins without staring at screens for too long.
Know before you go
Tickets and admission prices
You can buy your tickets when you arrive, or from the website. A full price ticket costs €8 and if you want to hire the VR goggles then it’s an extra €7. The excerpts are fairly short so you could get by on just renting one set of goggles and sharing them. You’ll also need to leave some ID at the desk as insurance.
The Baths of Caracalla are open from 9am every day but closing times vary quite a bit so please check on the website before you go.
You can also get guided tours around the Baths of Caracalla, if you’d prefer.
Getting there and away
You’ll probably have to walk to get to the baths. The nearest tourist bus stop is the Circus Maximus and the baths are about a 15 minute walk away across some busy roads. You can get your City Sightseeing Bus Pass here.
You’ll probably need an hour or two to look around everything and to take it all in. I didn’t see a cafe or anything so you might want to bring your own snacks in case (I could have missed it!).
There are raised ramps in places to get around and some steps. The gravel paths might be tricky to get a pushchair along so using a sling could be more convenient if you have very young children.
A note on the photos
Many thanks to Co-op Culture for supplying images of the reconstruction. All other photos are my own.
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