Insider’s Rome: le Terme di Caracalla

Though they are named for the Emperor Caracalla, it was probably his father, Severus, who laid the plans for these huge baths…

Most tourists come here by public transport, though the walk from the Forum takes you past a number of sites. Or, if you really liked walking, you could combine the trip with a visit to the Basilica of St John Lateran, Rome’s official cathedral. But however you arrive, do linger. This is a place to take your time in, time enough to get a sense of the sheer scale of it all.

These baths were built when the Roman Empire was at more or less its greatest extent – i.e., when the cracks were starting to show. Power was becoming de-centralised and there was civil unrest at home. What better time to build a huge, great bathing complex?

The baths could fit up to 8,000 people at a time – and that’s not counting the slaves who toiled underground on the heating and plumbing systems. The baths remained in use for 300 years, until the Visigoths cut off Rome’s water supply. Later excavations unearthed all sorts of treasures, many of which ended up in the hands of the Farnese family.

And what of Caracalla? A year after the inauguration of his baths, he was assassinated in Turkey. He was 29. To be fair, he had never had many friends.

Cruel, cowardly, and sly, he wasn’t loved. And he didn’t love much either. He hated his wife so much he had her killed, and he hated his brother so much he had him killed – in the arms of their mother. Yet his mother loved him still. On learning of his murder, she committed suicide. Business at the baths remained brisk.


Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 52. Metro: Circo Massimo. City bus: 118. Closed Monday afternoons. Entrance €6/€3, EU children free.