Roman baths / Bath, England / April 2016
On the vestiges of the Roman Empire in England, relaxing in hot spring waters, and reliving childhood.
It’s been some years since I last sat in a world history class memorizing the countless dates and rulers of the Roman Empire. In the intervening years, much of this information has fallen away (as is the case with most grade school knowledge) until just a hard, permanent core remains. It was only upon stepping foot in Bath that the grand map of the Roman Empire at its height returned to me – the one I pored over in yellowing textbooks thumbed through and graffitied by a hundred hands. The one which includes nearly all of Europe and some of Asia and Africa within a continuous border, shaded one color and representing an improbable conquest lasting an incomprehensible number of years. The one which reminded me that the reach of the Roman Empire extended even to Britain.1
We rolled into Bath by train on an epically sunny day, the surrounding green countryside dotted with tiny lambs and cows, and the city materializing before us with luminous honey-colored buildings. Modern Bath is a neoclassical marvel – a true elegy to symmetry constructed almost entirely from golden Bath stone.2The old mingles freely with the new: the famous Royal Crescent, a series of 30 identical townhouses arranged in a semicircle, faces a park in which we played a round of mini-golf. Georgian-era buildings house numerous contemporary establishments. Even as you pass the flocks of students milling about in the city center, it is still easy to imagine Jane Austen walking these streets (as she once did).
The interface between old and new becomes especially apparent in the Roman baths. Here, you can wander the ancient ruins of Aquae Sulis, the Roman town which once stood on this site, buried for centuries beneath the rubble and detritus of modern Bath. You can wonder at the elaborate complex the Romans built over the miraculous discovery of a natural thermal spring in this wet, sodden climate. You can be struck by how much of ourselves are visible in ancient society – in how the Romans centered their town around a leisure and worship center,3in how they chiseled “curse tablets” that flung insults and implored divine misfortune on thieves, in how they threw coins laden with wishes into murky waters as offerings to the sacred spring. Or, as Seneca wrote in the first century AD, in how there’s always someone who ruins it for everybody: “The picture is not complete without some quarrelsome fellow, a thief caught in the act, or the man who loves the sound of his own voice in the bath – not to mention those who jump in with a tremendous splash.” And, in how humans have always been intensely social creatures and desire company even for their relaxation and recreational activities.
Modern times are the same and they are different. Just across the street, you can bathe yourself in the hot spring waters just as the Romans did.4Thermae Bath Spa, a gleaming glass and stone building, spreads across several floors of pools and steam rooms. You can lose yourself in a repeating and purifying cycle of pool, steam room and shower, with nothing to do but sweat and chat.5On the rooftop, you can look out onto Bath Abbey and watch steam rise off the pool’s surface. The complex does not allow children, so the scene is particularly striking: a hundred adults floating in place with purple pool noodles.6Perhaps leisure activities are all embedded in us from an early age; perhaps we have always used our free time to trade the weight of adulthood for the carefree, burden-less feeling of childhood. The current proliferation of board game bars, adult ballpits, and cereal-only restaurants seems solid evidence in support of this theory. We do what we can to prevent youth from slipping through our fingers like sand. The last grains left we spend on leisure: on the simple pleasure of floating in a hot pool with a foam noodle.
And . . .