By Natasha Sheldon
The Antonine Bath Complex in Roman Carthage was unique. Built between 146 and 162AD, it was started in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian and completed under his successor Antoninus Pius, after whom they were named.
What remains of the baths is fragmentary but substantial enough to give an impression of the complex’s sheer size and opulence in its heyday. The unique construction also shows ability of Roman design and engineering to adapt to the landscape.
Design of the Bath Complex.
The baths were situated on the coast of Carthage and supplied with water from the Borj Jedid cisterns. These in their turn were fed with water from the Zaghouan Mountains via aqueducts constructed by the Emperor Hadrian.
This coastal setting was incorporated into the layout of the baths. An open air pool with sun terrace was constructed on the seaward side of the complex to make the most of the view. The sea itself was accessible from the baths via a grand staircase.
The baths had all the essential features of a Roman bathing complex. On the landward side, they were equipped with two sets of semicircular communal lavatories and a palaestra for exercise.
The bathing facilities were subdivided by sex. Each consisted of tepidaria (warm rooms), caldaria (hot rooms) and a central frigidarium (cold room).
What made the baths stand out was their sheer scale and size. The central frigidarium was a vast domed structure of 22m x 47 m. The dome itself was supported by 8 fluted grey granite columns topped with marble capitals each weighing four tons. Besides the outdoor pools, there were a number indoors. The largest of these was the size of a modern Olympic swimming pool.
Unique Features of the Antonine Baths.
What made the complex really unique was the way it was built. Because the baths were so close to the sea, particularly deep foundations were required. This made it impossible to situate service areas in the basement as was usual.
So the architects adapted the design and raised everything a level. Instead of situating the bathing rooms on the ground floor, they were located on the upper floors of the complex. Their usual place on the ground level was taken by the hypocausts, water supply, store rooms and staff rooms.
The Archaeological Remains of the Antonine Baths.
This unique design is one of the reasons that little remains of the bath complex. The upper stories were lost when the basement roof collapsed, sometime after the baths fell into misuse. Much of the ruined masonry was removed to be used in buildings elsewhere.
The only visible remains are of the ground floor service areas. The furnaces can still be clearly identified as can storage areas for wood to heat the hypocaust and the earthenware pipes for the hot water.
The sheer scale even of these limited remains hints at the enormity of the overall structure. As do the remaining fragments of carved and inscribed masonry that lie about the ruins.
Author's 2006 visit to Tunisia
Tomkinson, Michael (2005). Tunisia. Michael Tomkinson Publishing.
Romano Africano Tunisia (146 BC-439AD). Ministere de la Culture, Tunisia