Aquileia, new rooms discovered in the Great Roman Baths

In the area of the Great Roman Baths of Aquileia, archaeologists from the University of Udine have found new rooms: on the one hand, one with fountains and mosaics, and on the other, a large area of the calidarium apse, an area designated for hot-water baths.

Archaeologists from the Department of Humanities and Cultural Heritage Studies at theUniversity of Udine have uncovered new rooms in the latest excavations at the Great Roman Baths of Aquileia, built in the first half of the fourth century AD: a vast room that housed large basins, mosaics and fountains, and a large area of the calidarium apse, the area designated for hot-water baths.

The research was conducted under a ministerial concession, in agreement with the Soprintendenza Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio del Friuli Venezia-Giulia and in scientific collaboration with Cristiano Tiussi, director of Fondazione Aquileia, which provided financial support for the excavation, and focused on the southeast sector of the large bath building, where excavation has been going on for several years, and on the west sector, a new one, in the area of the heated rooms. The excavation campaign was conducted in September and October by a research team from the Department of Humanities and Cultural Heritage Studies, directed by Matteo Cadario, assisted by Marina Rubinich. Twenty-five students from the bachelor’s degree program, in Cultural Heritage, and master’s degree program, in Archaeology and Cultures of Antiquity, and from the Interathenaeum School of Specialization in Archaeological Heritage participated in the research. “All the activities of excavation, documentation and washing of materials,” Cadario and Rubinich state, “were also carried out in order to better prepare future archaeologists to act on a construction site.”

In the northeastern sector, a room of more than 200 square meters was uncovered that, in the first phase of the baths, housed large basins and perhaps fountains. The most significant element is the room’s mighty concrete foundation and large fragments of reused columns, mostly made of cipolin marble. Several layers of bricks rested on the structure, more than three feet thick, around a circular basin eight feet in diameter. Tubs, niches and walls were to be decorated with colored glass mosaic tiles and shaped slabs of fine marble, the remains of which are found in the fills of the later phase. Between the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century, the circular basin was filled in and the room covered with a large tile mosa ic with a grid of squares containing large stylized flowers. This created a new rectangular room, 15 meters long, which is part of a major renovation not only of this north side but also of the south side, a full 140 meters away. Systematic stripping of wall structures since the late Middle Ages has removed all the walls to considerable depth, making it very difficult to read the different phases. However, a few rare documents of the ancient luxury of the frequenters of the Great Baths have been saved. These include a molded glass necklace grain with a tiny female head datable by its hairstyle to the third century AD, found in one of these fills. The excavation in this area was led by Marina Rubinich, with the support of a small core of professionals, students and residents entrusted to Luciana Mandruzzato.

In the new excavation in the western sector, which covered an area of about 150 square meters, the large apse of the calidarium, the area of the baths intended for hot water and steam baths, with which the building ended, was almost completely uncovered. Of the apse disrupted by vault collapses and lacking the back wall removed later, the massive floor preparation, characterized by the insertion of hundreds of colored marble slabs, is preserved. The identification of the caldarium is ensured by the presence of the double heating system of hypocaust (raised floor supported by stone pillars) and wall (cavity formed by large rectangular fictile tubules). Both were powered by the circulation of hot air from the ovens. Around the apse was then recognized the presence of a brick platform, extensively spoliated, pertaining to service rooms, including at least two praefurnia (the ovens where wood was burned), the embayments of which have been partially brought to light. The presence of thick levels of burning in the hypocaust and the deterioration of the pillars due to high heat show that the caldarium was used for a long time. And this was despite the size and high cost of its operation, which is further evidence of the vitality of Late Antique Aquileia. The excavation in the area, organized as a site-school, was carried out by Chiara Bozzi and Federica Grossi, under the direct supervision of Matteo Cadario. “The discovery of the apse,” explains Cadario, a professor of classical archaeology, “will allow in the future to expand the excavation in order to fully expose the heated area of the building.”

"The Great Baths with their grandeur represented a distinctive feature of Aquileia’s greatness in the imperial age," says Friuli Venezia Giulia Superintendent Simonetta Bonomi. “Investigating their remains and understanding their functional and constructive development, as the University of Udine has been doing for some time now, constitute both a meritorious and important scientific undertaking and an indispensable prerequisite for future valorization.” “The results of the excavation of the Great Baths are of great importance for the Aquileia Foundation,” says director Cristiano Tiussi, “because the prospect of the valorization of this extraordinary and enormous building must represent, for all of us, an inescapable challenge in the not too distant future.”

The Great Baths of Aquileia, or Thermae felices Constantinianae, as they are called in the inscription on a statue base of Constantine found in the area, were built (or completed) at the behest of Constantine himself during the first decades of the fourth century AD. Their location in the southwestern part of the city, between the amphitheater and the theater, suggests the design of a large district dedicated tootium and recreational activities, protected by the new late antique walls. Excavations by the University of Udine, reconnecting with those conducted by the local Soprintendenza Archeologica during the twentieth century, have made it possible to reconstruct a building out of scale even for a city as important as Aquileia, with elevations exceeding 10 meters and with an extension equal to about 2.5 hectares, comparable therefore only to the great public imperial baths built in Rome by Caracalla, Diocletian and Constantine himself. An intervention of this magnitude demonstrates Constantine’s desire to provide Aquileia, like the other cities that became imperial residences at the end of the third century CE, with a spa facility, appropriate to its strategic role and worthy of court attendance. In the imperial baths, the building was organized around a central axis formed by the halls that offered consecutive bathing in waters of different temperatures (hot, lukewarm and cold) according to the model of bathing practice characteristic of the Roman world.

Excavations so far have revealed large halls paved with refined polychrome geometric and figured mosaics or in inlays of multicolored stones and marbles; the huge frigidarium, with its large cold baths; the central part of the large paved pool in which people could swim; the rooms of the northeastern sector, where the superimposition of three successive phases with their respective mosaics is still visible; and some heated rooms of the western sector. In particular, from the large north hall come the exceptionally valuable mosaics now preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Aquileia and depicting marine and athletic subjects. The remakes and restorations of the mosaics show that the Constantinian baths continued to live on until the end of the 5th century AD, even beyond the sacking by Attila in 452 AD. Between the 6th and 7th centuries the ruins were reused for housing purposes by small households and, after the final abandonment and the collapse of the vaults and elevations, became a large quarry for stones and bricks to be reused as building material or to be fired to make lime.

The stripping of the remains of the baths intensified in the late medieval period, removing all the remains of the structures down to the foundations of the walls. This completely transformed the appearance of the site, which prior to the beginning of modern excavations looked like a cultivated field, precisely because of large earthfills placed on the rubble. Today, therefore, only the floors and spoliation trenches of the depredated walls are preserved of the baths until the modern age.

Aquileia, new rooms discovered in the Great Roman Baths
Aquileia, new rooms discovered in the Great Roman Baths

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