Septimius Severus was emperor of Ancient Rome from 193 to 211 AD; in 206 AD he began construction on what is known today as Rome’s most “beautiful and luxurious baths,” The Baths of Caracalla.  The project was finished in 216 AD under the rule of Severus’s son, Caracalla.  These baths are regarded as one of his principal achievements as ruler (and even named one of the seven wonders of Rome), though—unfortunately—his time as emperor has been acknowledged as a large contribution to the decay of the Roman Empire.  The Baths of Caracalla stayed in use until the 6th century, falling into disuse and ruin.  The space accommodated around 1,600 bathers at a time, though 6,000-8,000 visitors were said to have used the facilities per day, which included: sports courts, auxiliary rooms, and a garden for games, exercise, reading/studying, and body care.  After Caracalla’s death, additional decorations were added to the Baths by his successors: Elagabalus, Severus Alexander, Aurelian, Diocletian, and then Constantine the Great.
It is hypothesized that in order for the Baths of Caracalla to have been completed in the speculated time frame, workers would have had to been installing over 2,000 tons of materials everyday for six years.  The finished complex covered approximately 62 acres, measuring 1105 x 1076 feet as a rectangular structure.  Parts of nearby hills were removed or leveled into platforms to accommodate the original architectural plans.  The finished space consisted of: several million bricks and 252 columns.  An aqueduct, the Acqua Nova Antoniniana, ran underground and connected to the southern side of the baths and filled approximately 18 cisterns, connected by lead pipes.  A hypocaust—a system of burning wood and coal underground to heat water provided by an aqueduct—heated the building.  Also: the axis of the baths was laid out in a ‘northeast to southwest’ fashion in order to make use of the heat from the sun.
The main bath building was 214 x 110 meters and 145 feet high, covering 6.5 acres.  Within the complex were two separate public libraries of equally-sized rooms for Greek language texts and Latin language texts; this was standard for public libraries in Rome at the time.  The Bath building consisted of three main bath chambers: a central cold room (frididarium) with four pools, a double pool (tepidarium), a circular hot room (caldarium) with seven pools—topped with a dome comparable in size to the Pantheon, two gyms (palaestras) where boxing and wrestling were often practiced, and saunas (laconia).
Egyptian granite, marble, and bronze were some of the main materials used to construct the Baths of Caracalla; lavish mosaics, frescoes, and other decorations ornamented the interior.  Glass windows helped contract and insulate heat for the large rooms.  The baths were estimated to have more than 120 ornamental sculptures, and the most “lavish assortment of statues” of all the antique baths in Rome.  Many were taken and destroyed in the Middle Ages in order to make Lime.  Pope Paul III excavated the remaining sculptures in the 16th century en lieu of decorations for the palazzo.  The Farnese Bull and the Farnese Hercules are two of the well-known sculpture recovered from the Baths of Caracalla.
Between 1947 and 1951, the space was used for the Rome Grand Prix; in 1960 the Summer Olympics held the gymnastics events in the structure; today, The Baths of Caracalla are used for “open-air performances” of opera and ballet; it is also a popular tourist attraction, open to the public.
In Roman times, the Baths of Diocletian and the Basilica of Maxentius took great influence from the architecture of the Baths of Caracalla; in the Renaissance, Architects Andrea Palladio and Donato Bramante used the Baths for inspiration; and during the 19th and early 20th centuries, several modern structures were influenced, including Saint George’s Hall in Liverpool, England, the original Pennsylvania Station in New York City, and Chicago’s Union Station.  Union Station and Pennsylvania Station’s main halls—especially in the ceilings—used direct copies of the frigidarium’s architecture.
            Pennsylvania Station was a railroad station in New York City, though it shared its name with many other cities’ stations at the time.  It was designed by the architecture firm McKim, Mead, and White, completed in 1910 and demolished in 1963 as rail-usage declined; it was replaced by Madison Square Garden and Pennsylvania Plaza.  784 x 430 feet and occupying 8 acres, the original Pennsylvania Station Building was considered a “masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style”—a neoclassical architectural style cumulative of two and a half centuries of instruction from the Academie Royale d’Architecure and the Academie des Beaux-Arts.  The demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station sparked interest and support for architectural preservation across America, leading to “the advent of historical preservation.
            McKim studied the role of public buildings in Ancient Rome while envisioning and planning the structure of the station.  The main waiting room in the late Pennsylvania Station is directly inspired by the Baths of Caracalla, executed in a steel framework clad in plaster.  At the time, this 150 feet high interior was the largest indoor space in New York City and one of the largest in the world.  In 2007, Historian Jill Jonnes called the edifice “a great Doric temple to transportation.
            The comparisons of the old Pennsylvania Station and the Baths of Caracalla are apparent in: the use of columns, ornate interior sculpture, and the use of high ceilings to create a more spacious feel in spaces that were susceptible to overcrowding.  Both spaces also had gallery areas where individuals could rest before going on to their ‘next move’—for the bathers it may have been a case of walking from the sport courts to the saunas, and for the travelers of Pennsylvania Station it may have been a rest stop (or lounge) for servicemen to take a lunch-break.
            Both places were a cultural symbol of the community they served, the Baths of Caracalla showing the exuberant wealth of Rome, as well as the artistry of sculpture and statues that commemorated the officials of the time, while Pennsylvania Station was regarded as “an architectural quality in precious materials that set the stamp of excellence on a city.”  The demolition of the station caused great uproar in the city, with protesting signs reading ‘save Penn Station’ and ‘don’t sell our city short.
            Obviously, Pennsylvania Station was not a bath house and the Baths of Caracalla were not a railway station, though both served as public buildings with a purpose to serve their communities.  The 16 miles of underground tunnels used in Pennsylvania Station can be compared to the enormous amount of spaces within the Baths of Caracalla, though the Bath’s multitudes of rooms and space was much more accessible and versatile than the underground tunnels that funneled in individuals from the Greater City of New York area.
            While the Baths of Caracalla have been excavated, refurbished, and protected as a museum-space in present day, the current Pennsylvania Station is criticized for lacking in comparison to its more ornate counterpart, Grand Central Terminal—being criticized as a “low-ceilinged catacomb.”
Interested?  Here are some books from our collection that deal with the same subjects…
Chronicle of the Roman Emperors
Scarre, Christopher
DG274.S28 1995
Handbook of Greek and Roman architecture
Robertson, Donald Struan
NA260 .R6 1969
Principles of Roman architecture
Wilson Jones, Mark
NA310 .W55 2003
Conquering Gotham : a Gilded Age epic : the construction of Penn Station and its tunnels
Jonnes, Jill
TF302.N7 J66 2007
The late, great Pennsylvania Station
Diehl, Lorraine B.
NA6313.N4 D5 1996
The Destruction of Penn Station: photographs by Peter Moore
Moore, Peter
NA6313.N4 M66 2000


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Rasmussen, Frederick N. (April 21, 2007). "From the Gilded Age, a monument to transit". The Baltimore Sun.
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