The glorious baths of Caracalla are now ruins.

Welcome to the Baths of Caracalla, one of the most elegant and massive Roman baths ever built. As late as the fifth century A.D., over 200 years after it was built, it still was ranked as one of Rome's seven wonders.

If you were a Roman, you would know that the public baths were as much a way of life as they were a place to wash. By the early fifth century A.D., there were almost 900 baths in Rome alone. The typical bath had a mosaic of uses and served as a community center, restaurant, fitness center, bar, and also as a performance center, where a juggler, a musician, or even a philosopher might entertain.

The most likely time you would have visited is in the afternoon, as the Roman workday for most ended by noon. If that time wasn't convenient, you could bathe in the morning or evening, when some baths were lit by torch. The Baths of Caracalla covered 27 acres and could accommodate 1,600 people at a time, so you would have had plenty of company. All would come: infants and elderly, men and women, healthy and ill, freemen and slaves, all of whom often bathed naked and together. If you were there at the right time, you might even share a bath with the emperor himself.

At your service (if you had the money), would be masseurs and food vendors, bartenders and slaves, poets and musicians. The baths were a bustling place, and one man who roomed above one wrote a letter chronicling its noise, complaining of the "grunt" of a weight lifter, a masseur's "pummeling of a shoulder," the occasional "arresting of a pickpocket," and the "racket of a man who likes to hear his own voice."

But his complaints were drowned out by most Romans, who were devotees of the baths. Roman affection for them was typified by the remark one Roman emperor made to a foreigner who asked why the emperor took the trouble to bathe once a day. "Because I do not have the time to bathe twice a day," he replied.

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