Last November I got the chance to visit the Roman Baths built over the hot springs in Bath. I love history, and British history on either side of the Roman invasion particularly. My visit gave me a lot to think about...
The Roman Baths are a magnificent construction. They take advantage of a rare spot where heated water flows naturally out of the earth, and the baths the Roman's built then channelled this steaming green water into a series of man-made pools through a network of impressive underground tunnels.
Where the water reaches the surface it flows out of the tunnels into these murky pools of green water. They have a distinctive smell to them - my Dad guessed a high sulfur content - and are rich in minerals brought with them from the ground, which is why 'taking the waters' used to be so popular for health reasons. The water is still very warm at the surface, and steams in the cold weather.
A large numbers of the columns used in hypocausts were found here too. This was a system of under-floor heating, created by lighting fires below the floor level so that the hot air circulated between the columns, warming the floor tiles above. I first saw these at Hardknott Fort in the Lake District and they still fill me with admiration for a culture we tend to think of as so inferior to ours. In reality they were totally ingenious!
What intrigued me the most on my trip were the British elements left in the remains. The baths themselves are testament to the strange relationship the native Britons had with Rome. On the one hand, the Romans had invaded the country and were occupying it. They had imposed their rule on the people, claimed much of their lands, and forced resistance back to where Hadrian's Wall is now. On the other they dedicated the baths to an amalgamation of their own goddess and a similar British deity, co-naming it Sulis Minerva. My personal suspicion is that this was a deliberate gesture to gain the favour of the town (of course I have no idea if it worked) but some scholars are beginning to think that some of the British welcomed the newcomers. Rome certainly brought a lot to the table, and once everyone had got used to the new arrangement there would have been benefits for the British too.
I also saw this plaque below, which intrigued me. It was cast into the baths as a sacrifice or gift to the British gods (the people then believed that water had a link to the spirit world because of it's both deadly and life-giving properties). The art work on the plaque is British, and depicts a triple-goddess. The hot springs had been a place where the human world met the spirits world, and therefore a place to communicate with the gods. And the Romans had built a bath house over it. But still the sacrifices continued.
The spring had been, to all purposes, taken over by Rome - but what had it meant before? What must it feel like to have strangers come to the land you love and built temples to their gods over your sacred places? Whether Rome tried to integrate or not, I still had the picture in my head of Romano-Brits coming here, not to take the waters but to pray. And to leave their sacrifices to the gods of the spring...