Italian officials blocked McDonald’s from building near the Baths of Caracalla, according to an article published on Reuters. In a statement about the baths, Mayor Virginia Raggi, of Rome, said on Twitter that Italy must “protect the wonders of Rome.” Why are they so treasured?
The Reuters article reported that the proposed McDonald’s would have stood between the ancient Aurelian walls of Rome and the baths. Although there are other McDonald’s restaurants in Rome, the location would have been built in a specific area that holds strict regulations about preserving history. The Baths of Caracalla date back to the 3rd century and are both a tourist attraction and a historical landmark.
By the 1st century B.C., Roman bathhouses surged in popularity. One could go for a quick dip, sit in a sauna, and get a massage. It’s widely believed that Emperor Septimius Severus commissioned the Baths of Caracalla in 211 A.D., shortly before his death. “The project was then carried forward by his son and successor, Caracalla, who inaugurated the not-quite-complete facility in 216 A.D.,” said Dr. Stephen Ressler, Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point. “At that time, the central bath building was complete, as was the elaborately landscaped terrace, bounded by a two-level arcade along the front and sides. The outer precincts of the complex, including two libraries and a stadium, weren’t actually completed until 235 A.D., however.”
According to Dr. Ressler, the main bath building is more than 400 yards from end to end and featured four main bathing spaces aligned symmetrically on its central axis. There was a large, open-air swimming pool called a “natatio,” a cold water bath area called a “frigidarium,” a hot water bath area known as the “caldarium,” and an area with two warm water pools to transition between the cold and hot bath areas called a “tepidarium.” The cold water bath area and hot water bath areas featured four and seven pools each, respectively. Architecturally speaking, the Baths of Caracalla are grand and eloquent—a marvel of ancient Italian craftsmanship. Dr. Ressler described its decoration, saying that the baths featured “marble and mosaic floors, marble wall panels, a stucco coating over the vaults, elaborate fountains, and larger-than-life figural sculptures.”
A City in Microcosm
The Baths of Caracalla were like a small city in and of themselves, thus offering a valuable look at Roman city planning with their design. “The frigidarium served as a central meeting place, like the forum in a Roman town,” Dr. Ressler said. “Bathers could circulate easily from the frigidarium to any other room in the building along well-defined corridors, not unlike the main roads of a planned city.”
Additionally, the city-like structure of the baths didn’t end with its traffic patterns. “The building’s layout also reflects a surprisingly sophisticated appreciation for energy efficiency,” Dr. Ressler said. “The caldarium and other heated rooms were situated in a single row facing southwest, because these rooms would receive direct sunlight from midday until evening, when the baths were used most frequently.”
Between their history, magnificence, and practical yet artful design, it’s little wonder the Italian government has chosen to be cautious and avoid risking the potential problems that would come with building a fast food restaurant too near the Baths of Caracalla. For now at least, the “Golden Arches” are one construction that Caracalla’s visitors won’t be able to take in.
Dr. Stephen Ressler contributed to this article. Dr. Ressler is Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). He earned a B.S. from West Point and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Lehigh University, as well as a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College.