They were ransacked by the Visigoths and looted by popes for the building of their basilicas, but the original splendour of the Roman Empire’s largest baths complex has been revealed once more thanks to virtual reality technology.
As of today, visitors to Rome will be able to use sophisticated virtual reality goggles to unlock the secrets of the monumental Baths of Caracalla, which were constructed in the heart of the capital in the early third century AD.
Peer through the goggles and the towering brick remains of the baths are transformed into vaulted chambers decorated with coloured mosaic floors, soaring marble columns and statues of muscular gods and nubile nymphs.
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As you wander around the site, the 3D image changes constantly, revealing twin statues of Hercules, giant marble baths and shimmering swimming pools.
The goggles, which come with the seven euro entrance fee, reveal the richly-decorated interiors of atriums and chambers where naked Romans once took part in wrestling, boxing and running races, before rinsing themselves off in the cold water of the “frigidarium” and relaxing in the hot water of the “caldarium”.
It was not all sweaty grappling and strenuous weight-lifting; there were two vast libraries, one stocked with Greek texts, the other with Latin.
The virtual reality images are accompanied by an audio commentary which sheds light on the fascinating minutiae of the day-to-day life of the baths.
Although there were lockers in which to leave clothes and valuables, just like a modern gym, rich Romans were afraid of having their belongings stolen and so brought along slaves to guard them.
Marble slabs which once lined an enormous swimming pool are indented with small hollows, which formed the basis for a popular game in which players had to flick marbles or bone knuckles from one hole to another.
“The game was known as “tropa” in Latin and it was a bit like mini-golf, only with bones or glass balls,” said Marina Piranomonte, the director of the site.
The digital recreation of the bathing complex, down to fine details such as niches for statues and elaborate mosaics, is based on 30 years of scholarship.
“We went back and forth with the archaeologists to make sure we could recreate it exactly as it was,” said Giovanna Barni, the head of Coop Culture, the company that developed the software and goggles.
“This is the first archaeological site in Italy, and possibly the world, to be brought alive with this kind of virtual reality technology. We hope it enriches people’s visits.”
When they were built, the baths were the biggest in the Roman Empire, although they were superseded about a century later by the Baths of Diocletian, also in Rome, which were constructed at the beginning of the fourth century AD.
Beneath the complex were miles of tunnels, where slaves scurried about, treading giant wheels that pumped water up to the swimming pools and tending the heating system.
The baths were eventually abandoned in the sixth century, when the invading Visigoths sacked Rome and destroyed its aqueducts, cutting off the city’s water supply.
In the Middle Ages they were used as a quarry by popes, who looted the finest columns and statuary for the construction of new churches and cathedrals.
The digital recreation of the bath’s sumptuous interior is based on statues and mosaics that still exist, albeit no longer in situ.
When the site was excavated on the orders of Pope Paul III in the 16th century, decorations were rediscovered but then carted off to collections in the Vatican, Naples and beyond.
Towering granite columns were used in the building of a medieval church in Rome, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.
“Through virtual reconstruction, we can return them to their original locations,” said Francesco Prosperetti, the director of Rome’s cultural heritage department. “It’s a journey back in time.”