History of the Baths
The baths themselves were situated in the North West Quadrant of the city. The baths comprised a large public building, estimated to have spanned 5,500 square metres. The baths represent one of the most iconic cultural imports associated with the Roman period in Britain, along with amphitheatres, villas and roads.
The excavations carried out in 1974-1975 revealed an area of the public baths, which included a range of hot rooms, an apsidal room, cold plunge bath, a large cistern and sewer. Archaeological fieldwork confirmed that the construction of the baths began in the Flavian period and continued into the early 2nd century AD. This was a period of construction and alteration, and archaeological evidence for the presence of timber structures may represent workmen's huts built on site to service craftsmen and labourers during the construction of the baths. These structures were demolished on completion of the works before an area of hard-standing was laid down, which may have been used as an outdoor exercise area or an area for the delivery of fuel for the furnaces, and other necessary supplies for the day-to-day running of the baths. Between the 2nd - 5th centuries the baths were subject to further alterations as fashions for types of bathing changed, before eventually falling into decline.
Construction and Design
The baths themselves would have been richly decorated, with plastered and painted walls, coloured-marble cladding, and some mosaic and opus sectile floors. Supplied by a water cistern, with water drained via ditches into a main sewer, the building would have provided hot rooms, plunge pools, and other recreation areas. The cistern was massive, and water would have been hand-pumped up into the tank, before a network of water pipes, drains and sewers would have ensured a continual flow of clean water. The degree of workmanship seen within the remains during the original excavations was compared with that seen at Fishbourne Roman Palace, and the kind of sophisticated and strategic planning involved in the construction of both the Palace and the Baths is also comparable.
Purpose of the Baths
Baths were centres of recreation, but also would have fulfilled a deeper social and cultural role - imperial or local elite propaganda could be displayed through visual forms such as sculpture and painting, and the territorial scope of the empire was celebrated through the use of imported materials. People would have visited the baths daily, and it was a place to exchange gossip, meet clients, relax, and engage in activities connected with the Roman concept of 'cultus' - the care of the body as a sign of civilisation and culture. It was also one of those Roman cultural imports seen as a part of the process called 'Romanisation' - where populations joining the empire underwent a process of acculturation as a result of access to, and familiarisation with, Roman social and cultural models. Traditionally this was seen as an imperialistic policy by the Romans to subjugate the provinces:
"Hence the Roman habit began to be held in honour, and the toga was frequently worn. At length they gradually deviated into a taste for those luxuries which stimulate to vice; porticos, and baths, and the elegancies of the table; and this, from their inexperience, they termed politeness, whilst, in reality, it constituted a part of their slavery."
Tacitus, Agricola 21
It is now considered by archaeologists to have been a process of gradual cultural adoption of Roman ways as part of a more complex exchange of ideas, and certainly some provinces actively 'bought in' to the Roman way of life. There were however always those who would have resisted this erosion of their native customs and traditions. Perhaps not everyone would have visited the baths.
The decline of the baths is difficult to chart. Decline may have initially been slow, with the baths having experienced a lack of regular care and maintenance. The cistern and sewer system show ongoing activity until the 4th century. The lack of some finds we would expect from similar sites perhaps reveals the level of robbery in later periods, when building material, and valuable commodities such as lead and bronze, would have been plundered for re-use. The decline of the baths not only reflects the decline of Roman Chichester, but the overall decline of Roman rule in Britain, as the whole empire experienced economic and social upheaval.
However, the in-situ archaeology is not just about the Roman baths - only some of what can be seen is Roman in date, and therefore there are signs of continuity across time.