Wroxeter Swimming Bath: unfinished slab in foreground
SEVERAL Roman swimming baths have recently been dis covered in Britain. This immedi ately raises the question: what is a swimming bath? how, if at all, does it differ from the ordinary plunge bath found in any Roman baths establishment? Two criteria may be suggested.
The first must be one of size and more particularly of depth. As is well known, the usual Roman 'baths' are what we would call Turkish baths, that is, a series of heated rooms in which the bathers exercised before entering the cold room and plunging into cold baths. The so-called 'plunge' baths were often so small that if anyone had tried to dive in head first they would have hit their heads on the bottom or the far side. They were usually little more than immersion baths in which swimming, if at all possible, would be limited to a very few strokes.
The second criterion must be that of their function and position in regard to the rest of the bathing establishment. If a pool forms an integral part of a complex of baths, in a cold room (frigidarium) with heated rooms attached, then it is probably only a large plunge
Roman swimming baths bath. But when a pool is isolated it probably had some other function and is more likely to have been a swimming bath. In the hot climate of North Africa there are many large and luxurious baths, many of which have plunge baths of great size, often extending right down one side of the frigidarium. It would certainly be possible to swim in some of them—though the depth was often only 3 to 4 feet—yet their position shows that their function must have been pri marily to provide an escape from the heat, the bather lolling against the side submerged in cool water.
One of the largest swimming baths in this country is that recently discovered just north of London at Gadebridge Park, Hemel Hempstead, by David Neal. This measures 68 feet by 40 feet and is more than 5 feet deep, thus giving ample depth for swimming. At the western end five steps lead down into the baths, whilst water entered at the north-west corner and drained from an outlet in the south wall. Since the bath was discovered in 1962, excavation has concentrated on the villa to which it was attached. This appears to have started in the latter part of the first century as a small farm, and to have expanded during the second and third centuries to a fairly typical medium sized villa based on a farming economy. There was a small set of baths and also the usual rooms, some of them heated living quarters, others merely barns, ail arranged probably around a central courtyard.
In the beginning of the fourth century, however, the great swimming pool was constructed, to the north-east of the villa adjacent to the existing baths which were themselves enlarged. It is difficult to see how a private villa could justify the existence of so large a bath and it is therefore suggested that it was in fact a public pool, a speculative venture perhaps by the owner of the villa. In the nineteenth century medicinal springs were exploited a couple of miles away, but the water at the site itself is normal. Whatever the reason behind it, the venture does not appear to have been a success for the pool was soon abandoned and used as a soot dump.
A more recent discovery has been that of the swimming bath attached to the baths inside the legionary fortress at Caerleon which is near Newport, Monmouthshire, on the River Usk. The existence of baths at all inside a military fort is still something of a novelty, for it used to be the