BMCR 2020.04.02

Decoration and display in Rome’s imperial thermae: messages of power and their popular reception at the Baths of Caracalla

, Decoration and display in Rome's imperial thermae: messages of power and their popular reception at the Baths of Caracalla. . Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xii, 430 p.. ISBN 9780190614782. $99.00.


Decoration and Display in Rome’s Imperial Thermae is redefining how we look at the Baths of Caracalla, in particular, but also at imperial thermae, generally. Gensheimer employs several methodologies, including those of art history, urban studies, and reception theory, to argue that Caracalla’s baths were innovative in more than just their size and technological features. She demonstrates that the emperor and his architects/artists made unusual and highly meaningful decorative choices, particularly in the inclusion of colossal mythical sculptures and sculptured groups, and references to military themes. With this publication, the author makes a significant contribution to the fields of classical studies, art history, archaeology, architectural history, and urban studies.

In the first chapter, Gensheimer outlines the state of the scholarship on imperial baths and explains her own methodologies. Her aim is “to unveil the cultural and sociopolitical forces that shaped monumental public spaces and their visual experience” (36). She notes the tendency of earlier studies to focus on the types of freestanding sculpture[1] or the architectural features[2] of the large imperial complexes, but while the current work owes much to these predecessors, it stands out as significantly different, offering new critiques and theories.

On the whole, I find the author’s arguments quite appealing and well-reasoned. In chapter 2, she does a masterly job of sleuthing to reassemble the artworks that (most likely) decorated the Baths of Caracalla, her focus being the complex as it was in 216 C.E. Within this chapter (62-75), she provides a catalogue of all the decoration associated with the bath complex, organized first under the headings “Works with Known Provenance” and “Works with Unknown Provenance,” next by space (frigidarium, palaestra, etc.), and finally by category of art: freestanding sculpture, architectural decoration, pavements, furnishings, and walls and ceilings. Each item is numbered.

In the third chapter, Gensheimer offers new, largely convincing and well-supported interpretations of the ideological program of the decorative assemblage of the baths. She sets the stage by first explaining the decoration of Roman baths generally, the sorts of themes typical to baths and palaestrae. This approach allows her to show how the décor of the Baths of Caracalla is both typical and atypical. The atypical themes include: a heavy emphasis on Hercules, Bacchus, Venus, and Mars; military endeavors; and colossal mythological sculptures and groups. Gensheimer argues that the riot of color used in the complex as well as the colossal size of architectural elements, sculptures, and furnishings were a “demonstration of the emperor’s unique command of material resources and remote geography” (98). The repetition of images of the selected deities ties into Severan imperial themes. I like how she deals with what are likely historical friezes from the two palaestrae (some fragments still in situ. These depict Roman military figures and barbarians, with some possible geographic features, though not enough to identify the subject matter beyond that of military campaigns. Another frieze illustrates weapons and armor. Gensheimer’s suggestion that the decoration of the two palaestrae, east and west, focused on Parthia and Britannia/Germania, respectively, seems quite plausible. The colossal sculptures associated with the Baths of Caracalla are a particularly interesting and unusual feature of the decoration, as much for their technical skill as for their violent subject matter. Gensheimer argues they could appeal to a broad audience, as mass entertainment (think arena games) or stimuli to “erudite discussion” (134).

In the fourth chapter, the author uses cognitive space theory to propose how visitors might have interacted with the decoration and spatial features of the baths. Color and pattern are seen as the defining elements used in primary and secondary hierarchies. The main bathing rooms (frigidarium, tepidarium, caldarium, and natatio) have opus sectile décor, while the palaestrae and main entrances feature polychrome mosaic. Ancillary areas are demarcated by black-and-white mosaic. Similarly, Gensheimer argues that the sculptures were carefully arranged, e.g., the pairing of the Weary Hercules with the Latin Hercules, both placed for optimal viewing. She makes a strong case for reading the colossal statuary (which would have been painted and highly visible) as path-markers or, as she calls them, “visual beacons” for the bathers that would guide them through the massive structure of the baths (164). The colossal sculpture and groups in particular encouraged movement through the bathing complex. The fifth chapter examines the location of the baths as tied to earlier Severan topography along the Via Appia (Septizodium, Baths of Septimius Severus) and themes of triumph and military conquest.

The book seems generally well organized and flows nicely. There are some annoyances. The decorative material is listed three times: in the catalogue in chapter 2 (62-75), in Appendix 1 (“Decorative Statistics from the Baths of Caracalla” 249-70), and in Appendix 2 (“Freestanding Sculpture from the Baths of Caracalla”, 271-388). The numbering of items in the catalogue of chapter 2 and in Appendix 1 appears to be the same. Note, however, that the numbering system in Appendix 2 does not match the original catalogue, except for numbers 1–22. This is unfortunate, as it can lead to confusion and needless flipping of pages back and forth. In chapter 2 there are cross-references to the appendix but not from Appendix 2 back to the original list. Given the subject matter of the book, it is regrettable that there are no color images and that the images are not larger and clearer.

Those quibbles aside, this is an outstanding book. Gensheimer calls into question a number of past conclusions regarding the sculptural decoration of Roman baths (e.g., Manderscheid, Marvin, and Jenewein) and offers compelling new arguments and interpretations: for example, she clearly proves, in my opinion, that the sculptures, in particular the colossi, were specifically designed for the baths and, even more, for their specific locations in the baths. This, in turn, lends strength to her interpretation of the iconographical message of the decorative program of the baths.


[1] See, for example, H. Manderscheid, Die Skulpturenausstattung der kaiserzeitlichen Thermenanlagen. Monumenta Artis Romanae. Berlin: Gebr.Mann, 1981; M. Marvin, “Freestanding Sculptures from the Baths of Caracalla,” AJA 87 (1983): 347-84; D. Candilio, “La decorazione scultorea delle terme imperiali,” in Rotunda Diocletiani: Sculture decorative delle terme nel Museo Nazionale Romano, edited by M. R. di Mino, 15-24, Rome, 1991; C. Gasparri, “Gli scultori provenienti dalle Terme di Caracalla e di Diocleziano ,” RivIstArch, ser. 3 (1983-84), 133-50.

[2] J. Delaine, The Baths of Caracalla: A Study in the Design, Construction, and Economics of Large-Scale Building Projects in Imperial Rome.Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1997; G. Jenewein, Die Architekturdekoration der Caracallenthermen, 3 vols. Historisches Institut beim Österreichischen Kulturform in Rome. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichische Akademie der Wissenshaften, 2008.