Why Seneca hated Diocletian’s Baths

At the T-junction of the present-day Via Nazionale and the Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlando in Rome, lies the Piazza della Republica. Glancing up from your Café Latte you will see a large but somewhat nondescript Romanesque building – part ruin, part cathedral and part museum. This is what remains of the largest civic bath house in ancient Rome – indeed the largest in the Roman empire. In fact, Baths of Diocletian is probably a bit of a misnomer, because they were actually built by Diocletian’s co-emperor, Maximian, though Diocletian was the senior of the two and pulled the political strings for both of them.

Diocletian baths

The baths were in part a response to a series of public health crises that regularly brought Rome to a standstill. Rome was built on a drained swamp, and mosquito and water-borne diseases were rife. Previous emperors had recognised that hygiene played a role in disease control, and so, in addition to running water, and an enormous sewer system – the Cloaca Maximus – a series of public baths were built for the general population. And it became part of the daily routine to socialise at the public baths before returning home to dine, or before eating at one of the many restaurants and fast food outlets along the Roman streets.

Little did the Romans realise that while their intentions were sound, their knowledge of sanitation engineering was flawed. The sewer water and the stormwater ran through the same system, so any blockage meant that raw sewage flowed down the streets – which particularly in Summer, must have stunk unbearably. In addition, the system of baths with their flow-through of hot, tepid and cold water provided the perfect breeding ground for water-borne bacteria, leading to a series of deadly epidemics, which decimated Rome’s population. These included malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid fever, as well as various forms of gastroenteritis.

Diocletian baths

Frigidarium of Diocletian’s Baths, Rome

Seneca, for his part, was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist – and was known for writing quite bluntly about life in Rome. He had a fashionable apartment overlooking or perhaps above the Diocletian baths complex – which included a gymnasium, sauna, the baths, two libraries and doubtless a brothel. The complex was built to cater for the rapid population growth in that part of Rome, so it was a busy new centre just up the road from the Forum. And Seneca hated them. It wasn’t that he was averse to taking a bath – hygiene was important to all Romans, but he was often disturbed by the noise. The equivalent today would be having an inner-city apartment next door to a large fashionable hotel which hosted a loud rock band every night.

In a letter to Lucilius (number 56), Seneca observed:

Beshrew me if I think anything more requisite than silence for a man who secludes himself in order to study! Imagine what a variety of noises reverberates about my ears! I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones.

Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional (sports commentator) comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch.

Add to this the arresting of an occasional roisterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, – for purposes of advertisement, – continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cake seller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.

I’ve no doubt we can all relate to the weight-lifting poseurs, the loudly broadcast sports channels and the bathroom singer, and I can just imagine all that being magnified as they try to out-do the raucous din of late-night drinkers and spruikers!

Of course, all that has passed into history, and now a majestic Catholic cathedral designed by Michaelangelo occupies what was once one of the libraries, thereby turning a profane place of excess and debauchery into a sacred and tranquil space.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

In addition to the interior, Michaelangelo was also commissioned to design the accompanying cloister and Charterhouse. The cloister was likely entrusted to a pupil, Giacomo del Duca, as Michaelangelo died in 1564, and work commenced on the cloister a year later. It was completed in 1600. It is likely that Giacomo de Duca was involved at least at the beginning, though it is unclear if he saw the completion. In the end, it was an extraordinary piece of architecture.

Diocletian baths

Diocletian came closest, perhaps, to wiping out Christianity in ancient Rome, through persecution and torture of Christians in an effort to reinstate the old pantheon of gods. So it is with some irony, that the very religion that Diocletian tried so strenuously to suppress, now occupies a building intimately linked to Diocletian’s name.

 

Cassini – Science the Church and a Gnomon

As the Cassini Saturn probe prepares for its final few orbits before being de-orbited into the planet, it’s worth considering who it was named for – the C16th Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini. These days the Vatican collaborates with the European Space Agency and NASA on space science. Even the Vatican Library uses an image file storage system developed by NASA – it was a system originally designed for radio astronomy.

But it is worth remembering that the Church has often had an uneasy relationship with science. Galileo Galilei was tried in 1633 for heresy by the Inquisition and was sentenced to formal imprisonment – one of the Church’s ‘oops’ moments – later commuted to house arrest.

In 1582, when Galileo was just 18, Pope Gregory revised the calendar, as the Julian calendar developed under Julius Caeser was getting embarrassingly out of step with the solar year (it lacked leap years). But the introduction of the more accurate Gregorian calendar that we use today, presented a new problem. The major Feast Days needed some re-calibration. The most difficult one was Easter – a so-called Moveable Feast – and a pretty important one to the Christian faith. It was supposed to fall on the Sunday following the first full moon after Spring Equinox (20 March). While today we just look it up on Google or wait for Facebook to remind us, it was a bit more complicated back in the C16th. You see, the problem was that the Church followed the lunar year, while everyone else followed the solar year, and they don’t quite match up. It was time to find some astronomers who hadn’t yet been executed for heresy, and who would admit to being astronomers… no pressure then.

Genovese astronomer Egnazio Danti (cosmologist to Cosimo de Medici I) was called to Bologne to work with Pope Gregory’s Calendar Commission to help determine accurate dates for the Spring Equinox – and by extension, Easter. He constructed a Gnomon – a sight line – inside the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologne and cut a hole high in the wall to allow the sun to shine through onto the gnomon. This was used to determine the path of the sun at certain times of the year, and help with measuring the lunar cycle too. But less than 100 years later, some renovations designed to expand the Basilica meant that the wall with the hole for the sun was removed (oops)… So in 1655, a mere 20 years after Galileo’s death, Giovanni Cassini was brought in to design a new gnomon in the same church. His ambitious plan was to build a much longer gnomon for more accurate observations. His ulterior motive was to prove Galileo’s observation that the Earth went around the sun, not the sun around the earth – this time without getting into trouble with the Inquisition.

So what has this to do with travel? You can still see Cassini’s gnomon today in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologne. But if you are visiting Rome you can find another Gnomon – it’s worth checking out the floors in some of these churches, and look for an angled line in bronze running across the floor… There’s also one at the Church of San Sulpice in Paris (pictured below) – made famous by the movie of Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

Church of St Sulpice Paris

The C16th Basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli in Rome was dedicated as a Basilica in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. But from the outside, it doesn’t look much like a church at all. Curiously, it was built inside the ruined Frigidarium of the Roman baths of Diocletian (ca 300AD), thus preserving a significant part of the ancient Roman building into the modern age.

 

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

The church itself was designed by none other than Michelangelo. So, from a simple ancient Roman exterior, you enter into a magnificent Renaissance church of breathtaking scale – one of the world’s largest.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

But I had heard that it held one more surprise. A gnomon. The gnomon here was copied from Cassini’s design. Pope Clement XI commissioned the astronomer Francesco Bianchini to construct the Gnomon. Bianchini was Secretary of the Calendar Commission, and h chose the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli because of the stability of its Roman walls and foundations, and because of its height and large internal space. Bianchini improved on Cassini’s design by allowing for the observation of stellar transits – even in daytime.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

Here you can clearly see the sun approaching the meridian line.

The pinhole occulus through which the sun shines is located high on the wall, and to give it a clear path, part of the entablature and the capital of the pilaster – designed by Michelangelo – was cut away – perhaps a metaphor for the tension between art and science and the church! I have added an arrow to show where the sun enters.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

The church also houses a Foucault pendulum which demonstrates the earth’s rotation through the pendulum’s elliptical swing.It was invented by French scientist Leon Foucault, who first demonstrated it in 1851 at the Paris Observatory – it now resides in the Museé des Arts et Metiers in Paris.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

The pendulum weight is in the form of a globe as though pushed with a giant hand. Metaphors for force were quite literal! As you can see below

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

So, from a C16th astronomer seeking to solve the Church’s problem with Easter through detailed observations of the Sun, to a spacecraft providing detailed observations of Saturn we can glean nearly five centuries of the Church’s relationship to science and the arts by visiting a two-thousand year old Roman bath house renovated by Michelangelo in Rome. And all this, from noticing a strange geometric pattern on the floor of a church! It does pay to look down sometimes!