Bathing and Cursing Like a Roman in Bath, England

The Bath cathedral with the Roman Baths just beside it.

It’s a well-known fact that the Romans liked their baths. They built elaborate bath houses with multiple rooms for hot, cold, and warm soaking. Many remnants of these buildings can be found around Europe and one of them is in Bath, England – a town named for its Roman Baths.

Modern Spa Experience

On our recent trip to Bath, we felt very Roman as we walked through the honey colored stone of the old town center. Although the Romans are long gone, we were able to replicate their bathing experience in a modern way at Thermae Bath Spa. We were in a thoroughly up-to-date facility, but we had pretty much the same experience as the Romans of old must have had. 

Modern Thermae Bath Spa. The exterior looks traditional, but you can see the glass around the roof pool to the right.

At the Thermae Bath Spa, there is an assortment of massages and other treatments for pampering yourself. Or you can just step into the pool that’s filled with warm mineral water. This water bubbles up from the very same spring the Romans bathed in. The Romans considered these waters sacred and healing – I don’t know about that, but they certainly are relaxing. 

There are actually two pools: one is inside and the other is an open-air roof pool where you can look out over the city of Bath. When you tire of lounging in the pools, you can go into the infrared sauna, an aroma-infused steam room, or an ice room where you can scoop up handfuls of ice to rub on your skin. I guess the ice room is the equivalent of the Roman cold plunge pools. Brrr!

Roman Baths

Ancient Bath Spa Experience

Even though the modern spa is similar in many ways to the Roman version, there are a few differences. You might spot them if you visit the ancient Roman complex just around the corner. 

Green Water

The first thing you might notice is that the water is green with algae. But the Romans didn’t bathe in green water: In its day, the pool would have been covered by a roof which would have kept out the sun and kept the algae to a minimum.

Curses

Another difference was discovered in 1979 during an excavation under the Roman baths. The archaeologists found 130 curse tablets dating from the 2nd to 4th century AD. What were these curses for? They were written by people whose belongings had been stolen, to curse the person who stole them. 

Some of the lead curse tablets on display in the museum in the ancient Roman Baths.

Thankfully, the modern spa has nice secure lockers, which the Romans didn’t have. The rich Romans simply hired someone to guard their belongings or had their slave stand guard while they relaxed in the mineral waters.

But the poor Romans had to take their chances and hope they would have something to wear home when they came out of the pool. And it seems that often they came out of their relaxing spa bath to find that someone had stolen their toga and they had to run home naked.

Of course, they would be angry, but there was something they could do about it. The Roman bath complex was attached to a temple and they wrote to the goddess Sulis Minerva for help. They would take small lead tablets and write on them asking the goddess to punish the person who had stolen their property. They could write these curses for anything, but the ones at Bath are mostly for stolen items. 

The image above shows some copies of curses found in Bath:

  1. This curse is for the person who stole vilbia (it’s unclear who or what vilbia is). Then the writer gives a list of 10 possible suspects.
  2. Curse for the person who stole a cloak and bathing tunic.
  3. A list of names – possible thieves for the goddess to investigate.
Sulis Minerva, goddess of the spring and punisher of toga thieves.

Curse Writing for Dummies

The curses seem to follow a formula, so maybe there was a helpful curse-writing handbook near the pool: 

Step one: Give the stolen item to the goddess Sulis Minerva.

Step two: Ask her to punish the person who stole the item from you (and now her). List various terrible things you want her to do to them.

Step three: Give the goddess the name of the thief or a list of possible suspects so she’ll have something to go on. If you don’t have any idea who stole your stuff, you make sure no one escapes the goddesses investigation by adding “whether man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free…”

Step four: Fold or roll up the curse and throw it into the sacred spring

*Then to make the magic stronger you could also write backwards or add magic words or symbols.

Example Curse:

Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty my bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him …who has done me wrong, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.”

Wow! It makes me appreciate the modern spa. I can have the Roman experience and be almost certain that my belongings will be waiting for me in the locker where I left them.

Today you can even drink the Bath water. In the Pump Room restaurant next to the baths you can sample the mineral water that comes directly from the spring – and it’s guaranteed to be curse free. 

Drinking the Bath water

In 2014 the Bath curse tablets were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK register. 

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Margo Lestz

Margo has authored four books about France. She has a BA in Liberal Studies with International Emphasis and enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

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