Translated from “Il Complesso Archeologico di Via Terracina”
By Gruppo Archeologico Napoletano

From the great flood of visitors that come to Naples who are attracted more by Pompeii, Sorrento and Capri, only a few make the journey to the rich areas of ancient testimony of Pozzuoli, Baia, Miseno and Cuma. Yet Neapolitan tourism has, one could say, its origins on the Flegrean coast. When Pompeii and Herculaneum were still buried, and when Capri remained in the solitude of its rocks, travelers, poets and scholars, from the Renaissance until the early 19th century wouldn’t miss the trip to Naples to visit the antiquities and curiosities of the Gulf of Pozzuoli. The most accredited guides led the more beautiful names of the European aristocracy of literature and the arts through the Averno tunnel, the swampy environments of the Baian hot springs and the underground of the Pozzuoli Amphitheater with fantasy and ease. The learned Neapolitans and Pozzuolians never missed an opportunity to study and illustrate the Flegrean antiquities with a commitment no less than that of the Herculanean academicians who, supported by Charles of Bourbon studied the antiquities of Herculaneum, Stabia and Pompeii.

But the miraculous survival of Pompeii and Herculaneum under the ashes of Vesuvius made travelers forget about the great historic area of ancient Campania, that which in ancient times was called Campi Phlegraei because the earth was parched and boiling and that except for the Solfatara, was interspersed with a mushroom of extinguished volcanic craters. But it is an area steeped in history: Cuma, the most important Greek colony of the Tyrrhenian Sea, capital of a maritime empire, and destined to encounter the native Etruscans; Pozzuoli, the first and largest Mediterranean port of Campania and Rome; Miseno, the Roman Imperial naval base; and Baia, with its villas, spectacular thermal baths and imperial palaces, was an important meeting place and a place of recreation and leisure for the most famous people in Rome’s history.

The Gulf of Naples and the Gulf of Pozzuoli, forming the sinus Cumanus, were divided by the long stretch of the Pausilypon (Posillipo) hill. Predating the Roman era, the first road connected Neapolis and the Flegrean fields, crossing Soccavo and Pianura above the marshy zone of Fuoirgrotta to the south. But it was a long journey, so at the beginning of the 1st century BCE the via per colles or Antininao was opened to shorten the route. The road started at the city gate, Porta Cumana di Neapolis, climbed the hills of Vomero, and came back down towards Fuorigrotta arriving at Via Terracina, from where it continued on to Puteoli (Pozzuoli). With the growing importance of the port of Pozzuoli and the intensification of commercial trade between the two cities, it became necessary to change the path of the old road, which was very long, uncomfortable, tortuous, and traversed steep hills. At the end of the first century, thanks to the genius architect Lucius Cocceius Aucto, a 705 meter long tunnel – the Crypta Neapolitana, was excavated in Posillipo hill. The new road bent right at the exit of the tunnel, heading towards Via Leopardi and reconnecting with the old road, Via Neapolis-Puteoli, at the top of Via Terracina. At the crossroads, archaeologists surmise that there was a resting place with an adjoining thermal spa complex.

Dating to the first half of the second century CE, the complex is an excellent example of Imperial age thermal spa architecture. Uncovered during the construction of Mostra d’Oltremare in 1939, it was found along with the remains of some houses, a mausoleum, and traces of a paved road belonging to the via Neapolis-Puteoli. At the time, the state of conservation of the complex was good, particularly the black and white mosaics, but due to continued exposure to atmospheric agents, the paint and stucco that would have covered the walls has practically all disappeared. The architectural elements that remain however, allow us to fully grasp the development of the spa, how it was constructed, and how it functioned. Articulated on two levels, the complex was constructed essentially of brick and vittata works. Despite its location in a naturally volcanic zone, there is no evidence to suggest that the baths at this complex, like those at Agnano were heated by natural thermal sources or fed by spring waters. Rather, during the excavations of Mostra d’Oltremare, traces of the Roman Aqueduct Serino were uncovered that connected the thermal baths at Via Terracina with those at Agnano.

Over time, the complex has undergone numerous interventions which have modified the profile and organization of the spaces, making the environment that originally had a well defined sequence completely distorted. The ancient nucleus is in fact from the later Republican period while successive modifications are decisively from the Imperial period. At the rear of the complex (with respect to the original nucleus) there are: (A) the entrance corridor, which based on the obvious coverings in Opus signinum was adapted as a cistern in Medieval times, and (B) a series of rooms that are difficult to identify, but considering the location of the complex in the context of the road system of the time, archaeologists surmise may have been tabernae, a series of shops that might have sold food, drink or other consumer goods.


Roman spas of this type typically featured an open courtyard surrounded by a portico that would have served as a gymnasium, sometimes with a pool where visitors would frequent prior to entering the spa. Since not all of the area has been excavated and part of the site was covered over to build Via Terracina, it is unclear whether or not the original complex included these elements.

The complex is comprised of the frigidarium (room for cold baths), which is open in all directions, apodyterium (large changing room) and a caldarium (room for warm baths), arranged on the same axis. The other warm rooms were situated on a parallel axis in order to realize a circular route which allowed the gradual passage from the warm baths to the cold baths and vice a versa, according to the tastes and needs of the visitors. There were different routes the clients could choose, but the most common included prolonged stops in the warm baths (G, H, I, L, M) and then finally crossing the corridor (N) to the cold baths.

In the three principal baths, the apodyterium, the frigidarium, and the caldarium, as well as in the latrina (latrine) the pavement was decorated with black and white mosaics. The themes of the mosaics are mythological and probably relate to the abduction of Amphitrite. Typical of the taste for Hellenistic art in the first Imperial age, the marine subjects were the dominant theme among the decorative patterns of the minor arts. Those of Via Terracina were carried out in the first half of the 2nd century CE, but there are traces, some large, of refacements of later eras, that while following the original style and decoration, clearly exhibit a decrease in quality. The analysis of the subjects was facilitated by comparing some mosaics at Ostia, which are more or less contemporaries and that in some cases were derived from very similar mediums. The dominant theme is the meeting and ensuing wedding of Poseidon and Amphitrite in which the entire marine universe of tritons, hybrid animals, and dolphins participate. Because of the complexity of the themes, like the mosaics in Ostia, they are divided into scenes which begin at the latrine and end at the frigidarium.


La Latrina – The Latrine (C)

A semi-circular structure, the latrine would have been illuminated by five windows at the top and probably covered by a semi-circular cupola.


The semicircular walls reveal evidence of frescoes, which only the slightest traces remain, and on the floor are the remains of a black and white mosaic featuring two dolphins at the center and a mythical marine animal in the lower area. Equally spaced holes around the walls suggest that seats of stone or marble came out over a hollowed out gutter along the perimeter of the room. The gutter was continuously replenished with fresh water which was fed from the cistern behind the latrine through underground ducts.


The Apodyterium – Changing Room (E & F)

Originally, the entrance to the spa opened directly on the vestibule (E), and room (F) was as a changing room. At some point later it is presumed that the vestibule was used as the changing room because the door that led to the adjacent room was closed in.

The mosaic floor of the apodyterium was found intact at the time of the excavation, but later partially disintegrated due to humidity and the infiltration of vegetation. Some restorations were made which are distinguishable by the lighter colors. The mosaic is double framed and has a sea nymph is sitting on the tail of a young triton. The upper corners are adorned with two cupids and a dolphin is in the lower left corner.


Some traces of the marble slab wall coverings also remain. The lower part of the walls were faced in a grey marble and the upper part were done in a fine pink colored marble. The upper and lower portions of the wall were separated by a projecting white semicircular marble molding at a height of about 60 cm.


The Frigidarium – Cold Baths (R)

Entrance into frigidarium was from the vestibule, through an arched entry supported by two columns, of which only the bases survive today.


Archaeological Thermal Bath Complex at Via Terracina - The Vestibule
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The Vestibule (foreground), Column Bases and Frigidarium

The frigidarium consisted of two baths. A semi-circular bath is situated on the southeast side of the room (similar to the spa at Agnano), on which traces of its marble façade are still present.


On the opposite side of the room is a rectangular bath.


This was the most important room in the complex, because from here it was possible to select the desired itinerary, according the preferences or prescribed therapies at the moment. Following a clockwise path, one could begin with the warmest bath and take successively cooler baths until they reached the coldest baths in the frigidarium or vice a versa.

The mosaics on the floor in the frigidarium continue the mythological theme that started in the latrine. Though they are difficult to interpret, the scene shows a procession of animals ridden or followed by anthropomorphic creatures, black figures on white backgrounds. There is a dolphin in every corner and there is one mosaic on each of the four sides of the room. Starting from the entrance at the northeast and continuing counterclockwise they are:

Northeast – A winged figure chasing a marine panther

The marine panther is not commonly found in mosaics featuring hybrid animals. At Ostia, the tiger is typically used (Baths of Buticoso and Neptune), with the only exception being one mosaic in the Maritime bath (c. 210 CE). In this representation, there is a winged figure chasing an animal on whose back a nymph is seated side saddle and who is about to take an object that is being offered by a cherub.



Northwest – Poseidon sitting on a marine dragon

In this mosaic, the type of hybrid animal is not easily identifiable but the chest, stretched neck and head turned back recall a dragon. The image of a similar animal was found in a Roman villa in Cicliano in the province of Rome and the same type of subject was also found in Ostia in the frigidarium of the Baths of the Christian Basilica and the Baths of Neptune. The seated male god also poses problems of interpretation, as is evident from the shape and posture of the body that originally represented a nymph, recognizable by a fragment of an arm band on the left arm. The upper part of the figure was redone from the arms up, where the trident of Poseidon was added to the right arm. The new face and arm are smaller and are no longer harmonious with respect the original figure.


Southwest – A cherub astride a Hippocampus (Sea Horse)

This mosaic was also redone. The cupid that held the hippocampus by the reins has the physique of an adolescent. That along with the mount position reveals that the rework intervened on the original figure of a nymph from the waist up and substituted the features of Imene from that point up.

Southeast – A deity sitting on a marine bull

Originally, a nymph was represented sitting back on a sea bull but it was eventually remade into a rough image of a deity with a trident inspired by Poseidon. The diminished value of the mosaic is evidenced by the awkward position of the character in that the legs of the earlier nymph were not eliminated (which protrude on the tail of the animal) as well as the left hand holding a bridle. Among the more immediate comparisons with Ostia, the nymph on the sea bull in the Maritime Baths is Neptune.

It can be hypothesized that the original artists that worked on the frigidarium envisioned only groups of nymphs on marine animals. The addition of real iconographies suggests the subjects were subsequently modified in the form and mode we find them today.

The Caldarium and Tepidaria – Hot Bath (M) and Warm Rooms (G, H, I & L)

Adjacent to the praefurnium (O), the furnace room, the caldarium is a rectangular plan, with the long side leading to an apsidal bath. It was constructed in brickwork that took full advantage of the building techniques of the time. The almost complete collapse of the floor of the caldarium and the loss of the wall coverings have brought to light the structural elements associated with the hypocaust, a heating system that generated and diffused heat through cavities beneath the floor and along the walls.


The base of the floor was formed of large refractory bricks, upon which was a suspension system (suspensurae) comprised of small piers of bricks was constructed. The piers were comprised of a brick base, a clay pipe and a brick head on top. They were placed equidistant from one another to allow the passage of hot air and supported large bipedales that were covered in a thick layer of earthenware. Marble or mosaic floors were then constructed on top this suspension system. The hot air rose from the floor and up the walls through rectangular terracotta tubes in the cavities of the walls, creating an environment with a constant high temperature. The room was illuminated by high glass windows sealed with lead.



The other warm rooms (L, I H, and G) had progressively cooler temperatures due to the progressive cooling of the air as the distance of the room from the heat source became increasingly longer. All of the rooms were constructed in brickwork except for room G which employed a variety of techniques. The last room on the circuit, it was of a circular form and was probably used as a solarium. It was heated by the hot air coming from the praefurnium, but only under ground, not from the walls like the other warm rooms. The warm rooms were of different shapes and sizes and functioned as tepidaria, rooms where visitors could take sweat baths (like steam rooms). Unlike rooms (M, L and I), which were equipped with the terracotta tubes in the walls, room (H) and corridor (N) had an older system known as “tegulae mammate.” It is presumed that the corridor was also warmed so that there would not be a sharp change in temperature between the warmer and colder rooms of the complex. According to the scheme described by Vitruvio, all of the warm rooms were oriented south, but rather than in a straight axis, they were staggered in order to better exploit the sun’s heat and light until sunset.


The maintenance of the heating system was through a corridor that ran below the floor level. After the water had been used in the bathing areas, it was collected and reused for cleaning the complex, drainage of the latrine and finally channeled into the sewer.

Visit the Roman Thermal Baths at Via Terracina

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