Small Baths of Via Ariosto

In 1874, whilst the new Esquiline district was under construction, part of a small bath complex built in the fourth century AD between today’s Via Ariosto and Piazza Dante came to light. At this time of rapid urban development, these small baths suffered the fate of many other ancient buildings and were demolished immediately after their discovery. As a result, all that has survived until the present is a plan commissioned by the Municipal Archaeological Commission. The rooms shown on the plan are just part of a much larger complex, a wealthy domus with a comfortable private bath complex for the owners and their guests.

The most exciting find, according to its discoverer Rodolfo Lanciani, was made during the demolition of the baths. At the time of their discovery, according to Lanciani, they already lacked “not only their plaster and decorations, but even the floors in crude black and white mosaic”: the building’s foundations had been made using a large number of sculptures broken into small pieces as building materials. Some of the statues, immediately restored, were displayed in the Centrale Montemartini Museums: a beautiful fountain in the shape of a large cup decorated with delicate blossoms, acanthus spirals and vine shoots, and some human figures, all smaller than life-size, portraying deities: Asklepios, Athena, a young man dressed in a short tunic, perhaps Hephaistos, a female figure with a tiara who may be identifiable as Hera. Originally, as revealed by the restorations, the statues were probably painted in a variety of bright colours, very different from the absolute whiteness to which museum collections have accustomed us.

The presence of building materials and ancient statues is typical of what the discoverers called “walls of the low centuries”, and characterizes the hastier and poorer building techniques of late antiquity. The extraordinary quality of the statues, among other things, allows us to speculate that they came from the same area, and that they belonged to the precious decorations of one of the pavilions in the Horti Lamiani, which occupied this area of the Esquiline in the imperial period and must already have been in decline during the construction of this building.