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Symbolic Importance of Geometrical Shapes in Roman Thermae

Info: 6957 words (28 pages) Dissertation
Published: 13th Oct 2021

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Tagged: Cultural StudiesHistory


In the Roman Empire, bathing took place in the public thermae and the space of these baths was designed accordingly. When talking about symmetry and geometrical rules of the architectural plan of the therme, the focus may be appointed to the Imperial Period Bathhouse typology. The Roman baths existed earlier in the form of the balneae, where the ground plan was characterized by its asymmetry and the thermae, with a symmetrical ground plan and the presence of a palestra; thermae were larger in scale. The Romans used symmetry and elemental geometry inside the therme as a medium to express grandeur and power, these concepts were used for their appearance and symbolic powers. As a consequence of contemporary studies, it is possible to state that the use of these elements was reinforced due to their physiological power as well due to the effect in which symmetry (and therefore elemental geometry) is perceived by the mind. The importance of geometry in the built environment of the Roman Empire is seen through its powerful organizational instrument on an urban scale as well as on a smaller scale. As a result of contemporary studies (assessing general neurological perception patterns and studies of two-dimensional drawings of the baths), it is possible to conclude the characteristics of grandeur of the Imperial Thermae. The thermae can be compared with a small settlement, which was a perfected version, a reflection of a Roman city. Consideration of geometry, symmetry, direction, proportion and orientation came together to create a powerful ensemble physically, politically and symbolically.

Working title: The symbolic importance of geometrical shapes and the use of symmetry in the Imperial Thermae of Ancient Rome.

Thesis Statement Idea: Spaces of the Roman baths were designed to be appealing to the eye and to the mind to fulfill their functions both functionally and symbolically, and the use of symmetry together with elemental geometrical forms is essential in these spaces to aid the fulfilment of these functions.

The Use of baths in the Roman Empire:

One of the most remarkable Roman structures are the baths, which played a large role in the daily life of the Romans. Roman baths have come a long way from republican simplicity to luxury and excesses of the imperial era, the latter will be the major focus of this work.

Already from the middle of the third century B.C. the Romans, inspired by the Greek examples, learned how to include the typology of the bathroom in their buildings, even though these private building facilities remained a commodity that only prosperous individuals could afford for their houses in the city or their villas in the countryside. It is important to note that the architectural principles of the baths were implemented already from the beginning stages.

At the beginning of the development of the bathhouses, the composition of the bathing rooms held a modest form, with their configuration serving solely to fulfill its functionality: the users could take a warm bath and clean themselves. The first baths known as balneae, examples of which can be found in Pompeii (inlinea/allinea typology), represented an asymmetrical, one-sided arrangement of wash rooms.

With time, the baths complexes developed beyond private bathing facilities of the people of high importance, and Emperors were the main initiators of building great bathing facilities known as the thermae. With time the baths have grown to become a successful component of the life of the Romans.

For those who could not afford such facilities in their own home, public establishments were built, there were three major typologies based on the size and type of management: the first typology were public bathrooms owned by private individuals, such as the alinea meritoria; the second typology was constituted by reserved private bathrooms where only a selected set of clients could appreciate the peace of a more calm environment compared to the crowdedness of the public ones; the third and last typology were the thermal baths, which for a very affordable price, would let anyone inside, unconcerned by the social status of the customer.

The Roman Thermae gained a great level of high significance both in the urban and political life of the population. The space use and its architectural configuration developed accordingly.

The Public baths started to flourish in their space use and richness of their design during the period following the transition from the Republic to the Principate. During the rule of Augustus, in order to build up the state of power after a difficult transitional time, an advancement was made through a new building Programme. During the third century the thermal baths started to appear everywhere around Rome, it's important to keep in mind that during Agrippa's census in 33 B.C. just in the city of Rome there were around 180 baths, by the second century A.C. the number increased to more than 850. This is the period when the term "Imperial" was born to describe the typology of baths such as the Baths of Agrippa (25BC) and the Baths of Nero at Campus Martius (64AD), that have not survived to this day and it alludes to the bathhouses of grandiose size, built with the use of axial symmetry and characterized with opulence. (Marechal 13)

The Imperial Baths typology was much more than simple thermal baths:besides the bathrooms, an array of spaces was introduced: calidariums, frigidariums, tepidariums, individual baths and pools, divided by sexes. It is believed that in the Baths of Nero, the configuration of the floorplan grew to become more elaborate due to an expansion of the newly introduced gymnastics sector of the building. (img.2) (Kosso Scott 331) Outside the baths complex a whole universe of mundane activities took place: different kinds of businesses started to develop: shops, gyms, gardens, massage rooms, libraries and conference spaces just to name a few. The thermal baths were greatly looked after because they were of great importance for the emperor as they represented his social status. The particular details that were the method of translation of the emperor's power was that reigned at the time was the grand floorplan of the baths, materials used, presence of mosaics, statues and gold. Therefore, besides the magnificent size, the ornamentation and materiality of the spaces were enhanced tremendously: the interior decor of the imperial baths was made of marble. The walls and ceiling were decorated with mosaics. Sculptures and marble columns were installed in the premises. Windows and doors were executed in bronze. ( Kosso Scott 332)

Interior Organization of the Spaces:

The analytical descriptions of Vitruvius reconstruct entirely the dispositions and functions of the different spaces of the Thermae of Diocletian. An enclosure with an exedra, whose function was granting a space to rest and restore the energies, and several secluded rooms, adhibited to be study rooms and libraries, surrounded the bath's building. The room's succession inside the bath was "tepidarium", then "calidarium", then "laconicum", the latter granted then highest temperature. (img. 6)

These rooms were at the center of the bath's system and were arranged in a vertical succession, around this core a series of secondary identical and symmetrical rooms constituted the lateral sectors. The natatio, the grand room (frigidarium, tepidarium, calidarium) - laterally, following a symmetrical axis of the central area, other rooms were arranged: apodyterium, connected with the palestra and a set of stairs at the height of the caldarium.

The thermal agglomeration consisted of a rectangular architectural complex formed by numerous spaces connected in an organic way. Its central area was occupied by the actual baths that contained the pools, filled with great amounts of water brought directly by the aqueduct. The surrounding rooms were individually designated to various functions.

The "Tepidarium" was a room without special equipment. It was used for the transpiration of the body and for its preparation for the high temperatures of the caldarium and was placed between the frigidarium, located to the north, and the caldarium, to the south. The tepidarium was the center of the whole system of the baths and was executed by presence of cross vaults that allowed the opening of the semicircular windows to supply direct light into the environment. (These geometries are discussed further as important symbolic components throughout the Empire).

The "Caldarium" was constituted by a hot room characterized by a south-west orientation. The attention in the placement of the "Caldarium" inside the bath's plan granted several benefits to the thermal system. Primarily exploiting the sun rays through the orientation kept that area very hot during the day. Secondly, it was placed at the center of all the warming rooms of the baths complex, in order to reduce to a minimum the heat loss. Lastly, it was elevated above the other rooms of the building in such a way that all the heat would flow into it. (Cite: Yegul)

The caldarium was preceded by other warm rooms such as sudatoria and laconic, where sweating similar to that of a turkish bath was possible, it was caused by the exposition of the sun and by the vapors circulating between the suspensurae ("floors on vaults") placed under the floor. This area was equipped with washbasins, which were kept at defined temperatures to help the users withstand the heat.

The "Laconicum or Sudatorium" were environments used for a strong sweating of the body, often visited after a meal to help digestion. The name derives from the device used to heat up the space, the

"Laconicum". The "Laconicum" frequently presented a big hemispheric dome with a circular opening at its summit, which could be closed with a bronze shield operated with winch.

The "Heliocaminus" is a wall-less hot area designated to the sun's therapy, where the visitors would sunbathe lightly clothed or naked. To provide a more comfortable temperature this area was provided with several openings that would emit hot air in the space, keeping it warm.

The "Frigidarium" occupied the vastest space inside the bath complex, it consisted of a series of pools or cisterns, where bathers would plunge to stimulate cooling. It was a common practice to continuously add snow to the water to keep it cooler, in order to create a greater difference in temperature between the frigidarium and other water elements inside the baths. This space usually overlooked an outdoor area, the "Natatio". The latter was an outdoor swimming pool with its water kept at the temperature of the surrounding environment. It was customary for the user to bathe here after exercise.

The "Palestra", usually consisted of a square-plan arcaded courtyard, it was composed by several rooms: the ephebeum, where young people would usually exercise, and learn the first steps of gymnastics, the conisterium and the coryceum, a storage room for objects and ointments for gymnasts and an area used for playing ball and sand bags games.

The "Apodyterium", the "changing room" where it was custom to leave the clothes, but it was found only in certain thermal facilities.

It is important to note that in a floorplan, the core elements were arranged in a vertical succession, and would constitute a symmetrical axis, to give space for secondary rooms arranged towards the sides. In the central sector the natatio was found, followed by the room of frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium. Laterally, corresponding with the apodyterium were found the palestra and a series of stair next to the caldarium.

The circulation in the baths created two symmetrical circuits that would converge towards the calidarium and come back through the principal accesses of the tipedarium and the frigidarium. It is important to underline the inexistence of a facade for the spaces as the typology of covernings used were cross-vaults. These were seen in the major environments (frigidarium and caldarium) in research for equilibrium between closed and open spaces. The construction technique employed light materials for the vaults to reduce the forces and the covering of the structure was executed in thin bricks.

Different typologies of the Imperial baths were defined according to the symmetry and repetition found in circulation and order of use of different environments within the baths. There is a difference between the therme of large and small sizes, yet the symmetrical organizing principle stays the same and the location of the gymnasium changes. (Img.9)

The overall sequence of the baths organized the movement of the customer from cold areas to lukewarm to hot areas, leading to an act of a cold plunge at the end. The monumental thermal complex was flanked by gyms which in turn were connected with the scholae, "waiting rooms" where bathers already undressed could devote themselves to their favorite exercises. The whole building was surrounded by an esplanade, where one could find fountains, library shops and art exhibition rooms. (Yegul - Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity.)

Symmetry at the core of the Imperial thermae floor plan:

"By the beginning of the second century C.E. and the reign of the emperor Trajan—if not earlier—a standard architectural plan had developed for imperial baths, which set an enormous bathing block notable for its bilateral symmetry at the center of a huge walled garden space."
- (Kontokosta, p. 46)

Since in the Roman Therme spaces with different classes of symmetry are present due to the multitude and sequence of spaces, these spaces can be studied from the varying symmetries points of view. Symmetry was implemented in the roman architecture in search for functionality, and due to the building methods used by the engineers; however, the presence of symmetrical geometry in the therme had values in the realm of perception as well: the presence of symmetry gives the eye a moment of rest, therefore encouraging relaxation and calming chatracterincs of the space that was one of the main purposes of the space. Geometry was implemented within the use of the rooms for the purposes of achieving the desired thermal conditions; however, the presence of certain geometric patterns gives the space of the therme an additional important characteristic: a cognitive moment of pause, a moment of relaxation for the mind.

Symmetry is seen as a desirable attribute across roman architecture as it is clear through the depiction in the artworks which are created to highlight the monumental pieces: this is clear in the writing about depictions of Codazzi/Panini as they seek to make up symmetrical imagery of the baths in their depictions, even if the subject of their paintings is not perfectly symmetrical from their available point of view and visual sources. (Img. 7, Img. 8)

Bilateral symmetry in the main space of the therme was argued to have given rise to the use of vaulted ceilings in architecture beyond the baths. The presence of the bilateral symmetry in basilicas and sacred spaces is prominent. (Yegul, Favro)

The Neurological perception of symmetry:

The neurological perception of spaces shapes how humans perceive the built environment around them. Many studies have been made on the perception of the visual information and allocation of certain emotions accordingly. This paper will draw attention to one of the concepts that has a distinct effect on the viewer's mind: the concept of symmetry. Symmetry affects the mind by creating order and therefore brings balance and peace to the observer's mind. Consequently, symmetry in two dimensions as well as in three dimensions is observed quickly and allows to establish stability of the mind. Historically, symmetry has been implemented in architecture used to establish grandeur as well as serve rituals. Ancient architecture examples are often thought of as "timeless classics" due to their innovation and functionality, where the undeniably essential component is the optimal geometry used in the core of their creation. Examples of ancient architecture can be said to be appealing to the eye of humans of all times due to the use of elemental geometry and symmetry together. Studies have been carried out on the changes in the eye movement as a result of symmetry observation by the user.

"Eye fixations are usually concentrated along the axis of symmetry or the symmetrical center of the patterns" (Kootstra, 2008).

Evidence shows that ancient artists knew about the power of symmetry and its high visual value. Many objects containing symmetry are found across the roman empire, and symmetry is present in different scales. It plays a role both symbolically and visually.

The human eye is trained by nature and instinct to seek out vertical and horizontal elements with bilateral symmetry between them (this comes from the innate reflex in a child to look at the face of their parents). After carried out experiments it was discovered that symmetry is appealing to the eye and the mind, therefore is used in spaces or objects whose purpose it is to be appealing for the human. (Tyler, C. W. 2000)

The different classes of symmetry:

Symmetries of many kinds exist and are present in various environments, here are several typologies of symmetry recognizable by the human eye and mind. Symmetry is found as the dictating principle of many manifestations of life in nature as well as inanimate forms. A type of symmetry found in a vertebrate animal is mirror symmetry. Invertebrate animals sustain mirror and repetition symmetry. Multiple types of symmetry are found in vegetables, such as repetition, scale, cylindrical, helical and multifold. Other types of symmetries are present in nature, including two-fold rotational symmetry and reflectional symmetry. Mineral forms present no symmetrical principles at a microscopic scale. Historically, constructed by man developments have employed multiple types, emphasizing bi-laterial symmetry. In architecture, symmetry is found in various manifestations, blurring the line with geometrical patterns and principles. (These studies are documented in the book Human Symmetry Perception and Its Computational Analysis By Francis)

An exemplar study shows that symmetry is observed across many disciplines: among archeologists, where symmetry present in ancient architecture; among physicists, where symmetry is observed in crystals, including snowflakes and sugar; among anthropologists that find art of primitive peoples to showcase symmetry; and among psychologists - stating that humans find symmetric shapes more attractive than asymmetric ones. (The history of the concept of symmetry - second edition. Available from:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299595785_The_history_of_the_concept_of_symmetry__second_edition[accessed Jan 02 2021].)

Neuroscience has carried several studies tracking the human eye movement while looking at architectural compositions. It was concluded that the eye searches for evidence of symmetry in the surroundings and the mind finds serenity when symmetry is observed. The idea is exploring the Roman baths as spaces of recreation and rituals as examples of architecture in which symmetry is and was present. This consideration can reveal a connection between the concept of space symmetry in ceremonial architecture and its importance in the Roman thermae. (Locher, P., & Nodine, C)

The roman understanding of symmetry and elemental geometry:

It is important to consider the understanding of symmetry from the romans' point of view, because the definition that was born and established in the modern day may mean a strictly geometric order, while in the ancient times it had a meaning more relevant to proportion. The Thermae allow researchers to conclude that they were designed by following a set of proportions based on mathematical manipulation of a few basic dimensions. (Delaine 1997: 45–68; Quoted by Ulrich, page 307).

The imperial bath's architectural principles were based on the layout with bilateral symmetry along the axis which was created by the block of the foremost important spaces of the bath complex. In the example of the Baths of Caracalla (Image 1), these spaces are the frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium, where consequently, the frigidarium acts as the axis, allowing for a symmetric assembly of spaces towards the sides of the baths complex. (Ulrich - Companion to Roman architecture. p.306)

In the baths, symmetry exists both through geometry and repetition. Symmetry is found in both the architectural elements and in the art/representations on the walls and as geometric patterns on the floor of the baths spaces. Symmetry in architecture majorly applies to the constructed elements that were executed as part of the engineering process of the baths. Among these are placement of windows and doors, vertical pillars and protruding elements that enhance the weight distribution in the structure. The geometrical character is also present in the ornaments and their use on surfaces.

The presence of axial division and symmetry in the Imperial thermae became a dictating factor; such use of space might seem wasteful; however, it carried several functional properties. Such use of space is seen by researchers in several ways: some claim it is the direct reflection of the rational bathing routine of the Romans, others affirm it was the reflection of the roman fondness of pure order; some question whether there was a meaning in the order as a result of its the connection to higher realm. (Ulrich 307). The presence of symmetrically duplicated spaces arrayed along the core block had practical advantages, such as cleaning and maintaining one wing while the other stayed in operation; during the times of financial difficulties, the city could lower the cost of running the baths by keeping only one of the halves active. However, the use of such duplicity and symmetry in the baths construction is believed to be used as an expression of power and authority within the city. (Yegul pp. 103–104).

A huge contribution to the cultural heritage of the architecture of the Roman Empire was the use of the vaulted ceiling; this structure created a large open space which no longer required the use of supporting pillars. This space carried an immense impact and with that, symmetry stood out as an element of power. The baths of the ancient roman times are examples of the first large vault structures of the time period, which created a whole new set of athletically and technologically advanced spaces: the vault was accompanied with the rows of pillars, leading into smaller volumes and allowing for new sequential order. Therefore, symmetry in the vaulted spaces existed not only as a bilateral vault but also as a sequential order among the volumes and rooms.

"The studied rhythm of elements large and small, broad and narrow, high and low; the careful contrast of dark and compressed passages interposed between bril- liantly lit, lofty halls; the dramatic transition from vaulted interiors to open courtyards; the vast expanse of shimmering pools surrounded by marble and mosaic floors; the interspacing of moist and dry rooms; the changing of sound, the deep echo of voluminous halls followed by the hush and whisper of porti- coes and arbors; the contrast of public courts and intimate, private corners – all attest to the sophistication of this all-embracing, experiential architectural achievement aimed at engaging the whole person and all senses."
- (Ulrich 307) - this is similar to the description given by Amoroso to the urban scale, when studying the city of Rome and satellite cities.

Importance of the Ritual and Bathing Process aided by architecture:

Bathing activities were of utmost importance in the life of the Romans. Bathing played a major role from the standpoint of hygiene; moreover, it was considered to be a ritual and a time dedicated to socialization.

Bathing was done according to several canons and took up a significant portion of the day of a Roman. Among the considerations of the design of the therme several factors can be examined: hydraulic engineering, heating systems, water provision, urban location and structural challenges. Another set of factors was implemented in the design of the bath complexes, among these is the order of procedures which reflects the order of the rooms inside the baths. All these design considerations are reflected through the geometry and proportions of spaces, both in plan and in the interior perspectives of the structures. The thermae were of the utmost importance with the development of the cities and the growth of the bath's social factor was prominent. To illustrate, entire urban plans were altered to give rise to new thermal complexes. This way, a large section of the city of Rome was emptied out to become the foundation of the Baths of Diocletian. (Img. 6). (Kosso Scott 335)

The therme considered the symbolic use of water; moreover, looking at the baths complex from the standpoint of geometry of the plan, of the interior and of the perception of the space imposed by its architecture gives another evidence of symbolism.

The Baths of Trajan (img. 3,4) were considered to be the founding plan which would then be adopted to become the widespread plan of the imperial baths. The complex was divided into two parts, with the exterior part lined with colonnades and gardens dedicated to sports, and the interior part of the structure dedicated to bathing activities. The natatio, the frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium formed the core of the floorplan, creating a bilateral symmetrical plan. (Img.4) The importance of the new public baths was manifested already during the building process. Pre-existing structures were flattened to serve as foundations for the new baths. The earlier structures are distinguished by their north/south orientation. A new orientation was chosen for the complex, with it facing northeast/southwest to allow for the optimal use of sunlight within the building. (Volpe 61) The orientation of the therme became an integral part of the planning, as the presence of the sun helped keep the spaces warm and lit longer. A set of new careful considerations was applied to the building of the baths, and this showcases the importance that the complex carried. An important consideration was the idea of direction among the Romans, it was emphasized on the large scale in the city planning as well as on the smaller scale in the planning of the buildings. The Roman Forum indicated the manifestation of the center of the Empire both physically and politically.

"Two major streets, the Clivus Argentarius approaching from the north, and the Vicus Jugarius approaching from the south, visually terminated respectively at two vertical monuments: the Umbilicus Romae, literally translated as the belly of Rome, and the Milliarium Aurem, a column decorated with plaques indicating distances to points outside of the city and symbolizing the spot where all Roman roads converged."
- Amoruso, p. 121

Geometry and sense of direction (Vector) in the Urban Plan and its reflection on a smaller scale in the baths:

The roads leading towards and away from the Forum were the roads that served as connections to many small cities throughout the Empire. The streets served as both a physical manifestation of unity in form of a paved road and psychologically, as they shared one large architectural layout. (Amoruso 120)

Rome, serving as a model for other cities in the Empire, introduced the clearly defined structure of the city with major public buildings and open streets leading to them. Here it is possible to note that geometry was already a powerful organizational instrument on an urban scale. Among these movements through the city was seen as a movement through small rooms. The author describes rome from a standpoint of geometry: The city streets acted as "armatures" as defined by Macdonald (1985, Chapter II), and other elements of the city grew upon this skeleton, such as sacred buildings, markets, apartment buildings, theatres and among them were baths. These buildings were connected among themselves with the use of elements such as arches, portals, terraces, arcades and colonnades. Another layer of architectural language consisted in the use of classical orders, ornamentation and detail. These smaller scale elements were charged with meaning and depending on the distance and point of view, as well as while moving closer, the spectator was affected differently. The ultimate impact created by the powerful ensemble of all the aforementioned components consisted in the visitor being in constant exchange with the architecture, reinforced by the previously observed architectural elements throughout the Empire. (Amoruso 120)

A huge question for the Romans while moving from city to city was the matter of finding and retaining a chosen direction. This matter rarely occurs in the modern world; however, it was a critical building block in the development of the Roman Empire. Here, geometry comes as a factor as well.

"Prehistoric man depended upon recognizable patterns to determine his bearing and help him take advantage of his environment. These patterns included elements of symmetry as well as pronounced horizontal and vertical features."
- Amoruso p 120, Handbook of Research on Visual Computing and Emerging Geometrical Design Tools

It is clear that man uses patterns of geometry in order to orient himself. Historically, humans who were able to develop stronger visual memory, were able to survive by natural selection. The modern man's brain distinguishes recognizable forms and shapes and therefore more they are easily remembered. This is not photographic memory, but rather the brain's ability to abstract visual information and these impressions being assembled into a cohesive composition. The brain heavily relies on geometry as well as proportion between these geometries to create these mental images. To illustrate, in recalling a person's face, one seeks to recollect the outstanding features and their characteristics; size of their forehead, the thickness of their nose and other outward features. Artists, in their visual expression of memory through drawing, use the same system to rebuild the impression: they start out with general outlines of the recalled geometrical patterns, which are familiar and comfortable forms for their brain, then followed by further detailing. "Architecture is similar in that comprehensible and easily remembered geometry, heightened by decorative elements, facilitates navigation through complex environments." - Amoruso p 121, Handbook of Research on Visual Computing and Emerging Geometrical Design Tools

As research of visual memory has shown, pleasing patterns used in art and architecture, when perceived by the brain, inform it that the perception is functioning accurately. It is possible to derive that the mind recognized geometrical patterns and symmetry as pleasing motifs, therefore affirming the accuracy of the brain function, which makes the use and presence of geometric and symmetric patterns a desirable element in the built environment. The public spaces of the roman empire were characterized by the presence of elements with symmetrical and geometrical features and elements of bilateral as well as radial symmetry. Rome had few major wide streets, and movement through the city was compared to a movement through "a series of connected rooms, some with ceilings and some without." Amoruso p 121, Handbook of Research on Visual Computing and Emerging Geometrical Design Tools. These spaces were characterized with contarting impressions, not only visually but also including other senses as well. This simile is reminiscent of the experience of the user of the public therme, where the visitor moves through a sequence of spaces, some open and other closed, designed for activities accordingly. In both of these cases repetition symmetry is observed. This is another example of symmetry which stimulated the mind and was omnipresent in the environment of the roman state.

"Tactile sensations constantly changed: the rougher basalt stones used for public streets contrasted with the smoother surfaces of plazas and building interiors. A pedestrian's movement as well as that of the sun heightened the contrast between light and shade, cool and warm spaces." This way the visitor could find shelter from the heat in certain corners of the city, or get sun rays in the open spaces. These volumes, patterns and characteristics found throughout the Empire are represented in the therme in a perfect manner, where each room or open space has its intention, mimicking the plazas or colonnades of the empire.

Movement through the city was executed both vertically and horizontally, with emphasis on the heightened movement with the use of steps in sacred architecture.

The therme are the optimal example of essential geometry used in complex but cohesive environments. The baths ranged in size, and the larged baths were similar to small villages, with complex passages reminiscent of labyrinths. In order to help the visitor find cohesion within these spaces, geometry, symmetry and repetition were used as organizational methods to create a pleasant environment and order in these immense spaces. While the large scale symmetry and proportions found in the floorplans of the public baths could not be seen in plan and section as it can be studied through drawings and similar representations today, these factors were subconsciously perceived by the users as they physically moved along the sequence of spaces. The contrast in size and openness of the rooms throughout the sequence of the rooms, paired with their symmetry and repetition helped order the visitor's experience and define his route. On a smaller scale, the ornamentation on the surfaces of the spaces helped unite and intensify the user's perception. Amoruso p 122. This shows the importance of geometrical and symmetrical patterns in the user's possibility to navigate and adapt to the space.

"It has been observed that even in ruins Roman architecture is unmistakable. The square, the circle, and half-circle reappear throughout the architecture, in plan, elevation and section."
- Amoruso p 127.

The early towns of the empire had started out as simple settlements, with organic plans with no particular geometry in their organization. Over time they grew to become more organized networks with straight streets. It is in the imperial Age, however, that the layout characterized by repetition, symmetry and the use of right angles was introduced. These new planning techniques were a positive change in terms of practical use: the offered order and ease of movement across many cities of the empire. Moreover, these repetitive planning techniques suggested a strong symbolic unity across the whole empire.

There is a query whether or not the Roman architects were aware that the shapes of cross and square, which in themselves represent symmetry, are the only two shapes not found in nature. The occurrence of these geometric forms is present in the Imperial Terme as well. To illustrate, the Baths of Caracalla (Img.2) and the baths of Diocletian (Img.3) take a square as their basis plan. In his research, Amoruso asks whether the use of this geometry by the Romans was a celebration of a man's creation of a pursuit radical to nature.

This shows the importance of the symbolism behind the built environment of the romans. While the therme could be seen as a separate settlement with its own order and geometry, where the geometry, contrasting to nature is perfected and celebrated, it can be considered a reflection of life inside the cities of the roman empire.

Another shape, omnipresent throughout the roman therme as well as throughout the empire is the semicircle. This shape is a contradiction to the commonly used parabolic or pointed shape of the arch in Persia at the time, but the roman semicircular arch was prominent despite possible difficulties that came with its design. This shape is used in both the plan, the section and elevation and existed on different scales. To illustrate, the Imperial baths involved semicircular exedras in their gardens, which were further characterized by semicircular niches for holding sculptures. (Image 3)

It is believed that the wide use of a semicircle in spaces such as baths, sacred spaces and theatres was connected to the roman's progressive understanding of the cosmos (as studied and indicated by Vitruvius in his books on architecture), with the sphere/circular shape reflecting the manifestation of the Earth. (Stamper, 2005, p 201) Another form of belief states that the use of the semicircular arch ever present in the facades of the baths could be a symbol of man's place on earth, in contrast to triangular pediments designated to priests and saints in sacred architecture. (Amoruso p 128)


The geometries found in the roman baths are known to have brought order, but it is fundamental to state their phenomenological and symbolic intentions. The presence of the geometric forms not found in nature were used in the plan, section and elevation of the terme. These show evidence of the roman's intention to establish power and show enlightenment of the empire. Symmetry was used for order and to simplify the complex nature of the ritual, as well as to exhibit grandeur of the Emperor. It is not clear whether it was the Roman builders intention to influence the visitor of the baths subconsciously with the use of symmetry, elements pleasing to the human perception such as proportions and impactful geometry. It is possible to state, however, that these characteristics of the baths held a principal authority over the user's perception and helped achieve the goal of the cleansing and social and didactic rituals. The Roman Baths represented a perfect system, with geometrical (through the use of the square, cross and semicircle) and symmetrical (through the use of bilateral and repetition symmetry) attributes, representing a dialogue with the urban organization of the Empire. Each room and volume carried a deep meaning, allowing the user to find direction and defined a moment of pause or movement. Interlaced with symbolism and through the use of geometrical and symmetrical patterns,the baths complexes became powerful and manifested a vital part of the life of the Romans.

Image 1. The Baths of Caracalla, rome. plan of the bath block. Main rooms include those of the primary axis, starting from the northeast (n) natatio; (F) frigidarium; (t) tepidarium; (C) caldarium; and flanking (B, B') palaestrae. Source: Yegül 1992: fig. 163.

Image 2. Terme di Nerone

Image 3. Baths of Trajan - Exedra

Image 4. Baths of Trajan

Image 5. Baths of Caracalla

Image 6. Baths of Dioclitian

Img.7. Viviano Codazzi, "Capriccio View of the Baths of Diocletian", Musee des Beaux-Arts, Chambery. Photo: Museum.

Img.8. Gian Paolo Panini, "Roman Baths" Stadelsches KunstInstutut, Frankfurt. Photo: Bildarchiv Foto Marburg.

Img.9.Variations of the smaller and bigger imperial baths typologies. Yegul, Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity.

Potential Baths to showcase as examples/images:

Baths of Nero in Rome

Baths of Caracalla.

Baths of Agrippa

Baths of Trajan

Baths of Titus

Baths of Foro

Baths di Diocletian

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