THE ROMAN THERMAE
The Roman thermae (baths) in the south-eastern part of the present-day city of Varna arc the largest ancient public building discovered in Bulgaria so far. The comparatively well-preserved walls, enclosing an area of more than 7,000 sq.m., outline an imposing building. These ruins drew the attention of historians and archaeologists long before excavations of the site began. As early as 1906, E. Kalinka, the Austrian scholar, established that these walls were the ruins of an ancient building. The Skorpil brothers, pioneers of archaeology in Bulgaria and founders of the Varna Museum, have great and well-deserved merit in having aroused scholarly interest in this ancient building and helping to preserve it. They thought that the ruins were those of a Byzantine building. Karel Skorpil was responsible for the first work of strengthening the highest fragment of wall which rose above the terrain and which Varna's inhabitants called 'The Roman Tower', a name by which the ruins were known before they were entirely revealed. The observations and studies of these scholars were hampered by the mound of earth which had piled up over the thermae after they were destroyed. The site was also entirely covered by dwellings. The excavations, carried out by the Archaeological Museum in Varna from 1959 to 1971, under the guidance of M. Mirchev, revealed the main part of the building. Part of halls I,II,III and C, as well as the southernmost section of the western underground gallery have remained under the surrounding streets existing today. The archaeological studies still in progress have elucidated the purpose for which the building was used and have also succeded in establishing the epoch at which it was built. The building uncovered was part of the thermae of the Roman city of Odessos. The architectural style shows that they were built about the turn of the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. The coins found in the sewers confirmed this dating - the earliest of them was struck in the reign of the Emperor Septimus Severus (193-211), and the latest - in the reign of the Emperor Tacitus (275) . It was thus established that the thermae were in use up to the end of the 3rd century. Historical and archaeological data show that in the comparatively peaceful 2nd century Odessos was an important economic and cultural centre on the Black Sea coast and in the Roman province of Lower Moesia as well. About the end of the century the rich and prosperous city obviously had the necessary means to ensure the construction and maintenance of these thermae which were on a huge scale for the epoch.
The plan of the building is almost symmetrical. The part uncovered includes all the principal premises of the baths. Visitors entered it through two entrances on the northern facade. Wide and convenient stairs led to the antechamber, the purpose of which was to guard the dressing rooms from cold air. From the antechamber the visitors passed into the apodyteria, dressing room. These rooms were large enough to receive the numerous public and to secure for them the necessary comfort and convenience. Some of the slaves who accompanied their masters usually stayed in the apodyteria to guard the clothes and valuables of their masters. Openings for fountains are visible in the walls of these rooms. The highest preserved part of the building, known as the Roman Tower, was one of the walls of the western apodyterium. The premises were faced with marble slabs. Panels of multicoloured mosaics relieved the whiteness of the marble walls.
On leaving the apodyteria visitors were able to enjoy what was known as a'short bath', or to enjoy bathing by passing through all the premises. For a 'short bath' they passed through halls I, II, III and C. One and two were small frigidaria - rooms where visitors bathed in cold water, while III was a small tepidarium, a room where they bathed in warm water. In all three rooms visitors prepared for the main bath which took place in the caldarium, where they bathed in very hot water. The gradual transition from the cool apodyterium through the frigidarium and the tepidarium prepared the body for the hot air and water of the caldarium. There were three pools here - one in the apse and two along the long walls. The pools were directly connected with the boiler rooms, where the water was heated. After bathing in the caldarium, visitors who had come for a 'short bath' returned to the apodyterium. The symmetrical disposition of rooms A, I, II and III in the eastern and the western halves of the building made it possible for two streams of bathers to use the thermae simultaneously.
The complete use of the thermae did not differ in its first part from the 'short bath'. But after bathing in the caldarium the visitors passed into the real tepidarium, and from there into the real frigidarium. These two halls had two pools each along their short walls, respectively full of warm and cold water. Passing through them refreshed the body and ensured the gradual transition from the warm to the cold premises of the thermae. Imprints and small pieces of the marble facing-slabs have been preserved in the pools. A large number of architectural details were found in the tepidarium and the frigidarium, evidence of the beauty and richness of the thermae's interior decoration. There were marble and granite columns with exquisite Roman-Corinthian capitals. Marble cornices surround the upper part of the walls.
The distribution of the premises in the Varna thermae fully corresponds to the recommendations of Vitruvius, the Roman architect, according to whom the warm premises should face south, and the caldarium should be in the central part of the southern facade.
A visit to the thermae was part of a Roman citizen's daily round. Many hours were spent here, usually in the afternoon. That was why it was important not only to have the bathing premises convenient, but all the rest of the rooms comfortable and pleasant too, so that visitors would spend their time agreeably in them. Besides the actual baths, the large thermae in Roman cities, among which the thermae of Odessos are also numbered, had palestrae, halls for physical culture and games as well, and also rooms for meetings, and talks, for rest, etc. Here the citizens met, discussed matters of interest to them, did business, engaged in sport, and rested. The large hall of the Odessos thermae served for such meetings and discussions. In bad weather games were played here or athletic sports engaged in. The hall was richly and beautifully decorated. There were many pilasters, to hold up the cross-vaults of the roof and break up the long walls. There were mosaic panels and decorative marble tiles on the walls. There were large circular vaulted spaces in the four corners of this hall, called exedrae in which there was running water or fountains. It was probably in this room that a statue of Claudius Aquila stood. He was an eminent Magistrate in Odessos who organized the Darzalei, the great games of Odessos, dedicated to Darzalas, the patron deity of the city. The pedestal of this statue was found next to this Hall.
A comparison of the thermae of Odessos with similar buildings in other cities of the Roman Empire leads to the conclusion that, besides Hall B they had a real palestra. In thermae in general palestrae were spacious open courtyards surrounded by colonnades and shops to serve visitors. It can be supposed that the palestra of the Odessos thermae lies to the north of the region excavated.The row of shops along the northern facade of the building goes to show this. They opened to the north, towards the palestra and a staircase linked one of them with Hall B.
The palestra and Hall B made a sui generis club for the city. The presence of these premises gives grounds for calling the thermae a 'covered forum', i.e. the centre of the city's public life.
Besides the premises already mentioned, the Odessos thermae, like all other buildings of this type, had other premises which remained hidden from the sight of its rich visitors. However, without these premises and without the work of the slaves in them the thermae could not have functioned. Underground galleries pass under the excavated part of the building. The northern one was purely structural and was not used for any definite functions. It bore the weight of the massive northern facade and the shops in front of it. The prefurnium - the place where the furnaces were, heated the water and air in the warm premises which had a double floor. The upper one was held up by vertically placed earthenware pipes. The space between the two floors was connected with the prefurnium by vaulted corridors. The hot air from the furnaces passed into the earthenware pipes and heated the floor. Hot air also circulated between the walls and their marble facings and heated the premises to the required degree. Pipes which carried the double floor, the so-called hypocaust, were found under the floors of all the warm premises — III and C and II. The hypocaust has been fully excavated in the eastern hall III.
The eastern gallery was probably used as a store house. So was the western gallery. This is a double one, vaulted, and its walls are plastered. Many graffiti were found here - drawings and inscriptions incised in the plaster. The drawings of ships, found in one of the niches in the gallery, are of interest. Premises for the staff of the thermae were probably in this gallery, besides the space set apart for stores. The latrine (lavatory) of the thermae lay at the southern end. Traces of mural paintings, a geometrical ornament painted in red, have been preserved on the plastered walls here. The seats and floors of the latrine were made of marble tiles. Statuary, representing dolphins, decorated the places from which the clean water flowed. A row of shops and canteens lay above the northern, eastern and western galleries, to serve visitors to the thermae. Some of these premises were probably set aside for its offices.
The walls of this monumental building have been preserved today to a height of 18m. They were probably 20m high. The masonry is of stones and bricks. The stairs, doors and thresholds are made of ashlars. The place where a double door had been held in place is visible on the threshold of the eastern antechamber entrance to Hall B. One is impressed by the fact that the doors are not placed opposite each other, to avoid draughts and the cold outside air. Besides the pedestal of the statue of Claudius Aquila already mentioned, those of the statues of the Roman deities Heracles, Victoria and Mercury also came to light during digging. They ornamented the halls and gave them a ceremonial appearance. Nor were the patron deities of health, Asclepius and Hygieia, forgotten. As is apparent from the numerous inscriptions found there, they had shrines in the north-western part of the thermae.
During digging several fragments of marble window frames also came to light shaped like the club of Heracles. This deity was also worshipped as the patron of the springs. The large thermae in Odessos needed considerable amounts of water. To the north of the region excavated,, on the site of the supposed palestra, a large cistern for water was found dug into the earth. It was covered with impermeable plaster. The stone troughs of the water-conduit were found in the thermae. Several stone slabs of a" terrace were found at the entrance to the perfurnium. It served as a promenade for visitors. There was a runnel at its inner edge along which water reached the boilers. Clay pipes which carried water to the fountains and pools were found at several places in the walls of the thermae.
The enormous quantity of wood needed every day to heat the thermae was stored in the galleries around the building.
The drains which carried away the water passed below the level of the floors of all premises. They were vaulted canals, built of brick and covered with impermeable plaster. The floor of the canals was paved with square bricks. The two branches of the drainage system, slanting to the south, took the used water to the sea. There was probably a courtyard to the south of the thermae which facilitated their service. A thick layer of ashes was found here during digging, obviously thrown out when the furnaces were cleaned. There is an entrance, used by the stokers, from the courtyard into the perfurnium.
The rainwater was carried from the roof of the building to the underground drainage system through pipes placed vertically in the walls. Ventilation of the premises and galleries was provided by windows, vents and chimneys. A chimney (now blocked) was found next to the boiler room.
The premises of the thermae are connected in such a way as to exclude the simultaneous use of the baths by men and women. They probably visited the thermae on different days.
The imposing nature of the building, the irreproachable way in which the brilliant architectural design has been carried out, the richness of the ornamentation make of these thermae a remarkable monument of ancient architecture in the Bulgarian lands. They are evidence of the culture which flourished in the city in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. A.D., its wealth and prosperity. The Odessos thermae are among the largest in the European part of the Roman Empire. In plan they recall the most famous thermae built in the capital by the Emperors Caracalla and Diocletian and show the important place held by Odessos in the life of the Balkan provinces. The thermae give an idea of the city's architectural aspect, while the finds, which came to light during excavations here, show the daily life of its citizens.
The comparatively short life of the thermae can be explained by the social, military and political crisis which set in in the Roman Empire in the 3rd century, one which did not spare Odessos. In the 4th century the city was obviously no longer in any condition to keep up this extremely expensive buiding. The thermae were abandoned in the unfavourable years which set in. This was followed by their partial destruction, the building materials and decorative elements being carried away to be used a second time in the construction of other buildings, among which were the 4th century small thermae of Odessos.