This wall is the only surviving part of Leicester’s predecessor, the Roman Town of Ratae Coritanorunm. It is a fascinating portal into 1,800 years of history.
Built in AD 160, it was the entrance to a great Roman Bath complex in the centre of the town. Standing over 9 meters high and 2.5 meters wide it is one of the largest sections of surviving Roman building anywhere in England.
Two thousand years ago, Leicester was an important settlement for the Corieltavi, a native British tribe who occupied the area known today as the East Midlands. Following the Roman conquest of AD 43 the town was called Ratae Corieltavorum. It became a thriving centre for the next 400 years.
The wall later became the west wall of the original Saxon church of St Nicholas, which it survived through all of the subsequent centuries.
Roman walls were typically constructed within a timber scaffolding framework. The small ‘putlog’ holes in the walls mark the position of the wooden scaffolding used during construction.
Astonishingly the site was only discovered by chance in 1936 when a factory was demolished to build a new swimming baths. Unbeknownst to everyone instead of getting a new leisure facility, they would be getting one which was almost two millennia old.
The wall was commonly known as the ‘Temple of Janus’. Janus was the Roman got of Gateways and as the wall resembled a Gateway it was thought this was the west entrance to the Roman town.
After exercising, bathers walked through one of the arched doors into the cold room (frigidarium), which was possibly open air. On either side were changing rooms and latrines.
Roman baths were a fundamental part of their society and their way of life. Bathing was an integral part of cultural and social life in Roman towns regardless of who you were. Bath-houses were not just places to get clean: customers would also exercise, relax, eat, socialise and conduct business. They would now be considered similar to community centres, combining all the facilities provided by gyms, spas, libraries, shopping centres and restaurants.
Everyone using the facilities would have entered through the arches in the wall. I found it fascinating to stand in this space and touch the stones that so many Romans would have done as they entered a place they would have enjoyed coming to spend some of their leisure time.
The central focus of the baths themselves was the tepidarium, the warm room heated from under the floor through a hypocaust, where bathers could assemble and relax before moving on to the hot or cold baths – the caldaria or the frigidarium. The bases of the tiled pillars that once supported the floor can still be seen.
Bathers would cover themselves with oils and use a tool called a strigil to scrape off the dirt and oil. The hot rooms were maintained at a temperature of about forty degrees centigrade – this made them very humid, much like a modern sauna. The final step was to plunge into a pool of cold water, to close the pores and refresh the body – the footprints of these semicircular pools can still be seen