Archive for January, 2012


Among many things the ancient Romans popularized (until the Dark Ages came along) was the concept of bathing. On some level, bathing epitomized civilization for the Romans, distinguishing them from their barbarian neighbors. Though only the ancient one-percenters could afford private baths in their homes, every town worth its salt had several public bathing complexes like the one the archaeology team finds in The Five Day Dig.

When you went to the baths (afternoon, the warmest part of the day, was preferred) you began your routine in an outside exercise area called a palestra. After you worked out, you moved on to the changing room and left your toga or tunic in a locker. Bathers then chose from hot, cold and lukewarm pools. (Gotta love the tepidarium — the name for the latter.)

Floors and walls of the bathhouses were heated through hollow ceramic pipes emanating from a central wood-burning furnace — which definitely would have made them more comfortable than my bathroom on a cold January morning!

The complexes were also equipped with latrines like the multi-seat one shown here from Ostia, outside of Rome. Toilets like these were flushed continuously with rushing water below. Modern visitors tend to be shocked by the proximity of the seats to each other, but I like to think there once may have been curtains between them, which isn’t much worse than the set-up in today’s public restrooms!

Roman plumbing is a fascinating subject in itself, and there’s at least one book out focused specifically on latrines: Latrinae Et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World by Barry Hobson.

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Dunk’s medieval hotel suite in The Five Day Dig is based on the place where Hubby and I stayed outside of Rome a couple years ago. Actually built into the city wall of the Borgo in Ostia Antica, the Delfina Suite at Hotel Rodrigo de Vivar provides an adventure in itself.

I’ve never heard spookier noises anywhere than in this centuries-old two-bedroom apartment reputed to have once been the home of a noblewoman. Was it haunted or just old water pipes and pigeons in the chimney? Admittedly, on our second night there, a pigeon landed in the hearth — luckily with no fire burning. My husband had to pick up the little guy in a newspaper and put him outside.

The TV had no reception, adding to the sense of isolation or even time-travel that we felt. Whether that’s a plus or minus, you decide. Other positives, however, were the affordable pizza shop down the block (in The Dig, Winnie gets dinner there one night), the fabulous bakery around the corner, and the fresh spring water fountain practically outside the door. The place is also just a few blocks from the amazing ruins of ancient Ostia or the regional train that takes you into Rome for just one euro.

Other possible caveats: In online reviews, some travelers who visited in summer complained of mosquitoes, but in mid-March, we didn’t encounter a single bug. The Borgo seemed to get noisy in the evenings, but not late into the night, and nearby church bells rang in the morning.

All in all, recommended. Website here. (We booked through Expedia.)

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In a previous post, I mentioned how the ancient library at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum has captured the imaginations of lots of people (as well as characters in The Five-Day Dig) hoping to find lost literature from Rome and Greece. But scholars aren’t the only ones the house has intrigued. One admirer, J. Paul Getty, went so far as to build a full-size replica of it and fill it with genuine ancient statues and other art. Luckily for us, the Getty Villa in Malibu, CA, is now part of the Getty Museum. Even if you can’t make it to Herculaneum, you can experience the Villa in its glory — and it’s free! (Just pay for parking or bus fare to get there).

On the wrong coast for Getty? Another building modeled on ancient Roman architecture (apart from the temple-like government buildings found everywhere) is the Pompeia in Saratoga Springs, NY, built by Boston hardware merchant/architect, Franklin Webster Smith. In its heyday, the house boasted replica Roman furniture, as well as real Roman art collected by Webster Smith. Today, rather than a museum, the building is base to an ad agency — but maybe if you’re nice to them (or a client), they’ll let you see it. A little on Pompeia here.

Finally, if you’re in Europe, Aschaffenburg, Germany, offers the Pompejanum, built by King Ludwig I of Bavaria in the 1840s. The building features Roman-style mosaics and frescoes and is decked with genuine ancient art and domestic artifacts. Entry is a bargain at only €5.50 euros. (Closed during winter months.) Looks beautiful here, doesn’t it?

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Bear