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Thermae Maiores – a 2000-year-old spa in the heart of Óbuda

Panel exhibition at the Baths Museum

Baths, wine and love ruin our bodies, but what is life without baths, wine and love.” The ancient saying expresses clearly what the Romans thought about their baths: for them it was simply a way of enjoying life. Although the origins of the bathhouse – as a building type – go back to Ancient Greece, the gigantic complex with hot and cold pools, steam baths, sauna and gymnasium that served as a place of not just cleanliness but also rest, recreation and entertainment was certainly a Roman innovation. Roman bath architecture began in Italy, but as the Roman Empire expanded, bathing culture quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean and the Northern provinces in Europe.

The Romans brought bathing customs also to the area that is now Budapest. Bathing was a basic necessity for the Romans who settled here and the soldiers who were stationed here, and soon the native population, too, adopted the customs. For this the natural resources of the Roman town ‘rich in waters’, Aquincum, were a perfect match and the locals made good use of them. Archaeological excavations have found the remains of twenty five ancient baths. Of these the most significant was the Great Baths under the Árpád Bridge – Szentendrei Road traffic junction. The Great Baths or Thermae Maiores, as seen on an inscription commemorating its reconstruction, was used by the Legio II Adiutrix, stationed in Aquincum. The Great Baths, therefore, provided 6000 people with a place for washing, exercise, personal care and entertainment as well as visiting a proper lavatory.

Excavations of Hungary’s largest Roman baths began in 1778, after the ruins had been accidentally discovered while digging for lime pits. István Schönvisner, first professor of numismatics and antiquities at the University of Nagyszombat (relocated to Buda in the previous year), began the excavation and publication of the archaeological remains. His work marked not just the start of excavations in Aquincum, but also the beginning of heritage protection in Hungary, as the ruins were covered by a protective roof on the orders of Maria Theresa and shown to the general public. This was one of the earliest scholarly explorations of ancient baths in Europe.

On the 240th anniversary of the excavations, and the 200th anniversary of Schönvisner’s death, the Aquincum Museum opened a new exhibition at the Florian Square Baths Museum, which exhibits the archaeological remains of the baths. While the traffic of the modern metropolis roars past on the overpass above, down below, among the Roman walls, our exhibition panels guide visitors through what was a key part of ancient life: the world of spas. After all: “…to bathe, to play, to laugh; that is the life.

Location: Baths Museum (Florian Square Underpass, 1033 Budapest)

The exhibition can be visited from 27 July 2018