It’s for good reason Rome is called “the eternal city”, for although millennia have passed, certain things remain remarkably unchanged. I’m not talking about the architecture. Sure a lot of it still stands, stripped of its color but impressive nonetheless, weaving a monumental narrative back through the ages of the Popes, the Caesars, and the Republic. I’m not talking about the atmosphere of the city either; true the noise and the chaos remains, but it’s hard to imagine today’s city captures much of the ancient caput mundi: head and center of the world.
What hasn’t changed over the last two millennia are some of the practices and routines of the Romans themselves, specifically how Romans of any wealth do whatever they can to get out of the city when the oppressive August heat hits. Roman summers are scorching; it’s not uncommon for temperatures to reach the high 30s or even 40s. And we know the ancients felt the heat just as much 2,000 years ago as they do today because they told us themselves.
The satirist Juvenal, writing in the late first and early second century AD, tells us that when August came around, and poets filled the city’s streets en masse to give tedious public recitals, it meant time to shut up shop and leave the city. The Younger Pliny too tells us that July marked a holiday from the law courts, presumably because it was too unbearably hot to litigate for hours on end. Spend time in Rome during this month today, and you’ll understand his reasoning.
But where did Rome’s ancient citizens go when they wanted to get away? Like today’s Italians, some headed to the mountains to enjoy some peace and quiet while soaking up the fresh air. Others, especially those of some money, fled to their country houses or villae. We know that the great orator and politician Cicero had dozens of them, some in the middle of nowhere, others on various coastlines where he would constantly be interrupted from his relaxation by passing friends and acquaintances. Cicero was at one of his more remote country estates when he was murdered, in fact, beheaded by centurions on the orders of Octavian—later the first Emperor Augustus.
Many of Rome’s ancient inhabitants opted for the coast, especially the long stretch near Naples in the modern region of Campania. And we have a great deal of written and archaeological evidence that they liked most was a beach resort around 20 miles west of Naples known simply as “Baiae” (the Latin word for bay). Situated in a volcanically active area, the resort was rich in warm natural springs, and their healing properties weren’t lost on the ancients who would travel here to soak up their holistic benefits. But it wasn’t its reputation as a spa that earned Baiae its fame, but its reputation for hedonism and debauchery that earned it its notoriety.