Baia History

Although the area was sparsely populated going back to neolithic times, Baia’s roots probably go back as far as the 8th century BC, with the arrival of the Greeks to Cuma. Emigrants from the Greek region of Euboea had founded Kyme, the first Greek colony on the Italian peninsula. Baia never attained individual municipal status and was administered by Cuma, nearby.


Livy attests to the earliest visit to the mineral waters of the Phlegraean Fields, when Scipio Hispallus was sent to the Aquae Cumanae in 176 BC to find a cure for a partial paralysis as a result of falling off his horse (The cure failed and he died shortly after). We don’t know where he stayed or whether it was an established bath house of some kind or a simple spring.

The second reference to a spa resort is dated 88 BC, when the Roman people implored the statesman Gaius Marius to retire to Baiae for reasons of his health, since he was worn out with old age and rheumatism. Sources state that Marius owned a luxurious villa in the Baiae neighbourhood, perhaps even two. The beginning of the 1st century BC saw increased building. Rome’s military victories abroad had made the elite richer than ever. Romans also accessed the mineral waters and built facilities around them.

In the hills of Baiae, …sites are excavated for sweating-rooms. In these, hot vapour rising deep down perforates the soil by the violence of its heat, and passing through it rises in these places, and so produces striking advantages in sweating-rooms.

Vitruvius Pollio, 1st century BC

With a statement such as the above, one can have every sympathy with an immediate assumption that the tunnels must surely be an example of those which had been carved to access heated steam (it cannot be water, because the Great Antrum slopes down). This assumption is rapidly dispelled by anyone who has actually entered the tunnel system.

Baiae was far more than what we can see today in the Archaeological Park on the hillside – a suite of separate bath complexes. In 1985 archaeologists uncovered a huge canal (over 200 metres long and 30 metres wide), which made it clear that the spa complex overlooked a shallow oval coastal lake or harbour, which in turn was connected to the sea. Fish was much prized and that the area famous for its oysters.

[glass souvenir flasks pic]

What is agreed is that the area of Le Piccole Terme, the small Roman baths, are the oldest structures at the site. Yet they are so small and insignificant when compared to the huge human enterprise of digging the tunnels – it’s out of all proportion. It seems highly improbable that any steam could travel 170 metres (x feet) and retain any useful heat.

To recap on some of the aspects that need to be considered.

The features, scaled for human use with doorways, simply don’t reflect any

The overlay of Roman baths, used and modified over many centuries, makes unravelling the historical timeline of the Bath complex and its relationship with the Great Antrum at Baia very difficult.

The Romans certainly used the tunnels at Baia and lined the main Great Antrum with waterproof ‘cocciopesto’ cement render. In doing so they have preserved and used the hundreds of lamp niches in the walls.

[lamp niche pic]

This cement continues below the present water line as far as we can, as do the lamp niches. The water level was once very much lower, after the sheer drop at the end of the stretch of water visible today.

[underwater pic]

Numerous other tunnels into the hillside can be seen. Some have been explored and some remain blocked and un-investigated. One of these, however, runs across the top of the Great Antrum and has an access tunnel. This tunnel was cleared enough of its soil to be accessed by Doc Paget and Keith Jones in the early 1960s. It reaches a small chamber, in which a break can be seen into another tunnel not of human height. Because of the tomb-like appearance within the chamber, Doc called this ‘The Tomb Tunnel’. Doc imagined that within the ‘tomb’ was a secret tunnel the Cimmerians, custodians of the Oracle of the Dead, used to go between their underground dwellings, as they were not allowed to see the light of day.

Doc would no doubt be disappointed to know this is actually part of the ‘Aqua Augusta’ or ‘Serino’ aqueduct headed for the Piscina Mirabilis at Miseno. Maybe Doc was being disingenuous – it would have been within his character.

[tomb tunnel pic]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.