June 4, 2015, by Oliver Thomas

Rome’s Invisible City

4.5 million people tuned into BBC1 on June 1 for ‘Rome’s Invisible City’, a documentary presented by Alexander Armstrong and featuring Mark Bradley explaining the finer points of strigils and hot walnuts. Here Dr Bradley describes his experience of being involved with the programme.

It was 6 a.m. on a warm September morning when Alexander Armstrong and I arrived at Acqua Madre, a Hammam in the Ghetto region of central Rome, to film a scene about ancient Roman bathing practices for the documentary ‘Rome’s Invisible City, which was aired on BBC1 on 1 June to an audience of nearly five million viewers.

In the hammamAcqua Madre is a traditional Turkish bathing establishment, which claims to reproduce, in its authentic underground setting amid the foundations of an ancient Roman edifice, the rituals and experiences of bathing that would be familiar to all Romans high and low. Indeed the sequence of Turkish baths – warm room, hot room, cold plunge, relaxation and massage – derives directly from the tepidarium-caldarium-frigidarium sequence that appears to have been a standard feature of the ancient Roman bathing routine.

Acqua Madre doesn’t typically scrape its clients with razor-sharp strigils or singe their excess body-hair with scalding-hot walnuts, but this is the routine I had to describe to Xander for the documentary in order to expose the strange and almost obsessive cleansing and grooming habits of the ancient Romans. Of course the producers wanted to hear about the raunchy details of Roman bathing, so it didn’t take long to tease out of me some of the stories about the conspiracies and orgies that dominate ancient accounts of the baths.

This was a short scene in a grand and ambitious documentary probing the underbelly of ancient Rome – the aqueducts, sewers, underground cults and catacombs that, as the programme’s stunning graphic reconstructions demonstrate, still stretch for miles under the city. (The Roman writer Pliny the Elder described Rome as a ‘hanging city’ because the subterranean tunnel network was so extensive.)

I was approached because I’m an old hand at this sort of thing: the programme’s academic presenter, Michael Scott, was somebody I taught back when I was a PhD student in Cambridge and so knew plenty about my research interests in the less palatable aspects of Roman life. In addition, I had already shown Simon Sebag Montefiore down into the ancient sewers of Rome back in 2012 for a BBC4 documentary titled ‘Rome: A History of the Eternal City’ in which I was the main academic consultant, and have made a number of other television and radio appearances to talk about my research.

Mark and Alexander ArmstrongMy current research concentrates on the senses in classical antiquity, particularly Roman approaches to smell, and this emphasis on reconstructing the experiences of ancient life – the colours, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings of antiquity – is one that aligns nearly to the aims and objectives of twenty-first-century television documentaries, for which ancient Rome has triggered a flurry of interest in recent years. Where better than the baths for exploring the sensations and sensualism of Roman life?
The early start for this shoot was not out of choice. Xander and I had to be done filming and out of the Hammam by 10 am, when the establishment opened for its weekly women-only Wednesday. No exceptions could be made: this was a day when the women of
modern Rome could bathe and relax without interruption by the menfolk. The emperor Hadrian, who himself legislated against mixed bathing in the city two thousand years ago, would have been proud.

You can watch the programme on BBC iPlayer until the end of June by clicking here.

All images (c) Mark Bradley. Substantially the same blog has also appeared on the University of Nottingham’s ‘News Room’ blog here.

Posted in OutreachResearchRoman culture