Etruscans and Romans: Thermal springs and baths
Etruscans were the ancient inhabitants of Etruria (now Tuscany) in central Italy. From the eighth to fifth centuries BC their cities, forming a political association, dominated the region. After 396 they were absorbed by the Romans. Their non-Indo-European language is still untranslated. Their culture and archaeological history is to be found in museums and also at some well excavated sites where they lived and worked. More recent excavation has brought to light many indications of their ancient civilisation.
The Roman Republic was the ancient Roman state following expulsion of the Etruscan monarchs when Augustus (Octavian) assumed power in 27BC. At that time it became the Roman Republic that was divided by Theodosius in AD 395 into the Western or Latin and Eastern or Greek Empire. Peace was maintained largely by the substantial presence of the Roman army and a degree of unity was achieved by an extensive network of roads, a single legal system and a common language (Latin in the West, Greek in the East). They built and developed the extensive use of numerous thermal springs and baths.
Thermal springs and baths
Italy’s abundant thermal water sources have been identified as amongst the best in the world for their variety of mineral content and healing qualities. Known to the Etruscans and the Romans, in more recent times modern therapeutic spa centres offer a wide variety of medicinal and related treatments to promote good health and well being. Local communities and visitors also enjoy the use of thermal springs bubbling from the ground that spill into many artificial basins in a number of open spaces in fields or woods.
In the region of Lazio north of Rome, the thermal springs around Viterbo have been known since ancient times, used by the Romans, who built as many as fourteen thermal spas along the Via Cassia. Most famous were the Baths of Paliano, now called Pozzi di San Sisto. The chemical and physical characteristics of the San Sisto hot spring contain carbonic sulphate water for dermatological, respiratory and motor pathologies. The management of an open site has more recently been granted to a local association.
Enriched with gas and mineral compounds, the San Sisto springs are unique in view of the proximity of hot and cold sources. The hot spring is the result of a later stage activity of the Vicano volcano. The cold one is much deeper and is the result of drilling by a company that struck aquifer in the limestone located beneath the volcanic terrain. Aquifer flows directly from the Apennines (backbone) mountain range running down the length of Italy from north-west to the southern tip of the peninsula, 1,400 kms or 880 miles.
Viterbo is surrounded by Roman ruins and is well known for its natural hot sulphur springs. The ancient Terme dei Papi, meaning ‘thermal springs of the popes’, is where they came ‘to take the cure’ that has made the town’s reputation. It became a papal city in 1243. Known as the “wandering papacy”, with shifting political and economic alliances creating instability in Rome, the popes intermittently resided at the Papal Palace in Viterbo between 1257 and 1281. Its construction was started by Pope Alexander IV (1254-61). Seven papal elections took place in Viterbo where burial tombs of four popes remain.
Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. It follows visits to Etruscan and Roman sites in Lazio, baths of San Sisto and other places north of Rome. (June 2012).