It was not until 1783 that the first manned flight of a hot air balloon ascended from French soil, but what would it have been like to explore the world from the skies if the Montgolfier brothers who invented the hot air balloon had been around at the beginning of the 1st Century, when the Romans came to Bath?
A Roman-era hot air balloon encounter would doubtless include the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the nearby standing stones in the area. The Avebury standing stones to the west date from around 2850 BCE and form, today, one of the largest Neolithic stone circles in the county. Like the world-famous Stonehenge, these stone circles are shrouded in mystery to the modern-day observer. Would our Roman hot air balloonist be able to better understand the significance and purpose of these magical sites?
It is well known that the city of Bath gets its name from the hot springs that were discovered even before the Emperor Claudius settled there in 43 CE. At this time, the town of Bath was a settlement occupied by a tribe called the Dobunni, who occupied hillforts in the Bath area. Following the Dobunni’s incorporation into the Roman Empire, elements of Bath as we know it started to take shape.
Iconic in Bath even today is the majestic River Avon. It is the Avon that provided Roman Bath with some of its military defences. The impressive gorges that filter the water in Bath are forged by this body of water. From a hot air balloon, perhaps an observer might see Roman traders using the waterways. Iron Age forts, occupied by the Romans’ Dubonni predecessors would have lined the valley. Today, three such forts are still visible; one at Stokeleigh, near Bristol, one at Clifton Down Camp, and one at Burgh Walls Camp.
Of course, the hot water phenomenon that makes Bath special occurs only because of its unique positioning in the South West. A hot air balloon adventurer from the Roman era would have been able to see the Mendip Hills in the distance, which is where the water that sustains these baths falls as rain. The water is then filtered through the breath-taking limestone gorges and warmed by geo-thermal energy to a cosy 46°C. In the Roman and pre-Roman era, this hot water was treated as sacred. Bathing in the waters was thought to cure ailments, including leprosy. It is no wonder, then, that a temple combining worship of the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva, and the Iron Age goddess Sulis, was constructed in 60-70 CE.
Within the city itself, there are two main sites that were built by the Romans in Bath that we can still see the remnants of now: a temple to the goddess Sulis Minerva, and the baths themselves.
The religious complex the Romans started to build would have been splendid to explore by hot air balloon. Fluted Corinthian columns comprised this temple next to the baths. The pediment, at the top of the columns, featured mythological figures, including the head of the Gorgon. In later centuries, a statue of Medusa’s head was discovered by archaeologists. This too would make for an impressive sight when encountered from above. Maybe our hot air balloon explorers would see Roman worshipers dropping off votives (gifts) to Sulis Minerva, or, more colourfully, curse tablets. Curse tablets were metal sheets which dated from the 4th Century and which were discovered between 1978 and 1983. These were engraved with curses against people who had, for instance, stolen from the person leaving the curse. Sulis Minerva’s temple was used for worship until around the 4th Century when the Romans started to retreat from the area. In present-day Bath, it is now the site of the Grand Pump Room.
By the 4th Century, the spa complex had become extensive. An oak foundation and stone chamber was built as a base for the bath-house while a wooden barrel-vaulted enclosure completed the baths. Left open to the elements, a Roman aeronautical explorer might see the caldarium (the hot bath), the tepidarium (warm bath), and the frigidarium (cold bath) from the skies. These would be destroyed during the 6th Century. Today, it is no longer possible to bathe in the original waters. A new spa where people can bathe in the spring waters was opened in 2006 just next door.
The baths, roman temples, and sites of worship are now housed in museums in Bath and protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Towards the outskirts of the city, our Roman hot air balloon explorer would be able to explore the city’s defensive walls. Built in the 3rd Century, these walls surrounded the centre and would have featured roofed gated towers, which would have been both intimidating and spectacular to encounter. These walls would stay mostly intact for centuries, only finally being destroyed and repurposed by King Alfred 600 years later.
The Roman invasion brought not only advances in engineering, architecture, and design – evidence of which we see in the baths themselves – but also in terms of town planning and infrastructure. We can still see traces of Roman roads, including the Via Julia in the present day. The Via Julia ran from Silchester near Reading to Bathford on the outskirts of Bath, and was used for trading and military purposes. Today, the A4 follows the same path.
To the north, the Portway Path connected Bath to the Cotswolds, whilst Fosse Way and the South Road to Poole connected Bath to Wales and the South West and up to towns including Lincoln. Many of these paths pass through ancient forests.
While the tracks themselves may not have endured, the forests flourish on the outskirts of Bath and can still be enjoyed from the comfort of a hot air balloon; seeing how all these paths connect, and how the history of Bath is engrained on the terrain is as awe-inspiring as it is intriguing.