The legionary soldiers of Isca were originally from northern Italy, Provence and southern Spain. Even in chilly Wales, at the farthest corner of the Roman empire, they would have expected some of the comforts of home.
The fortress baths didn’t disappoint. They were a combination of state-of-the-art leisure centre and spa retreat. After bathing the legionaries could play ball games or gamble, meet friends, visit a masseur or even buy a pastry or a roast duck.
A long narrow open-air swimming pool or natatio with a fountain house at one end sat next to the bath building itself – three lofty vaulted halls on the same epic scale as a medieval cathedral.
A soldier coming to the baths would strip, hand his clothes to one of the bathhouse slaves and pass through into the frigidarium or cold bath suite. After a cold dip he’d anoint his body with oils and then visit the warm and hot bath suites in turn.
Luxuriating in the heat from the wood-burning furnaces he’d scrape the oil and sweat from his body with a metal tool called a strigil. It was all finished off with a final cold plunge and perhaps a trip to the latrine.
This wasn’t a completely men-only experience. Women and small children also used the Caerleon baths, although not at the same time as the soldiers. Mixed bathing was officially frowned on by Roman emperors.
Bathers often wore their rings and other jewellery – pilfering from lockers wasn’t unknown. This explains a superb collection of 88 engraved gemstones rescued from the bathhouse drain, all on display in the museum.