I'm thrilled to share with you an exciting surprise that one of our recent site visits during the beautiful sunny days of January unveiled: the rediscovery of the ancient and renowned Aquae Ceretane. These thermal springs are mentioned in various ancient sources, including the Roman physician Caelius Aurelianus, the Greek historian and geographer Strabo, and the ancient Roman historian Titus Livius. The springs had disappeared and remained "frozen" by history for over a millennium and a half, buried beneath private agricultural land, yet they maintained a surprisingly good state of preservation for some of their decorative features. The size and artistic level of these structures are decidedly exceptional compared to the standard of settlements known in the area.

With immense pleasure, I discovered that the cleaning operations have resumed in the archaeological excavation of the Aquae Ceretanae, conducted by the Archaeological Group of the Cerite Territory, the same group that has already cleaned and restored the archaeological area of the "Laghetto," part of the UNESCO site of the Banditaccia necropolis in Cerveteri, one of the oldest, largest, and most important areas in the entire Mediterranean.

Thanks to the invaluable availability of the scientific coordinator, the renowned archaeologist Flavio Enei, Roberto Della Ceca, and Dr. Monica De Simone, it was possible to access the freshly cleaned excavation site to take some photos and preview video footage.

The baths were finally identified at the end of 1986 when, following plowing carried out with a tractor by the landowner, shards and fragments of pottery, marble, glass, and countless mosaic tiles emerged scattered over a large area of ​​that private agricultural field.

Archaeologist Dr. Rita Cosentino immediately intervened, who was responsible at the time for the Archaeological Superintendence of Southern Etruria, who realized that they were dealing with a very important site, but did not yet think of the famous Terme Ceretane.

With the start of archaeological excavations shortly after, along with other discoveries, marble thresholds emerged, and, at a depth of more than five meters, the remains of two large contiguous rooms were found (dating back to the 1st century but frequented until the 3rd), each equipped with a pool: the one with the larger pool, the calidarium, surrounded by a portico, has a curved end and is still flooded by a high-temperature spring, and a smaller one, the tepidarium, where the pool is rectangular and receives tepid water, surrounded by three rows of marble seats (with prized yellow and Carrara marbles adorning all the baths), part of the mosaics with their respective glass paste tiles in blue, green, yellow, black, and red, and a decisive marble votive pillar inscribed with: "To Jupiter and the sources of the Ceretane waters" indicating its connection to a series of cults related to healing waters.

Terracotta pipes carrying hot water to heat the rooms of this large complex made up of various buildings were also identified along the walls, followed by a female bust resembling a Faustina and a piece of a seat with a lion's paw.

Considering how Roman baths were typically structured, the frigidarium, changing rooms, and gymnasium are still missing from the roster (at least, given the seventy thousand square meters of extension).

Among the findings from the excavated area, two inscriptions were particularly revealing, solving the mystery of the excavation while simultaneously unraveling the enigma of the precise location of the Aquae Ceretanae, at least those from the Roman era:

the aforementioned inscription commemorating an offering to Jupiter and the Fons of the Aquae Ceretanae, made by an imperial slave named Florentinus; a second inscription commemorating the offering of a table to the same Fons Aquarum Caeretanarum by an officer with the title of signifer, likely from a Praetorian or Urban cohort, named Lucius Pontilius Duuro, son of Lucius. Paleographic, linguistic, typological, and historical-antiquarian analysis allowed dating the table to around the first half of the 1st century AD. A similar dating could also be attributed to Florentinus' dedication. The splendid thermal complex could indeed be placed, as Cosentino believes, within the scope of the early imperial era, with a frequency that extends until the end of the 3rd century.

The latest news about the famous Aquae Ceretanae was provided by the renowned writer and physician Caelius Aurelianus, a supporter of hydrotherapy, who declared them to be "The hottest thermal waters in Italy."

The archaeological investigation also brought to light traces of burnt wood and various alluvial debris, a sign that perhaps the baths were destroyed by the Visigoths of Alaric, shortly before the famous sack of Rome in 410, or perhaps by a violent flood.

From the citations of Caelius Aurelianus, this site (extending for about 7 hectares, forming a veritable large thermal city where people lived, rested, and where, among other things, even the square Roman legions quarantined) was completely abandoned, remaining buried and forgotten for many centuries, disappearing until the late 1980s of the last century.

If archaeological reconnaissance leaves something to be desired, providing few certainties, also due to the lack of systematic excavations carried out so far due to the lack of funds, help can come from ancient texts and the numerous deposits of anatomical votives known in sacred areas developed near the springs. However, it should be emphasized that such offerings, manifestations of popular religiosity, do not always attest to healing practices, as they may simply involve the worship of the waters.

The thermal complex of the Aquae Caeretanae or Caeretes was already renowned centuries before the Roman physician Aurelianus, and it was already mentioned by even earlier sources.

The Greek historian and geographer Strabo (60 BC - 21 AD), in his "Geographia" (V 2, 9), stated that the abundant thermal waters of Etruria, due to their proximity to Rome, were as crowded as the famous ones of Baiae in Campania, and that the Caeretanae were more populated than the city from which they derived their name (Caere) (V 2, 3).

Although the area referred to by Strabo was equaled, especially during the imperial era, by other territorial areas such as the surroundings of Rome (Aquae Cutiliae, Labanae, Albulae) or southern Latium (Aquae Neptuniae), and (Aquae Vescinae), the southern Etruscan area remains the most cited by authors who emphasize the extraordinary diffusion of hot springs and the cult paid to their deities (lymphae).

The Roman historian Titus Livius (59 BC - 17 AD) noted in his "Ab Urbe Condita" (a monumental history of Rome from its foundation) about the Aquae Ceretanae: "In the year 535, among the various prodigies, there was that of the Ceriti waters mixed with blood" (speaking of 535 BC, so we are in the midst of the Etruscan era).

But there's more: the protection of thermal waters in Etruria seems primarily entrusted to Hercules and Apollo. Livy seems to somehow connect the Aquae Caeretanae themselves with a fons Herculis. But in the new inscriptions mentioned above, the faithful venerate Jupiter in the first position and, subordinately, Fons.

The historical and religious implications of this change, as well as the first attestation of a specific fons Aquarum Caeretanarum, may suggest that Livy still reflects an Etruscan tradition, while the inscriptions, and perhaps even Strabo, refer to an imperial reality now profoundly changed, when the Etruscan system with a series of scattered fontes, among which the most famous was dedicated to Hercules, had been replaced by an efficient and crowded unified thermal complex.

A small inscribed base found later showed that, however, Hercules had not been completely supplanted as he appeared as a recipient, albeit subordinately (Iovi et Herculi Aquarum Caeretanarum), of another dedication made by a centurion of the vigiles.

These are dedications where Roman worship was grafted onto autochthonous cults without any upheaval. On the contrary, there was a phenomenon of reverse sense: the assimilation of indigenous figures led, more than to pure and simple syncretism, to a radical change in the divine physiognomy assigned to the sources, where from an original unity there was a decomposition into a multiplicity of divine entities.

Further complicating matters is the very nature of the water element: living water, being an indispensable element of any ritual, distinguishes every aspect of human religiosity. Thus, there are foundational connections between water and the cults of the most diverse deities, especially Apollo (in both his oracular and medical aspects), Hercules, and Minerva.

As can be intuited, the importance and therefore the sacredness of water sources are undeniable elements in every civilization. The very location of Etruscan cities and then of Rome was always chosen (among other reasons) precisely because of the abundance of its springs, a mysterious and marvelous element, as well as an indispensable factor for life.

Not even the systematization of water supply with aqueducts, overseen by ministers or magistri fontani and curatores aquarum, diminished the veneration of springs, both cold and hot, as evidenced by numerous literary testimonies and hundreds of votive dedications, also in relation to artificial basins of spring water collection, such as baths and aqueducts (subject to the protection of local or less local deities).

And so water remained the recipient of a devotion that invariably invested it, in natural and artificial contexts, where human artistic and engineering skill harmoniously merged with the magical-sacred significance of the water element; these waters are subject to the authority of Fons.

Besides etymologically, the belonging of this deity to the water element is evident in myth, which portrays Fons as the son of Janus and Juturna; the connection is further emphasized by the topographic location: an altar to Fons is in fact consecrated on the southeastern slopes of the Janiculum (in the place now occupied by the Ministry of Public Education). The Janiculum hill is indeed rich in springs and aquifers, and there the lucus of Furrina, another deity connected to water and somehow complementary to Fons, also extended (near present-day Villa Sciarra). There are no known priesthoods dedicated to the god, although some advance the hypothesis that Fons was honored by a flamen.

His festivals are well known and attested by major Roman calendars, the Fontinalia on October 13th: on this day wells and fountains were adorned with garlands and offerings of flowers. The offering of flowers seems to be a customary offering to the god, along with wine and sacrifices of a more bloodthirsty nature: famous is Horace's offering of a kid to the Fons Bandusiae, like that of a lamb by Numa to the Fons Fauni et Pici.

The theory proposed by some scholars of a link between Fons and the Armilustrium (on this day of celebration, soldiers' weapons underwent a ritual purification and were stored for the winter) seems convincing: Fons' significance, at the close of the war season, should be placed within the framework of lustral practices aimed at removing pollution from weapons and men.

Even more convincing if we consider that Roman legions already stopped at the nearby Caldara di Manziana and the Stigliano baths to purify themselves after long military campaigns, before returning to the capital.

We know for certain that the healing action of the mud was applied to both humans and animals. Even until the middle of the last century, recurring baths were practiced on flocks, herds, and other domestic animals in Caldara di Manziana.

As mentioned, for the north-Latium territory, one can speak of a true "thermal structuring" only after the Roman conquest, as in Etruscan times no stable facilities seem to have been built, although a shrine could have been erected in honor of the local numen, as is the case with the baths in question (Aquae Ceretanae) where a temple from the 6th-5th century BC is attested;

The preeminence of Etruria is understood in light of the rich hydrogeological map of that region, which fully justifies the knowledge of the therapeutic powers of certain springs since protohistoric times and, more widely, in pre-Roman times. In this regard, however, valuable information has been lost due to the disappearance of Etruscan literature, and archaeological evidence is fragile and poorly understood.

Throughout this area, marked by the presence of endogenous activities linked to Sabatino and Tolfetano volcanism, there are numerous thermal springs known and utilized by settled populations over the millennia (findings date back to the earliest devotional depositions in the Neolithic age; Gasperini, 1976).

In Etruscan and Roman times, there were several thermal sites within a few kilometers: notable examples include the "Aquae Tauri" near Civitavecchia, the "Aquae Apollinares" of Vicarello, those of Stigliano, and the "Aquae Caeretane," just to name those in the immediate vicinity.

The most significant, in terms of monumentality, of these cult sites are located at important communication routes, commercial hubs, or transhumance routes: here, they also acquired fundamental political significance, acting as dual-track cultural mediators in the process of Romanization. While numerous sources are passed down through literature or votive dedications with a name, far more are anonymous. These are springs that have remained intact in their natural context and have never been the subject of monumentalization, whose devotion is notable thanks to the existence of votive deposits (bronze figurines, anatomical and non-anatomical pottery, animal remains). A cult as widespread as that of water, of course, embraced vast prerogatives: purifying, oracular, and above all, therapeutic. Notably, the cultic expressions are recorded mainly in the presence of thermo-mineral waters, which, based on the specific chemical composition of the water, constituted and still constitute a remedy for a wide range of pathologies.

For example, it has been hypothesized that the physician Diodotus, originally from Tyana, practiced medicine at the Aquae Ceretanae, as mentioned in a funerary inscription from the late 3rd century AD found nearby (see Cassia 2006).

Although ancient hydrotherapeutic knowledge was primarily based on empirical observations, blending scientific and magical-religious knowledge, all the main applications known today found their place; sanctuaries dedicated to healing springs gradually incorporated receptive structures, suitable for welcoming seekers/patients. Therefore, the geology and chemical analysis of the waters can contribute to mapping out the fountain cult sites of antiquity.

The thermal baths in Roman times and the bathers

Literary sources recall that the salubrious waters were frequented by magistrates during the Republican era, emperors or officials of their court during the Imperial era, high-ranking individuals, but also less important members.

In contrast, inscriptions provide more evidence than literary testimonies regarding the names, social status, degree of Romanization, profession, and geographical origin of visitors to a thermal center. This is also considering the nature of these sources, which manage to give voice to those middle and lower layers of society, about which most ancient authors say very little.

While literary testimonies report information about high-ranking visitors to certain baths (such as emperors, high prelates, members of the nobility, and men of culture like Horace), epigraphic texts inform us, as discussed earlier, that besides these high-ranking individuals, women, animals, and members of lower social strata also sought treatment at the baths. Among these, military personnel on duty are particularly attested: consider, for example, the case of the Aquae Caeretanae, where we know of the first-century imperial dedication made by the centurion P(ublius) Sc[r]ibonius Proculus, who served in one of the auxiliary cohorts of the vigiles stationed in Rome. Some scholars have hypothesized that the presence of military personnel at the thermal springs can be explained by the particular properties of certain waters for treating bodily wounds.

In addition to high-ranking individuals, inscriptions also attest to the presence of members of lower social strata at the healing waters. Between the Augustan age and the 2nd century AD, at least a dozen dedications were made by freedmen and about ten by slaves, including both imperial freedmen and slaves (particularly noteworthy are Celadus, freedman of Augustus, at the Albulae waters; Eros, freedman and procurator of Augustus at Stigliano; Argenne, freedwoman of Empress Poppaea at Ischia; Alcibiade, freedman at the room of Hadrian's cubicle at the Terme Taurine near Civitavecchia; Florentinus, Augustus' slave at the Aquae Ceretanae; Antonius and Eugenes, Caracalla and Geta's slaves at the Terme di Suio).

Regarding the professions of the dedicants, they are mentioned in a very limited number of texts, again dating from the 1st to 2nd century AD: among others, there is Q. Magurius Ferox, an actor and juggler attested at the Aquae Patavinae, who may have performed at the spectacles organized at the thermal establishments to entertain the public, but also - and perhaps more likely - at the famous ludi cetasti held in nearby Patavium; two priests, one of whom is particularly interesting (due to the fracture of the stone), who in the 1st century AD donated the hide of an ox to the Baths of Stigliano as a priest of the local spring deities; two doctors respectively in the Phlegrean Fields and at Ischia, although it is not clear if they practiced their profession on-site (indeed, the latter, who expressly identifies himself as Cisalpine, probably practiced in that region of Italy).

The presence of women in thermal areas is frequent: in addition to a literary passage where Martial attests to the use of medicinal waters by an adulteress who excuses her absences from home by claiming to visit the baths of Sinuessa to treat hysteria, there are about twenty inscriptions from the 1st to 2nd century AD in the thermal stations of Roman Italy, with a particular concentration at the sanctuary of Minerva Medica in Travo.

The dedications are mostly offered to healing deities such as Apollo and the Nymphs, or Asclepius and Hygieia, but also to deities with a purely local significance, such as Minerva Medica/Memor of Travo (Piacenza) or Spes Augusta of Fons Timavi near Monfalcone (Gorizia). The widespread female presence in these thermal places suggests the existence of a complex layout of the establishments, with separate facilities for the two genders, as was the case with hygienic thermal buildings.

To conclude, as mentioned earlier, among the bathers at the Roman healing waters were also animals: an example of high commitment in this regard is the dedicatory base with a metric poem dedicated to the Albulae waters for the healing of a horse injured during a wild boar hunt in the territory of Rusellae.

Some passages also explicitly mention the diseases that the healing waters were supposed to cure: hysteria, nervous disorders in general, or gout, with a chronological continuity from the Augustan age to late antiquity.

Literary texts, therefore, provide more data in this regard compared to epigraphic ones, which only in very few cases mention the illnesses cured by the thermal waters: the serious illness from which Coelia Iuliana was cured by Minerva Medica in the sanctuary of Travo, the hair problems afflicting Tullia Superiana, as remembered by another ex-voto from the same sanctuary, a possible otitis or deafness referred to in a third text, again from that sanctuary, and the hunting wound from which the horse Samis was healed thanks to the Albulae waters.

Returning to the bathers, epigraphy also attests to the presence in the thermal stations of a series of high-ranking individuals, active in the political life of the time. One such individual, for the 2nd century AD, is L. Minucius Natalis, a native of Barcino, whose cursus honorum includes, among the main positions, the consulship, the proconsulship of Africa between 153 and 154 AD, the propraetorship as Augustus' legate of Lower Moesia, and the curatorship of the Via Flaminia. Two inscriptions dedicated by him probably demonstrate an active attendance at thermal complexes and perhaps, although not explicitly stated, a votum solutum to the gods for healing obtained there: these are the Latin text to Apollo unearthed at the Musignano baths in Canino and a second, more dubious, in Greek to Zeus Helios Serapis, to Isis Mirionima, and to the gods worshipped in the same temple found at the Terme del Bullicame in Viterbo.

Another prominent figure in 2nd century AD society was T. Caunius Priscus, legatus Augusti pro praetore in Numidia and consul designate, of whom we have a particularly remarkable votive text from 186 AD dedicated to the Aquae Sinuessanae, found at Lambaesis (modern-day Algeria) near the temple of Asclepius. It is possible that the inscription evokes a healing of the individual thanks to the Campanian thermal waters (thus attesting to Caunius Priscus's memory of these springs even far away) or expresses a political act of loyalty to the ancestral homeland of the family.

In some cases, it is the votive objects that highlight the high economic status of the dedicants: a particularly noteworthy example is that of Vicarello, near Lake Bracciano, where a votive deposit containing numerous metal objects (mostly pottery vessels), dating from the 1st to 2nd century AD, with the highest concentration in the second half of the 1st century, has been recovered. Some of these objects represent high-quality Roman metalwork and probably belonged to wealthy "curists," while poorer visitors limited themselves to throwing coins into the waters, a practice that has continued uninterrupted until today.

Also of value are the bronze ex-votos (including simpula and trullae handles) found at Lagole (Belluno); finally, objects of value, attributable to a wealthy clientele, are the silver ears mentioned in an inscription already cited from Travo (Piacenza), as well as the statue of Diana and the portrait in precious metal of a woman mentioned in two texts from the Albulae waters in Tivoli. Even gold dice were likely thrown by the Emperor Tiberius into the Aponus spring in the Euganean area, where he went to consult the oracle of Gerion about the outcome of the military campaign he was about to undertake: Suetonius (Tib. 14, 3) recounts that they were still glittering under the water in his time.

Of great interest are the data related to the origin of the bathers at the thermal baths obtained from epigraphic texts: a striking case is that of the Aquae Apollinares Novae, today Vicarello, where we know that individuals came from the farthest western and eastern reaches of the Empire, particularly from Cadiz in Spain (as evidenced by the Vicarello cups from the early imperial period, probably donated by a visitor from Cadiz to the thermal waters), and from Anatolian East (as shown by the small marble base from the imperial era, probably a support for a lost ex-voto, with a dedication in Greek to Apollo by Sestilius Obas, a native of Aphrodisias).

Archaeologists will continue to explore the site in search of new clues and evidence that can contribute to reconstructing the history of this ancient and magnificent thermal structure.

In the meantime, the public will have the opportunity to admire the wonders of the Aquae Ceretanae through guided tours that celebrate this important ongoing archaeological discovery or by discovering the other very important Etruscan-Roman sites scattered in the same territory, just minutes away from each other.