At the beginning of the 3rd century AD, the Ancient Romans, led by Consul Quintus Fabius Rullianus, marched over the Cimini mountains and found many settlements scattered around the valleys of what was then Etruria, among which were Castel D'Asso, Cordigliano, Musarna, Surrena and Ferento. The Etruscan town of Surrena, today known as Viterbo, was built on the slopes of Duomo Hill and one of its streets wound its way towards the Dei Bagni plain, where thermal waters were already being used for therapeutic and other uses. The Roman army destroyed the settlements of Etruria, but conserved many aspects of its civilization including its refined appreciation of thermal baths. The baths were named after the population which had first discovered them, and until the end of the Roman Empire, they were referred to as the "Terme Etrusche" - "the Etruscan Thermal Baths".
THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Vestiges of the Roman Baths can be found along 11 kilometres of the ancient Cassius road just outside Viterbo, with a particular concentration around three main thermal areas: Acquae Passeris, Paliano and the most important of the three, Bullicame. The importance of Viterbo as a thermal centre is demonstrated by a large number of written documents, including the writings of Strabbone, Tibullo, Simmaco, Marziale and Scribonio Largo, Emperor Tiberius' own doctor.
POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE OF THE PAPAL ERA
During medieval times, the thermal baths in Viterbo were visited by a succession of popes. In 1235, a period grandeur for Viterbo was inaugurated by Pope Gregory IX. Later, in 1404, Pope Boniface IX accepted the gracious invitation of the priors of Viterbo to cure his "terrible aches of the bones" with the waters and mud of the spa town.
THE POPE'S BATH
The name "dei Papi" - of the Popes - derives from the intervention of a third pope, Nicholas V, who was so impressed by the curative effects of the local waters that, in 1450, he had a splendid palace built here, in order to have somewhere to stay whenever he required treatment. The building had crenellated walls, beautiful cross-shaped windows and soaring vaulted ceilings in the halls and was known as the Pope's Bath. Later, Pope Pius II remodeled and modernized the palace.
IN MEMORY OF DANTE AND MICHELANGELO
Great poets and artists have left us precious references to the baths. Bullicame is mentioned several times in Dante's Divine Comedy and in particular, in the XIV canto: "As from Bulicame a river comes forth that the sinning women then divide among themselves, so this one flowed down across the sand".
Michelangelo, passing through Viterbo during one of his journeys to Rome (sometime between 1496 and 1536), was greatly impressed by the beauty of the baths and was inspired to do two pen drawings of them which today can admired at the Vicar de Lille Museum in France.