|The Baths of Caracalla|
In Rome there were two types of baths. The thermae were the large imperial bath complexes, while balneae where the smaller baths, public or private, that existed in great numbers throughout the empire. Both words are derived from Greek and the more austere Romans disapproved of bathing as a degenerate Hellenistic practice. The association with luxury can be seen in a tombstone inscription put up at the entrance to the tepid bath in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in the first century AD. This was to a freedman, Tiberius Claudius Secundus by his partner Merope:
The baths were the social centre of Rome, a place of relaxation and recreation, where people could sit, read, talk and exercise. Everyone except the very poorest went to the baths. The visits were usually in the late afternoon or early evening. 1,328 lamps were excavated in the Forum Baths in Pompeii, as well as marks of lamp-soot on the walls, indicating that some establishments stayed open late at night.
Originally, bathing was a simple matter of health and cleanliness, and the oldest baths were of a very simple kind. Private houses with small suites of ill-lit baths were known in the 3rd century BC, though few traces of these survive but public baths were uncommon until the first century. The earliest public baths were small scale. Two of the oldest were at Pompeii, the Stabian baths, built in the 2nd century BC and the Forum Baths put up when the colony was established in 80 BC. These early baths show the essential elements of bathing, freed from the grandiose embellishments that were to follow under the Empire.
StructureThe basic structure comprised three principal rooms arranged in sequence: the undressing room (apodyterium), the warm room (tepidarium) and the hot room (caldarium). As baths developed, the added other facilities - cold plunge baths (frigidaria) and intensely hot rooms (laconica) to promote profuse sweating. The temperature of these specialised hot baths could be carefully regulated by raising or lowering a bronze disk set in an aperture in the domed roof.
|The hypocaust at the|
Stabian Baths, Pompeii
The first suite of truly free (ie public) baths was provided by Agrippa in the Campus Martius. When he took a census in 33 BC no less than 70 baths were counted. By the 4th century they were to approach a thousand. Nero erected a suite in the Campus Martius, near the Pantheon. Titus and Trajan also built baths.
|The Baths of Diocletian,|
dedicated AD 306
The opening and closing of the establishment was announced by the sound of a bell. Each visitor had first to pay an entrance fee, which differed according to the accommodation offered. The janitor threw the money into a box (a box was found in the portico of the thermae of Pompeii) and returned to the bather a ticket to be delivered to the bathing master. Sometimes this entrance fee was remitted to the people by the aediles, desirous to gain popularity. While Agrippa was in office everyone was admitted gratis for the space of one year. On his death he left his magnificent private thermae to the people.
This emphasis on cleanliness should not blind us to the insanitary nature of the baths. Think of all the bacteria happily multiplying in the warm water!
Roman moralists like the historian Tacitus and the philosopher Seneca believed that the obsession with cleanliness was a sign of decadence and contrasted present-day luxury with the austerity of the Republic. However, literary and archaeological evidence demonstrate the enormous popularity of the baths. They enabled people of all classes to meet together and relax in comfort.