Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Roman baths

The Baths of Caracalla
AD 206
For this post I have been particularly indebted to J. P. V. D Balsdon, Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome (The Bodley Head, 1969) and Mary Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (Profile Books, 2010)

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: 
‘Wine, sex and baths ruin our bodies but they are the stuff of health – wine, sex, and baths.’ 
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. 

The Stabian baths were under repair at the time of the eruption, with only the women’s area in full working order. The very first building on the site has been dated to the fifth century BC. This took the form of an exercise court (palaestra) and a row of hip baths in the Greek style. In the middle of the second century there was a major redevelopment, with a series of improvements going up to their destruction.  By AD 79 water was supplied direct from the aqueduct rather than a well. 


The 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
In early times the heat source was usually a charcoal brazier, but from the beginning of the 1st century BC a new system came widely into use. Air, heated by means of an external furnace, was drawn into a space beneath the floor (the hypocaust) and up through vents in the walls. Usually, as at Aquae Sulis (Bath) the floors were supported on stacks of bricks (pilae). To draw the hot air into the underground chamber it was necessary to create a vertical draught by means of flues set in the walls opening through the roofs. Such a system had considerable advantages. It kept the room free from dirty and dust, it allowed a greater and more sustained heat to be produced, and  a single source could  heat more  than one room providing for a graded range of temperatures. The thick masonry of the walls, floors and vaults ensured that once the temperature had been raised, the rooms would remain hot for a long time. 

The baths show Roman engineering at its best. The engineers demonstrated their ability to create huge vaulted spaces using bricks and concrete. As soon as the wall had been completed, the entire chamber would have been fitted with a mass of timber framework supported on scaffolding, to create a curve, representing the underside of the vault. On this, and springing from the wall top, the masons built ribs of brick about 1.5 metres apart, adjoining them at the top with a spine of  wedge-shaped stones. 

Many baths had mosaic floors. In the frigidarium of the Neptune baths at Ostia, Neptune in a chariot is drawn by four spirited sea-horses. The Stabian baths had painted landscape scenes. 

At Aquae Sulis, the Romans developed baths round the three hot springs dedicated to the local deity Sulis. Some time in the 60s or 70s work began on a new stone built temple complex that was to dominate the town for the next four centuries. The spring was contained within a reservoir and used to supply a great thermal bathing establishment. The Great Bath was a large rectangular swimming bath lined with lead. It was always roofed, first with timber and late with a masonry vault. It was fed with a constant flow of hot mineral waters led direct from the spring in a lead-lined culvert. To the east of the Great Bath were two smaller swimming baths.   

Public baths 
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. 

Among the best known of Rome's thermae are the Baths of Caracalla founded by Septimius Severus in 206. Nearly a century later Diocletian built a 32-acre (380 x 370 metres) establishment, razing many buildings in order to create this huge structure. 

The Baths of Diocletian,
dedicated AD 306
The Baths of Diocletian survive partially today. Portions of the structure have been converted into churches; other parts house the Terme Museum. The interior proportions were huge and cavernous. They could accommodate 3,000 persons at a time. The baths were lit by semi-circular windows known as thermal or Diocletian windows. 

These great imperial baths were essentially self-contained leisure centres. The Baths of Diocletian contained facilities for gymnastics, reading, lectures, shopping and strolling. The addition of colonnaded courtyards (palaestrae) to provide facilities for exercise and athletics was a distinctively Greek contribution. The principal exercises were discus throwing, the use of dumb bells, fencing, wrestling and running. However, the Romans took these  athletic exercises  far less seriously than did the Greeks. Exercise usually preceded bathing.   

The bathing routine 
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. 

The basic bathing routine was recommended by the writer, Pliny the Younger. If not already undressed, the bather would undress in the apodyterium. In the Pompeian thermae we still see the holes in the walls into which the pegs for suspending the clothes were inserted. He would then proceed to one of the small very hot dry rooms attached to the caldarium. He would sweat profusely for a while in one of these small rooms and be rubbed dry. Then he moved into the caldarium with its hot, damp atmosphere. This was where the cleansing took place - the body was oiled and then scraped clean with a strigil (a tool made of metal or ivory). Next the bather would go to the tepidarium to cool gradually before taking a final dip in the plunge pool (the frigidarium). Afterwards he went into the unctorium to be rubbed, or to rub himself with oil. A wealthy man would be attended by a slave carrying the oil bottles and the strigil to remove oil and sweat from the skin, and linen towels. After the bath the hair and skin were again rubbed with ointment - even the clothes were scented. The scents were made from native flowers and shrubs like the rose, crocus, myrtle, cypress. The more expensive came from India or Arabia. Scented powders were strewn over the body; the water was mixed with saffron and other scents and the whole body was rubbed with swansdown and purple sponges. 

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!

At the Stabian baths, bathing was segregated. The women did not use the impressive main entrance but entered from a side street. The same seems to have been the case in the later Forum Baths. However, the most recent, the Central Baths, planned no separate facilities for women. This indicates the possibility of mixed bathing, a practice that seems to have become widespread in the first century AD. This led to scandal and the Emperor Hadrian was forced to decree that the practice be prohibited. There were already many small baths around the city some of which were reserved exclusively for females but at the main thermae Hadrian's decree meant either than extensive alterations had to be undertaken to duplicate facilities to that different hours had to be arranged. This latter course was more normally adopted, females being admitted from ten o; clock until one, males from one until closing time about six or seven. Perhaps this was the type of arrangement planned for the Central Baths.

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.