Bathing with Romans

“The Archimedes is, in a way, a mixture of a Greek-Roman tradition of public baths, Russian and Finnish tradition of steam, and a Russian-style stove.” This idea expressed in last week’s article made a lot of sense. The traditions of Russian village banya (described here) seemed so mystical and other-worldly that it was difficult to imagine how they could have morphed into the public city bath.

What about the Greco-Roman root? What did it bring to the modern banya?

The bathing tradition came to Rome from Greece around the end of the 3rd century B.C. Before that, apart from swimming in the Tiber River, Romans would take occasional hot baths in lavatrinae, dedicated rooms next to their home kitchen. The custom of hot baths, however, really took hold. In the 2nd century B.C., the first bathhouses were built. By 33 B.C., there were 170 small baths in Rome; by the 5th century, this number ballooned to 856.

Baths of Caracalla, a megalomanic baths in Rome.

What explains such an explosion in popularity? There was a technological innovation – the hypocaust – a stove with a system of pipes circulating hot air and gently heating up the floor (and, later, walls). Following this invention, public baths were built in Rome proper and on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. Moreover, they became the indispensable feature of all newly established Roman cities and one of the three main venues of Roman life, along with forums and amphitheaters. In other words, public baths became the core element of Roman culture.

Baths and Status

Most of the information about Roman public baths is focused on the description of architecture and decoration: statues, bas-reliefs, decorative columns, and exquisite use of marble. Since they were attended by all classes of Roman society, the luxury of the bathing house can be seen as a socially accepted way for the owner or sponsor to demonstrate their wealth to the populace.

The details related to the social aspects of the experience are much murkier. Only a handful of sources survive – for instance, colloquia (textbooks) focusing on teaching students the protocols of daily life (that included bathing) or a whiney epistle from Seneca the Younger about the noise that irritated him when living over the bathhouse in Baiae:

“I live over a bathing establishment. Picture to yourself now the assortment of voices, the sound of which is enough to sicken one. . . . When the stronger fellows are exercising and swinging heavy leaden weights in their hands, when they are working hard or pretending to be working hard, I hear their groans; and whenever they release their pent-up breath, I hear their hissing and jarring breathing.”

No sources, however, can compare to the descriptions of bathing culture provided by a Roman satiric poet M. Valerius Martialis, or Martial. Born in Spain, he lived in Rome, finding inspiration in the mundane life, of which public baths were a constant feature. Martial differentiates between two types of baths in Rome: the thermae and balnea, but today no one exactly knows what this distinction meant. Romans were not sure either – the same Baths of Sura in Rome were recorded as thermae in some sources and as balnea in others. There are suggestions that the size mattered – balnea could occupy just (!) a city block, while thermae were significantly larger. Martial uses these terms to indicate how luxurious was the environment of a bathhouse, with thermae being the more opulent of the two. The latter understanding seems to have more historical support since the rise in the usage of the term “thermae” can be observed during the Imperial period when luxurious bathing houses became en vogue.

M. Valerius Martialis, or Martial.

The popularity of specific establishments was affected by fads. It was common in polite society to ask people what baths they frequented in a way similar to socialites today using the conversation about trendy restaurants and clubs to gauge the status of a person. Martial, for instance, uses his writing as an ad for the lavish Thermae of Etruscus, proclaiming, “If you don’t bathe in the little thermae of Etruscus… you will die unwashed.” In another poem, he discusses a person who attends simple baths implying that one can’t expect a sophisticated dinner if invited to the home of such an individual.

Roman Bathing Protocol

A typical bath visit would start with an apodyterium, a changing room. The visitor changes into special sandals with thick wooden soles called sculponea designed to protect feet from heated floors. After changing, the Romans were rubbed with oil and went for a light exercise in an open area called palaestra (wrestling, weight lifting, walking, running, and ball games were popular activities). The exercise ended with oil and dust being scrapped off the skin using a strigil, a metal implement originally used by Greek athletes.

Strigil and oil flask.

Then, the bather would enter a sequence of rooms, usually (but not always) starting with a caldarium, a room with hot air, and a pool of hot water. After the caldarium, the visitors moved to the tepidarium, a transitional “warm room,” before coming to the frigidarium’s cold pool to finish the process with a plunge and a cold pool. In some locations (for instance, Stabian Baths), the customers could also attend a laconicum, a hot sauna-like room, or a sudatorium, similar to the humid sauna. In the end, visitors would finish off their bathing experience by drying off with linen towels and being anointed with perfumes and oils.

Bath as a Club

Romans finished their daily work by noon and would wait until the early evening for their main meal, which was customary to share with friends. The baths were a perfect place to go before dinner to socialize, especially since bathing alone was frowned upon. This solidified the role of Roman baths as a social club, a place to “hang out” before dinner.

Eating before bathing was not unheard of but was considered dangerous. For instance, Juvenal writes of a bather who died after coming to a bath with an “undigested peacock.” Luckily, the vendors at Baths offered many snacks. A menu in Herculaneum baths included nuts, drinks, hog’s fat, bread, cutlets, and sausage. Alcohol was available, although it was not uncommon for some Romans to look down upon the habit of overindulging in baths. This may have been a prudent idea. The propensity of Romans for violence in close quarters was known: they appeared to throw punches first and ask questions later. With 1-2 thousand people attending a bath simultaneously, public drunkenness could have elevated the risk even further.

It was customary to attend Roman baths in “nudus.” However, this word could imply being improperly dressed instead of completely naked. Bathing robes existed, but they were worn in the palaestra on the way home from the baths. Yet, according to Martial, to use the baths clothed, even partially, was a way to draw attention to oneself.

The tradition of mixed (men and women) bathing is difficult to precisely define. Roman emperors seemed to change their minds on that (it was allowed in some locations for a while until banned by Hadrian in the 2nd century C.E.). Some scholars believed that only lower-class establishments would allow mixed bathing. However, this idea is not borne out by the historical evidence – the literary evidence suggests that it was possible to meet noble women in the nude sharing luxurious thermae with men.

Roman baths were also dangerous for patrons’ property. The theft was commonplace and a reason why wealthier visitors would come to the bathhouse with slaves, whose job was to look over the clothes. That did not always help, however. With no police, a common tradition among theft victims was scribbling curse tablets. One such tablet from the spring at Bath in England reads: “Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty my bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman… unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.” Curiously, some curse tablets had responses from those who considered themselves wrongfully accused.

The epitaph for Ti. Claudius Secundus declared, “Baths, wine, and sex ruin our bodies, but they are the essence of life.” Although he was clearly wrong about health, the second part is spot on. Romans were the first ones to elevate the social aspect of bathing, turning washing from a daily chore into a communal experience. Roman baths became a place of vivid humanity: gossiping, meeting friends, catching up with news, and grabbing a snack. A nerve center of Roman life that represented people as they were, in all their vices and virtues.

If you are interested in a detailed account of Roman bathing traditions and culture, I recommende reading a book by Garret G. Fagan called Bathing in public in the Roman World.