In Ancient Rome, bathing was so much more than it is today. Bathing was a major part of Roman culture and society.
Bathing was a great way to socialise with other people and people from a range of social statuses partook in the activity daily.
Today, many see bathing as a private activity, however during the Roman empire only the incredibly wealthy could afford to have bathing facilities in their homes, so communal bathing was the only way to clean. The baths were built across Rome on hot springs, so that the waters were warm and inviting.
Bathing in Ancient Rome extended beyond simple hygiene also, with many important meetings happening in the bathhouses at any time. Romans courted in bathhouses and sealed important business deals, the bathhouse was a place to show off and impress other members of society.
While most bathhouses were public some wealthy families may have had private bathing places. However, much like the modern spa, members of the public could enter and enjoy the baths if they paid a fee.
Despite wealthy Romans having private bathhouses, they would often frequent the public ones also, as a way to meet with other people. Soldiers in training, who could use a bathhouse at their fort, would also venture out to public bathhouses to socialise.
Public bathhouses were quite large, often spanning over several city blocks. These public bathing spots charged a very minimal fee, which was considered quite reasonable within the budget of free Roman men.
Taking from the Greek
The first ancient civilization we know used public baths was the Greeks. Their early bathing regimes influenced modern spa procedures, however, even in their grandeur, the Greek baths were not much compared to the Romans.
Greek baths and showers were used withing gymnasium complexes for hygiene and relaxation, but not so much socialisation.
The Greeks also believed that their Gods blessed certain pools for healing use, thus many of their bathing houses were built near these waters so that people could visit them to heal. Some of these bathhouses also began to get decorated with elaborate mosaic and ornate buildings. The Romans took this idea and ran with it, building larger and more spectacular bathhouses for themselves.
Aqueducts for bathing
Just as the Greeks had, the Romans quickly made bathing an important part of social and recreational activity. However, as bathing grew in popularity, so too did the demand for bathhouses and subsequently, water to fill them.
To ensure that the city had enough water for its many pursuits, agriculture, domestic and industrial uses, the Romans needed to get creative and find a new water supply for their favourite leisure spot. Enter, the aqueduct.
Aqueducts used gravity to help pull water from sources outside of the city to its centre, so that the supply would not be limited. It was these aqueducts that supplied the many Roman bathhouses with the water they required to operate.
Visiting a Bathhouse
With the issue of water supply now sorted, the Roman bathhouses were a go.
The stunning bathhouses all followed a similar general design. The bathhouses each and three entrances, one for men, one for women and one for slaves. Slaves did not bathe; however, wealthy Romans would bring them to attend to their bathing needs.
Bathhouses could be quite modest buildings, though rarely, or large and ornate structures with exceedingly elaborate decorations.
Bathers would enter first to the apodyterium, where they would store their clothes and any belongings they may have brought with them. Next, they would move to the tepidarium, the warm room. The warm rooms were something like a modern sauna. They were heated by a kind of underfloor heating system which warmed the whole room. This is likely the centre of most bathhouses. Corridors would spring from each side of the room leading to different pools and bathing experiences.
Next was the caldarium, the hottest room in the bathhouse. The caldarium housed a large plunge pool filled with hot water. The floor was raised, with large tunnels of hot air circulating below it to warm the room itself. A furnace, tended to by slaves, would blow the hot air into the tunnels. Once here, bathers would clean themselves using olive oil, and allow the steam and hot water to open their pores. Wealthy Romans who attended with slaves may have had them pour cool water over them to refresh themselves. Before leaving they would use an instrument called a strigil to scrape oil, dirt and sweat from their skin.
After steaming for a while, the bather would return to the tepidarium, where they would readjust their temperature to ensure they did not move too quickly between the extremes.
The frigidarium was a large, cold plunge pool in Roman bathhouses. All the hot water and steam would have opened the pores of bathers, while this final cold pool would close them again. Bathers would spend a very short amount of time in this room. Generally, they would plunge into the cold water and then leave almost immediately, staying long enough just to feel refreshed as they finished the bathing experience.
Though for many Romans the experience finished here, some bathhouses also had a laconicum. This dry room would allow them to rest following their experience.
As you can see, the Roman bathing experience was incredibly elaborate and quite the experience. It is easy to see why bathing would become such a social activity for the people at the time.
Though Roman baths aren’t in use today, you can still visit many of them, not only in Italy but also across previous Roman colonies. One of the most spectacular bathhouses still standing is the Baths of Caracalla. Built around 212 AD, the baths were in operation for approximately 300 years before they fell into disuse.
Though Rome may be closed like the baths, for the time being, it will eventually open us for us to see once again. When it does, be sure to head down to the Baths of Caracalla and see these magnificent structures for yourself.
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