Ancient Everyday – Time for a Bath

Baths of Diocletian (by unknown artist)

Showering, bathing and generally keeping clean is something that we take for granted today. For most people, washing is part of the daily routine.

If you look at the Middle Ages, this was not the case. In fact, medieval people were pretty filthy. This isn’t surprising as bathing was considered a sin by many.

This wasn’t the case for ancient Romans, thank the gods.

As we do today, the Romans bathed and washed regularly, and as with going to the toilet, bathing was yet another very social activity for Romans.

Throughout the Roman Empire, public and private baths were common, owing something to the situating of bath houses over hot springs, and their ingenious use of aqueducts which brought water into the cities over great distances.

Baths and bathing complexes, of course, varied widely in size and the level of sophistication, whether the small pools and tubs of private balneae, or the massive imperial complexes called thermae. Whatever the size, there were some common attributes to most public baths across the Empire.

The Apodyterium

Ruins of an ancient apodyterium

Ruins of an ancient apodyterium

This was a sort of changing room where visitors to the baths would undress and leave their clothes in niches in the walls, not unlike today. Slaves were in attendance to give out towels and take care of your items. However, not unlike today, theft was common in the apodyterium, so wealthier patrons brought their slaves along to carry their possessions for them.

The Palaestra

A palaestra in Pompeii

A palaestra in Pompeii

The palaestra was the workout area where some patrons would exert themselves before going into the baths themselves. Just as people hit the gym today, so the Romans exercised on the sands of the palaestra by wrestling, boxing, lifting stone or lead weights, and other activities. The scene here would have been one of competition, of grunting, and sweating. It could get pretty loud, as attested to by the Roman Seneca:

I live over a public bath-house. Just imagine every kind of annoying noise! The sturdy gentleman does his exercise with lead weights; when he is working hard (or pretending to) I can hear him grunt; when he breathes out, I can hear him panting in high pitched tones. Or I might notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rub-down, and hear the blows of the hand slapping his shoulders. The sound varies, depending on whether the massager hits with a flat or hollow hand. To all of this, you can add the arrest of the occasional pickpocket; there’s also the racket made by the man who loves to hear his own voice in the bath or the chap who dives in with a lot of noise and splashing.” (Seneca in AD 50)

Roman Women working out

Roman Women working out

But the palaestra was not just for men. In ancient Rome, women too were permitted to exercise and stay fit. One famous mosaic shows a group of women engaged in exercise on the palaestra floor, though this was probably done at a different time, or in a separate area from the men.

The Tepidarium

Tepidarium, Chedworth Roman Villa, England

Tepidarium, Chedworth Roman Villa, England

After the exertions of the palaestra, patrons would then move to the first room of the baths proper, the tepidarium. As the name implies, this was the ‘warm’ room where one could begin to heat up and start sweating. In some cases, the tepidarium had a warm water bath in which bathers could submerse themselves, but in other instances, it was just a room of warm air, thanks to the underground, and in-wall heating from the system of hypocausts that were used to heat the baths.

The tepidarium was often highly ornate too. Men and women could lounge and talk business, gossip or anything else while being rubbed down with oils which the Romans used instead of soap. Once they were warm enough, and the oils had started to go to work on their pores, bathers moved to the next room.

The Caldarium

Hypocausts beneath the  floor of the caldarium at Bath, England

Hypocausts beneath the floor of the caldarium at Bath, England

The caldarium was the hottest room in the bath complex, located as it was directly above the hypocaust furnace. This was the equivalent of the modern sauna where patrons would be more still, sweat, and scrape the mixture of oil and dirt from their skin with a tool called a strigil.

Roman strigil set with container for oil

Roman strigil set with container for oil

The caldarium had a basin with cold water for patrons to wet themselves with, but also a hot pool if they wanted to soak some more. The heat from the caldarium is what brought the dirt to the surface and aided with the cleaning of their bodies in concert with the oil that was rubbed on.

The Frigidarium

Frigidarium in the Baths of Diocletian, Rome

The frigidarium of a Roman bath complex

After the tepidarium and caldarium, it was time to close the pores and revive, and what better way to do this than by jumping into a cold pool of water.

Welcome to the frigidarium! One can imagine the echo of people’s squeals as they landed in the cold water, the shock running through them in a great wake-up call. Some of the larger bath complexes would also have included a swimming pool at this stage, in which patrons could swim a few laps.

The frigidarium was not a room patrons would spend too much time in. Who would want to when the next step is so enjoyable?

Massages, Food, and more Socializing

After having made his/her way through the various rooms of the bathing complex, many Romans would opt to get a massage. Either they had their own slaves oil them again and work away at their muscles, or they would have one of the bathing complex’s massage slaves work on them.

What better way to work out the knots owed to debates in the Senate house, fights on the battlefield, haggling in the imperial fora or other activities than to have fragrant oils massaged into your newly cleaned skin.

I tell you, the Romans knew what they were doing with this ancient toilette ritual! I’m relaxed just thinking about it.

After the massage, and dressing again in the apodyterium, some of the larger complexes had tabernae attached where patrons could go and eat, have a drink, gamble a bit at games, and most importantly, socialize.

Layout of the Antonine Baths of Roman Carthage (modern Tunis)

Layout of the Antonine Baths of Roman Carthage (modern Tunis)

That’s the interesting thing about public baths in the Roman Empire; they weren’t just facilities intended to curb public health issues by keeping the populace clean and hygienic, they were also the community centres, or community hubs, of the ancient world.

They were a bit of an equalizer too. In the Colosseum or Circus Maximus, the rich might have had the better seats with cushions, but in the thermae of the Empire, when naked, everyone was standing on equal footing.

The magnificent ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, Rome

The magnificent ruins and gardens of the Baths of Caracalla, Rome

So, next time you visit your, gym, local pool, or community centre, remember that you are participating in a highly social activity, owed mainly to the ingenuity of the Romans.

Thank you for reading.

For a bit more information, check out the video below from the series What the Romans Did for Us, with Adam Hart Davis. In this episode, he looks at Roman baths among other things related to Roman luxury!



6 thoughts on “Ancient Everyday – Time for a Bath

  1. I have read that Roman baths were kind of icky as the did not filter them or use chlorine and salt and all kinds of people used them.

    • That’s true, Alice. Plus the mixture of sweat, oil, and dirt that was scraped off with the strigil would have been quite gross. The larger thermae may have had slaves going about keeping things clean and refreshed, but chances are that most of the time it probably was a little yucky. Still, better than the plague, I suppose! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. Great post, Adam.
    I think the Medieval Age was one of the ‘great unwashed’. I would not have wanted to be around any of them! Amazing how they thought it was a sin, religion has a lot to answer to!
    I’ve seen the baths at Pompeii. Very impressive and drove past the Baths of Caracalla. They were enormous! Must have been spectacular in its day. The women in the bikinis I’ve seen too at the villa in Sicily. Now that is worth seeing all those mosaics.
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane 😀

    • Thanks for your comment Luciana!. Yes, the Medieval period is gross as far as hygiene. In uni I read an account (I can’t remember which) of a Moorish ambassador at a Christian court who expressed his horror at watching the lice dance across the foreheads of the Christians as he was speaking with them. The Romans had a good idea – baths and massages whenever you could? Sounds great! Cheers 🙂

  3. One cannot help but be made aware of just how far Christianity depressed the standard of living in the world.
    The final standard bearer of Graeco-Roman civilization, the Eastern Empire, was though Christian finally gutted by the crusaders by guile, weakened for the inevitable Islamic assault, and what remained of learning and science was preserved by Islamic scholars, waiting in ancient tomes for the Renaissance to open at long last.
    With no basis of scholarship I maintain that Christianity pushed western civilization back at least a thousand years, and along with the other “religions of the book” Islam, Christianity, and Judaism (in fairness I should say Israeli political Judaism) are doing their best to push us all down and back again.
    Walter Price III

    • Good points, Walter. Having spent many of my uni years in medieval studies I have always thought that the Middle Ages were a step backwards in most areas. A perfect example is what the Christians did to Hypatia, one of the most brilliant women of the later Roman Empire in Alexandria. The study of history can be eye-opening in so many ways! Cheers for your comment.

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