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.
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 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)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!