Frigidarium by Lawrence Alma Tadema

The Romans took Greek bath culture and raised it to a higher level. Their bathhouses became “masterpieces of art” in which “the customer could wander about, sampling each cold, hot, tepid or steam bath." Roman baths became a prime source of entertainment and enjoyment that evolved into a way of life that endured until Christian ideology became dominate and vilified Roman-style bathing as decadent.

Roman public baths had a pubic sanitation system with water piped in and piped out. Baths at home were generally only big enough to sit up in and they were filled with water from pottery buckets by slaves. Baths proliferated all over the Roman Empire for both military and civilian use. Many were quite ornate, with huge colonnades, decorative mosaics and pools with different temperature water.

On the Forum Baths at Pompeii which appear to have been built soon after Pompeii became a Roman colony, Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “ Baths were an important part of Roman life, and it was a Roman custom to visit the baths daily, both for reasons of cleanliness and to conduct business or meet friends.... There are separate areas for men and women, the men's baths being far more elaborate and spacious. Thanks to under-floor heating, and air ducts built into the walls, the whole room would have been full of steam when in use. Grooves in the ceiling allowed condensation to be channelled to the walls, rather than drip onto bathers. Cold water was piped into the basin at the centre of the photograph, thus enabling bathers to cool off when they wanted.” [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Book: “Bathing in Public in the Roman World” by Garret Fagan.

History of Baths in Ancient Rome

Rome was famous for its public baths, which were first developed around the 2nd century B.C. from small bathhouses that served as gathering places like a local pub. In 25 B.C., Agrippa, a chief deputy under Augustus, designed and built the first thermae , a large bath with extensive facilities. Emperors that followed commissioned increasingly large thermae.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “To the Roman of early times the bath had stood for health and decency only. He washed his arms and legs every day, for the ordinary costume left them exposed; he washed his body once a week. He bathed at home, using a primitive sort of wash-room; it was situated near the kitchen in order that the water heated on the kitchen stove might be carried into it with the least inconvenience. By the last century of the Republic all this had changed, though the steps in the change cannot now be followed.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) ]

In the A.D. 4th century, Rome had 11 massive and luxurious public bathhouses, more than 1,350 public fountains and cisterns and hundred of private baths. Served by 13 aqueducts, the average Roman used 300 gallons of water a day (nearly the same as what an American family of four uses today).

Christians the age of Roman baths around A.D. 500. Christian doctrine insisted that what was important was the cleanliness of the inner soul, with too much attention to the outer body being a sin. The early Christian church so closely associated the Roman baths with decadence and debauchery, it discouraged cleanliness. "To those that are well, and especially to the young," St. Benedict wrote, "bathing shall seldom be permitted." Saint Francis of Assisi later equated a smelly, unwashed body with piety and faith."

Roman Bathing Lifestyle

People did not bath in their homes in the evening or morning. Most houses didn't have baths. Most people bathed in the afternoon in public baths. By the time of Jesus, almost every village and town had at least one public bath. Some of them were donated by rich citizens; other charged admission, with the admission price being low enough in most cases that everyone was welcome. A census during the first century A.D. counted more than 1000 such facilities in Rome (a fivefold increase from a 100 years before). Baths were so popular that government passed laws regulating opening and closing times. ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Bathing was such a big part of Roman life and so taken for granted that much has been written about them. But from what we can ascertain they were more like resort beaches than Turkish bathes. Vendors sold food and drink. People were even warned about eating before they went bathing. "You will soon pay for it my friend," Juvenal warned a friend, "if you take off your clothes and with distended stomach and carry your peacock into the bath undigested!" [Ibid]

Baths at Caracalla
Adam Hart-Davis wrote for the BBC: “Most of the business of bathing was for pleasure and recreation, rather than for keeping clean. To clean off the dirt they went through a hot room in the baths, like a sauna or a Turkish bath, and then rubbed oil on their skin, and scraped off the mucky mixture of oil, sweat, and dirt, using a curved metal scraper called a strigil. I tried this out and found it remarkably effective, although I don't quite know how they managed to clean their backs - I think I would rather have a slave do it. Apparently Roman ladies used to collect the sweaty gloop from athletes and gladiators and use it in a face pack - but no one offered to try mine! |::| [Source: Adam Hart-Davis, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Socializing in Roman Baths

The Romans loved their bathes and much of Roman social life centered around them. Bathing was both a social duty and a way to relax. During the early days of Roman baths there were no rules about nudity or the mixing of the sexes, or for that matter rules about what people did when they were nude and mixing. For women who had problems with this arrangement there were special baths for women only. But eventually the outcry against promiscuous behavior in the baths forced Emperor Hadrian to separate the sexes. ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

The Romans even socialized in the restrooms. In Pompeii and the Roman colony of Lepcis Magna archeologists discovered a large bath room with seats around the edge and a pit or ditch behind the seats. The idea was that the people in the room could face one another and chat while they took care their business in the pits. "The social latrine became standard in public baths, " Boorstin wrote." If bathing could be a pleasurable social occasion, why not defecating?" ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: Women of respectability bathed in the public baths, as they bathe in public places now, but with women only, enjoying the opportunity to meet their friends as much as did the men. In the large cities there were separate baths devoted to their exclusive use. In the larger towns separate rooms were set apart for them in the baths intended generally for men. Such a combination bath is discussed in the next paragraph. It will be noted that the rooms intended for use of the women are smaller than those for the men. In the very small places the bath was opened to men and women at different hours. Late in the Empire we read of men and women bathing together, but this was true only of women who had no claim to respectability at all. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Parts of a Roman Bath

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Tepidarium of the Old Baths at Pompeii
Most baths had the same essential elements: a changing room, a tepidarium (a sweating room and warm-water bathing hall), caldarium (hot-water bathing hall), laconicum ( super hot-water bathing hall), frigidarium (cold-water bathing hall), a large open hall, and an open-topped rotunda (with warm circulating air around it). Water was supplied to the baths through networks of underground pipes.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The ruins of the public and private baths found all over the Roman world, together with an account of baths by Vitruvius, and countless allusions in literature, make very clear the general construction and arrangement of the bath, but show that the widest freedom was allowed in matters of detail. For the luxurious bath of classical times four things were thought necessary: a warm anteroom, a hot bath, a cold bath, and the rubbing and anointing with oil. All these might have been provided in one room, as all but the last are furnished in every modern bathroom, but as a matter of fact we find at least three rooms set apart for the bath in very modest private houses, and often five or six, while in the public establishments this number might be multiplied several times. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“In the better equipped baths were provided: (1) a room for undressing and dressing (apodyterium), usually unheated, but furnished with benches and often with compartments for the clothes; (2) the warm anteroom (tepidarium), in which the bather waited long enough for the perspiration to start, in order to guard against the danger of passing too suddenly into the high temperature of the next room (caldarium); (3) the hot room (caldarium) for the hot bath; (4) the cold room (frigidarium) for the cold bath; (5) the room for the rubbing and anointing with oil that finished the bath (unctorium), from which the bather returned into the apodyterium for his clothes. |+|

“In the more modest baths space was saved by using one room for several purposes. The separate apodyterium might be dispensed with, as the bather could undress and dress in either the frigidarium or tepidarium according to the weather; or the unctorium might be dispensed with by using the tepidarium for this purpose as well as for its own. In this way the suite of five rooms might be reduced to four or three. On the other hand, private baths had sometimes an additional hot room without water (laconicum), used for a sweat bath, and a public bathhouse would be almost sure to have an exercise ground (palaestra) with a pool at one side (piscina) for a cold plunge and a room adjacent (destrictarium) in which the sweat and dirt of exercise were scraped off with the strigilis before and after the bath. It must not be supposed that all bathers went the round of all the rooms in the order given above, though that was common enough. Some dispensed with the hot bath altogether, taking instead a sweat in the laconicum, or if that was lacking, in the caldarium, removing the perspiration with the strigil (strigilis), following this with a cold bath (perhaps merely a shower or douche) in the frigidarium and the rubbing with linen cloths and anointing with oil. Young men who deserted the Campus and the Tiber for the palaestra and the bath would content themselves with removing the effects of their exercise with the scraper, taking a plunge in the open pool, and then a second scraping and the oil. Much would depend on the time and the tastes of individuals. Physicians, too, laid down strict rules for their patients to follow.” |+|

Heating a Roman Bath

Hot water was piped into the baths in Pompeii and many other baths. Some historians has suggested that in the days before chlorination public baths were probably filthy. Adam Hart-Davis wrote for the BBC: At Bath in western England, “you can still see a lead pipe that seems to have carried water under pressure to a sort of whirlpool bath. The word plumbing comes from the Latin word plumbum, meaning lead.” [Source: Adam Hart-Davis, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The arrangement of the rooms, were they many or few, depended upon the method of heating. This in early times must have been by stoves placed in the rooms as needed, but by the end of the Republic the furnace had come into use, heating the rooms as well as the water with a single fire. The hot air from the furnace was not conducted into the rooms directly, as it is with us, but was made to circulate under the floors and through spaces around the walls, the temperature of the room depending upon its proximity to the furnace. The laconicum, if there was one, was put directly over the furnace, next to it came the caldarium and then the tepidarium; the frigidarium and the apodyterium, having no need of heat, were at the greatest distance from the fire and without connection with it. . [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“If there should be two sets of baths in the same building, as there sometimes were for the accommodation of men and women at the same time, the two caldaria were put on opposite sides of the furnace and the other rooms were connected with them in the regular order; the two entrances were at the greatest distance apart. The method of conducting the air under the floors is shown. There were really two floors; the first was even with the top of the firepot, the second (suspensura) with the top of the furnace. Between them was a space of about two feet into which the hot air passed.11 On the top of the furnace, just above the level, therefore, of the second floor, were two kettles for heating the water. One was placed well back, where the fire was not so hot, and contained water that was kept merely warm; the other was placed directly over the fire and the water in it, received from the former, was easily kept intensely hot. Near them was a third kettle containing cold water. From these three kettles the water was piped as needed to the various rooms. |+|

Caldariums and Frigidariums

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Frigidarium at Pompeii
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Caldarium. The hot-water bath was taken in the caldarium (cella caldaria), which served also as a sweat bath when there was no laconicum. It was a rectangular room. In the public baths its length exceeded its width; Vitruvius says the proportion should be 3:2. One end was rounded off like an apse or bay window. At the other end stood the large hot-water tank (alveus), in which the bath was taken by a number of persons at a time. The alveus was built up two steps from the floor of the room, its length equal to the width of the room and its breadth at the top not less than six feet. At the bottom it was not nearly so wide; the back sloped inward, so that the bathers could recline against it, and the front had a long broad step, for convenience of descent into it, upon which, too, the bathers sat. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The water was received hot from the furnace, and was kept hot by a metal heater (testudo), which opened into the alveus and extended beneath the floor into the hot-air chamber. Near the top of the tank was an overflow pipe, and in the bottom was an escape pipe which allowed the water to be emptied on the floor of the caldarium, to be used for scrubbing it. In the apse-like end of the room was a tank or large basin of metal (labrum, solium), which seems to have contained cool water for the douche. In private baths the room was usually rectangular, and then the labrum was placed in a corner. For the accommodation of those using the room for the sweat bath only, there were benches along the wall. The air in the caldarium would, of course, be very moist, while that of the laconicum would be perfectly dry, so that the effect would not be precisely the same. |+|

“The Frigidarium and the Unctorium. The frigidarium (cella frigidaria) contained merely the cold plunge bath, unless it was made to do duty for the apodyterium, when there would be lockers on the walls for the clothes (at least in a public bath) and benches for the slaves who watched them. Persons who found the bath too cold would resort instead to the open swimming pool in the palaestra, which would be warmed by the sun. In one of the public baths at Pompeii a cold bath seems to have been introduced into the tepidarium, for the benefit, probably, of invalids who found even the palaestra too cool for comfort. The final process, that of scraping, rubbing, and oiling, was exceedingly important. The bather was often treated twice, before the warm bath and after the cold bath; the first might be omitted, but the second never. The special room, unctorium, was furnished with benches and couches. The scrapers and oils were brought by the bathers; they were usually carried along with the towels for the bath by a slave (capsarius). The bather might scrape (destringere) and oil (deungere) himself, or he might receive a regular massage at the hands of a trained slave. It is probable that in the large baths expert operators could be hired but we have no direct testimony on the subject. When there was no special unctorium, the tepidarium or apodyterium was made to serve instead. |+|

Ancient Roman Bathing Routine


Bathers first entered the tepidarium (heated by vents in the wall or floor) and sweated, relaxed and were sometimes anointed with oils and scrubbed clean by slaves (ordinary people scrubbed themselves with lentil flour). Next they entered the calidarium or laconicom for more sweating, scraping and cleaning plus some splashing under bucketsful of warm, tepid or cold water. The bath ended with a plunge into a cool pool of water in the frigidarium.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The bath was regularly taken between the meridiatio (midday siesta) and the cena (dinner) ; the hour varied, therefore, within narrow limits in different seasons and for different classes. In general it may be said to have been taken about the eighth hour, and at this hour all the conductores were bound by their contracts to have the baths open and all things in readiness. As a matter of fact many persons preferred to bathe before the prandium, and some, at least, of the baths in the larger places must have been open then. All were regularly kept open until sunset, but in the smaller towns, where public baths were fewer, it is probable that they were kept open later; at least the lamps found in large numbers in the Pompeian baths seem to point to evening hours. It may be taken for granted that the managers would keep the doors open as long as was profitable. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

The emperor Commodus (161-192) took eight bathes a day and saw himself as a sort reincarnation of Hercules. Nero's wife is said to have bathed in donkey milk scented with rose oil. Cleopatra preferred to bathe in freshly-squeezed goat milk."

Private Bathhouse Versus Public Baths

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “ “A Private Bathhouse. The ruins of a private bath were found in Caerwent, Monmouthshire, England in 1855. The bath dates from about the time of Constantine (306-333 A.D.), and, small though it is, gives a clear notion of the arrangement of the rooms. The entrance (A) leads into the frigidarium (B), 10'6" x 6'6" in size, with a plunge (C), 10'6" x 3'3". Off B is the apodyterium (D), 10'6 x 13'3", which has the apse-like end that the caldarium ought to have. Next is the tepidarium (E), 12' x 12', which, contrary to all the rules, is the largest instead of the smallest of the four main rooms. Then comes the caldarium (F), 12' x 7'6", with its alveus (G), 6' x 3' x 2', but with no sign of its labrum left, perhaps because the basin was too small to require any special foundation. Finally comes the rare laconicum (H), 8' x 4', built over one end of the furnace (I), which was in the basement room (KK). The hot air passed as indicated by the arrows, escaping through openings near the roof in the outside walls of the apodyterium. It should be noticed that there was no direct passage from the caldarium (F) to the frigidarium (B), no special entrance to the laconicum (H), and that the tepidarium (E) must have served as the unctorium. The dimensions of the Caerwent bath as a whole are 31 x 34 feet. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

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Caldarium at Pompeii
“The Public Baths. To the simpler bathhouse of the earlier times as well as to the bath itself was given the name balneum (balineum), used often by the dactylic poets in the plural, balnea, for metrical convenience. The more complex establishments of later times were called balneae, and to the very largest, which had features derived from the Greek gymnasia, the name thermae was finally given. These words, however, were loosely used and often interchanged in practice. Public baths are first heard of after the Second Punic War. They increased in number rapidly; 170 at least were operated in Rome in the year 33 B.C., and later there were more than eight hundred. With equal rapidity they spread through Italy and the provinces;12 all the towns and even many villages had at least one. They were public only in the sense of being open to all citizens who could pay the modest fee demanded for their use. Free baths did not exist, except when some magistrate or public-spirited citizen or candidate for office arranged to relieve the people of the fees for a definite time by meeting the charges himself. So Agrippa in the year 33 B.C. kept open free of charge 170 establishments at Rome. The rich sometimes in their wills provided free baths for the people, but always for a limited time. |+|

“Management. The first public baths were opened by individuals for speculative purposes. Others were built by wealthy men as gifts to their native towns, as such men give hospitals and libraries now; the administration was lodged with the town authorities, who kept the buildings in repair and the baths open by means of the fees collected. Other baths were built by the towns out of public funds, and others were credited to the later emperors. However they were started, the management was practically the same for all. They were leased for a definite time and for a fixed sum to a manager (conductor), who paid his expenses and made his profits out of the fees which he collected. The fee (balneaticum) was hardly more than nominal. The regular price at Rome for men seems to have been a quadrans, quarter of a cent; the bather furnished his own towels, oil, etc., as we have seen. Women paid more, perhaps twice as much, while children up to a certain age, unknown to us, paid nothing. Prices varied, of course, in different places. It is likely that higher prices were charged in some baths than in others in the same city, either because they were more luxuriously equipped or to make them more exclusive and fashionable than the rest, but we have no positive knowledge that this was done. |+|

Romans Baths for Men and Women

Archaeologists found a sign that read “Women" at one bath. Other baths had separate entrances, presumably for men and women. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The so-called Stabian Baths at Pompeii give a correct idea of the smaller thermae and serves at the same time to illustrate the combination of baths for men and women under the same roof. In the plan the unnumbered rooms opening upon the surrounding streets were used for shops and stores independent of the baths; those opening within were for the use of the attendants or for purposes that cannot now be determined. The main entrance (1), on the south, opened upon the palaestra (2), which was inclosed on three sides by colonnades and on the west by a bowling alley (3), where large stone balls were found. Behind the bowling alley was the piscina (6) open to the sun, with a room on either side (5, 7) for douche baths and a destrictarium (4) for the use of the athletes. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

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Bath in Bath, England
“There were two side entrances (8, 11) at the northwest, with the porter’s room (12) and manager’s office (10) within convenient reach. The room (9) at the head of the bowling alley was for the use of the players and may be compared with the similar room for the use of the gladiators. Behind the office was the latrina, marked 14. |+|

“On the east are the baths proper, the men’s to the south. There were two apodyteria (24, 25) for the men. Each had a separate waiting-room for the slaves (26, 27); (26) had a door to the street. Then come in order the frigidarium (22), the tepidarium (23), and the caldarium (21). The tepidarium, contrary to custom, had a cold bath. The main entrance to the women’s bath was at the northeast (17), but there was also an entrance from the northwest through the long corridor (15); both opened into the apodyterium (16). This contained in one corner a cold bath, as there was no separate frigidarium in the baths for women. Then come in the regular position the tepidarium (18) and caldarium (19). The furnace (20) was between the two caldaria, and the position of the three kettles which furnished the water is clearly shown. It should be noticed that there was no laconicum. It is possible that one of the two rooms marked 24 and 25 was used as an unctorium. The ruins show that the rooms were most artistically decorated, and there can be no doubt that they were luxuriously furnished. The colonnades and the large waiting-rooms gave ample space for the lounge after the bath, with his friends and acquaintances, which the Roman prized so highly. |+|

Large Roman Baths

The largest baths covered 25 or 30 acres and accommodated up to 3,000 people. Large city or imperial baths had swimming pools, gardens, concert hall, sleeping quarters, theaters, and libraries. Men rolled hoops, played handball and wrestled in the gymnasium. Some even had the equivalent of modern art galleries. Other baths had areas for shampooing, scenting, hair curling, manicure shops, perfumeries, garden shops, and rooms for discussing art and philosophy. Some of the greatest Roman sculptors such as the Lacoön group were found in ruined bathes. Brothels, with explicit pictures of the sexual services offered, were usually located near the baths.

The Baths of Caracalla (on a hill not far from the Circus Maximus in Rome) was the largest baths built by the Romans. Opened in A.D. 216 and covering 26 acres, more than six time the space in St. Paul's Cathedral in London, this massive marble and brick complex could accommodate 1,600 bathersand contained playing, fields, shops, offices, gardens, fountains, mosaics, changing rooms, exercise courts, a tepidarium (warm-water bathing hall), caldarium (hot-water bathing hall), frigidarium (cold-water bathing hall), and natatio (unheated swimming pool). Shelley wrote much of “Prometheus Bound” while sitting among the ruins at Caracalla.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: Baths “operated on a large scale in all parts of Rome, in the smaller towns of Italy, and even in the provinces. They were often built where hot or mineral springs were found. These public establishments offered all sorts of baths, plain, plunge, douche, and with massage (Turkish); in many cases they offered features borrowed from the Greek gymnasia, exercise grounds, courts for various games, reading and conversation rooms, libraries, gymnastic apparatus, everything in fact that our athletic clubs now provide for their members. The accessories had become really of more importance than the bathing itself and justify the description of the bath under the head of amusements. In places where there were no public baths, or where they were at an inconvenient distance, the wealthy fitted up bathing places in their houses, but no matter how elaborate they were, the private baths were merely a makeshift at best. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Baths of Diocletian

re-creation of a thermae apodyterion

The first domes were built over public bathes. Finished in A.D. 305, the baths of Diocletian contained a high vaulted ceiling that was restored with the help of Michelangelo and later turned into a church.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The irregularity of plan and the waste of space in the Pompeian thermae just described are due to the fact that the baths were rebuilt at various times with all sorts of alterations and additions. Nothing can be more symmetrical than the thermae of the later emperors, as a type of which is the plan of the Baths of Diocletian, dedicated in 305 A.D. They lay in the northeastern part of the city and were the largest and, with the exception of those of Caracalla, the most magnificent of the Roman baths. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The plan shows the arrangement of the main rooms, all in the line of the minor axis of the building; the uncovered piscina (1), the apodyterium and frigidarium (2), combined as in the women’s baths at Pompeii, the tepidarium (3), and the caldarium (4), projecting beyond the other rooms for the sake of the sunshine. The uses of the surrounding halls and courts cannot now be determined, but it is clear from the plan that nothing known to the luxury of the time was omitted. In the sixteenth century Michelangelo restored the tepidarium as the Church of S. Maria degli Angeli, one of the largest in Rome. The cloisters that he built in the east part of the building are now a museum. One of the corner domed halls of the Baths is now a church and a number of other institutions occupy the site of part of the ruins. An idea of the magnificence of the central room, showing a restoration of the corresponding room in the Baths of Caracalla. |+|

Ancient Roman Spas

Romans were also one of the first people to credit mineral water with healing powers. The Greeks had known about mineral water but they considered it unhealthy. Romans drank and bathed in it and sought relief in mineral water for liver and kidney trouble and a host of other ailments.

The Romans set up baths at natural hot springs in Baiae (near Pompeii) and Badoit and Vittel in what is now France. Julius Caesar bathed at Vichy. Later these were abandoned in favor of cold water resorts like Gabii near Rome.

The cold water bath of Chiancian Terme in Tuscany, known promoting "a healthy liver," consisted of various buildings arranged around a 60-x-130-foot swimming pool paved with roof tiles. At one end of the pool was a podium, presumable for a statue of a god or emperor. The pool was three-feet deep, adequate for bathing but not swimming, and was 64̊F.

Items Lost in Drains Offer Insights Into Roman Bath Life

A study of objects lost down the drains in the bathhouses from the Roman Empire reveals that people did all kinds of things there. They bathed, of course, but they also adorned themselves with trinkets, snacked on finger foods and even did needlework. "For the Romans, the baths weren't just a place to get clean, but this larger social center where a variety of activities were taking place," said study researcher Alissa Whitmore, a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Iowa, who reported her findings at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle. [Source:, January 18, 2013]

Livescience reported: “Whitmore examined drain finds from 11 public and military baths in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany and Britain, all dating between the first and fourth centuries. Unsurprisingly, she found strong evidence of objects related to bathing, such as perfume vials, nail cleaners, tweezers and flasks for holding oils and other pampering products. On the less-relaxing side of things, evidence shows medical procedures may have occasionally occurred in the baths, Whitmore found. Researchers found a scalpel lodged in one drain. And in the Caerleon baths in what is now Wales, archaeologists uncovered three adolescent and two adult teeth, suggesting bathhouse visitors may have undergone some dentistry, too.

“Visitors also took their meals in the baths, judging by the fragments of plates, bowls and cups found swept into drains. At Caerleon, bathers snacked on mussels and shellfish, Whitmore said, while baths in Silchester, in the United Kingdom, showed traces of poppy seeds. Bones left behind reveal that Roman bathers enjoyed small cuts of beef, mutton, goat, pork, fowl and wild deer. "Ancient texts talk about finger food and sweets, but don't really talk about animals," Whitmore said. "That was interesting to see."

“Archaeologists have also found signs of gaming and gambling, including dice and coins, in various bathhouses. Perhaps most surprising, Whitmore said, researchers found bone and bronze needles and portions of spindles, suggesting that people did textile work in the baths. “This work likely wouldn't have happened in the water, she said, but in dressing rooms or common areas that had seating. The needles may have belonged to bathers who brought needlework to pass the time, or employees may have brought the sewing equipment, offering tailoring or other services at the sites while bathers relaxed, Whitmore said.

bath at Caracalla by Grundriss

“Among the sparkliest finds in the drains were pieces of jewelry. Archaeologists have found hairpins, beads, brooches, pendants and intaglios, or engraved gems, in bathhouse drains. A number of these finds definitely come from pool areas, Whitmore said. "It does seem that there's a fair amount of evidence for people actually wearing things into the water," she said. “Bathers may have held onto their jewelry in the pools to prevent the valuables from being stolen, Whitmore said. Or perhaps vanity inspired them. "It's really a place to see and be seen," Whitmore said. "It makes sense that even if you had to take off your fancy clothes, you would still show off your status through your fancy jewelry." Unfortunately, dips into hot and cold water would have loosened jewelry adhesives and caused metal settings to expand and contract. As a result, a number of unlucky Romans emerged from the baths considerably less bedecked than when they entered....One constant she's already found, she said, is the presence of women, even at baths on military bases. "It adds further evidence that Roman military forts aren't entirely these really masculine areas, but a much wider social atmosphere than we tend to give them credit for," Whitmore said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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