Mass Bathing: The Roman BaInea and Thermae
©1997 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
The Diocletian bath rendered by Edmund Paulin and digitally
enhanced by Mikkel Aaland. All rights reserved.
When one thinks of Rome, visions of giant baths or thermae often
cross the mind's eye. These were indeed the first attempts to
provide communal bathing on a grand scale. But the thermae were
only one part of the Roman bathing world. Before Emperor Agrippa
designed and created the first thermae in 25 BC, the smaller,
more frequent balneum had been enjoyed by Roman citizens for more
than 200 years.
While the thermae later became the central pleasure complex, complete
with sports halls, restaurants, and various types of baths, the
balnea were designed primarily for the neighborhood. There were
an average of five bath houses per block, and one balneum for
every 35 apartment buildings. The popularity of the balneum prompted
Agrippa to build a colossal, centrally located bath house.
(I should note that not all Romans were enthused with the baths'
popularity. Seneca, the Roman statesman and philosopher, argued
that sweating should come as a result of hard physical labor and
not unproductive sitting in a hot room.)
The thermae, from the Greek word for "heat," became the pet project
for all Roman emperors following Agrippa. Each tried to out-do
his predecessor, making his bath more spacious, more splendid,
more popular. Principle baths, named in honor of the emperors
who had them built, were: Nero in 65 AD, Titus in 81 AD, Domitian
in 95 AD, Comodus in 185 AD, Caracalla in 217 AD, Diocletion in
305 AD, and Constantine in 315 AD.
To insure their popularity, and the emperor's notoriety, entrance
fees were ridiculously low, if not free. Without generating enough
revenue to maintain themselves, the thermae had to be subsidized.
Emperors, of course, enjoyed their own baths, and some were said
to have bathed seven or eight times a day.
Like the balneum, the thermae sprung up everywhere in the Roman
empire, from sandy African deserts to the snowy Alps, and as far
north as England. Pompeii has one of the best preserved thermae.
A sign announcing its opening is still legible on a wall: "There
will be a dedication of the baths and the public is promised a
slaughter of wild beasts, athletics, awnings to shade the sun,
and perfumed sprinklings."
Some of the thermae were large enough to accomodate thousands
of bathers. The Diocletian bath had a capacity for 6,000 bathers.
Such mass bathing could have only been possible with significant
advances in Greek and early Roman technology.
The logistics of bath location were solved by improving the aqueduct,
borrowed from the Greeks. Two other ingenius inventions acted
like growth pills for the Roman bath: vaulted ceilings which suported
massive roofs, and the hypocaust heating system.
Roman engineers devised the hypocaust method to heat bath air
to temperatures exceeding 210 degrees F. (l00 degrees C.)--so
hot that bathers had to wear special shoes to protect their feet
from the blistering floor. They accomplished this by heating the
marble floor, raised on pillars, with a log fire. Hot air was
channeled through earthenware pipes in the walls. It took two
or three days to heat a thermae, but that mattered little, as
the baths were kept perpetually hot.
For washing and bathing, aqueducts large enough to gallop a horse
through brought cool running water over long distances, even to
the arid reaches of the Empire where it was most needed. Meanwhile,
architects were busy developing the vaulted ceiling. Cast from
concrete in one rigid mass, they could span vast areas to enclose
thousands of bathers.
A RITUAL FOR EVERYONE
The Romans either adopted, or at least tolerated, local customs
so bathing rituals usually varied from province to province in
the vast Empire and some of the baths survive even today. (The
bath of Diocletian, for example, is now being used as a church
in Rome, thanks to the restoration efforts of Michelangelo.) However,
we infer by their design that the concept of a thermae was an
all-encompassing recreational center.
Most thermae walls enclosed sports centers, swimming pools, parks,
libraries, little theatres for poetry readings and music, and
great halls for parties--a city within a city. There were also
restaurants and sleeping quarters where a traveler or local could
spend an intimate hour or two in pleasant company. Local bathers
would spend an afternoon in the baths and then return home for
dinner--the baths reputedly whetted the appetite.
Each thermae offered a particular attraction. One may have advertised
a splendid view, another an excellent library and another a unique
sports hall. Many were considered "free zones," outside the jurisdiction
of authorities. Perhaps this explains why, at times, the thermae
were teeming with prostitutes in spite of municipal ordinances
At the center, of course, the main attraction was always the baths
themselves--hot water baths, cold water baths, hot-air baths,
virtually every type of bath that ingenuity and lust for bathing
could devise. The baths usually opened at midday so sportsmen
could bathe and rest after their morning exercise. In the mornings
prisoners were often brought under escort to bathe.
During the dawning years of Christianity, before the decline of
Rome, it was forbidden to bathe on Sundays and holidays, but before
then the thermae were rarely closed for any reason. Sometimes
men and women bathed together, but this custom varied from one
period to another and depended upon local attitudes. At Pompeii
and Badenweiler, for example, men and women bathed separately.
Patricians, accompanied by a slave, brought their own bathing
implements: brushes, an oil flask, a flat dish for scooping water
and the strigil, a curved metal tool, for scraping off oils and
sweat. All of these were attached to a ring for easy carrying.
The poorer subjects of the Empire used the flour of lentils in
lieu of oils and either scraped their own backs or enlisted the
services of a friend.
A typical routine might begin with a strenuous workout in the
palestra, or courtyard, where various sports and activities loosened
up the body and stimulated circulation. Games, using small leather
balls, were popular in Rome and were considered a splendid way
of conditioning the body--Caesar was said to have been an excellent
ball player. Another popular sport was wrestling with a heavy
sand-filled leather sack suspended from the ceiling.
Afterwards, the bather would trek through three rooms, progressing
from tepid to hot. The first room was known, appropriately enough,
as the tepidarium, the largest and most luxurious in the thermae.
Here, the bather relaxed for an hour or so while being annointed
with oils. Then he moved into the little bathing stalls of the
caldarium, much like the halvet in Islamic hammams, providing
a choice of hot or cold water for private bathing. They were usually
built on the periphery of the main bathing room, under which the
central fire burned. (As you might suspect. our English word "caldron"
comes from the Latin caldarius which means warming. Hence the
caldarium was warmer than the tepidarium.)
The final and hottest chamber was the laconicum. (The English
word "laconic" comes from the regimented province of Laconica
where people were characterized as brief, concise and terse.)
After an understandably laconic stay in the laconicum, the body
was primed for a vigorous massage, followed by a scraping off
of dead skin with the strigil. A thorough scrubbing and a cool
dip in the pool of the frigidarium was next. Refreshed and smelling
like a rose, the bather then retired to the outer areas of the
thermae where a library or an assembly room were among several
attractions that encouraged intellectual pursuits.
CATHEDRALS OF FLESH
That such graces of the Empire ever declined! But, the destruction
of Rome and its baths occurred quickly. Plague swept over the
Italian boot; debilitating conflicts rocked the throne; marauding
"barbarians" struck savage blows; apathetic citizens grew in numbers.
The Roman Empire rotted. Many great thermae became empty shells
and the "Cathedrals of Flesh," as Christians called them, simply
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