What were Roman baths?

baths of diocletian - courtesy antmoose - CC-BY

baths of diocletian - courtesy antmoose - CC-BY

In modern Western culture, we think of bathing as a private activity.  But in ancient Rome, bathing was a communal and social activity.

This was conducted in facilities that in some ways are similar to  modern spas or health clubs.  In the 4th century there were at least 900 bath establishments in Rome.

There was a strong intellectual side as well.  Many of the major baths of Rome incorporated libraries and lecture halls, public gardens and extravagant landscaping.

After a morning’s work, most Roman’s enjoyed spending the the rest of the day at the public bath. Men and women both enjoyed coming to the baths not just to get clean but to meet with friends, exercise, read at the library, or watch a show.  Even a lot of business deals were closed at a public bath.

When entering the baths, a person first went to the dressing room where there were niches and cabinets to store their street clothes.  While it is not clear what Roman wore when bathing, it seems probable they did not bathe in the nude as Greek men did.  They usually wore some kind of cover in the bath, perhaps similar to wrapping with a modern bath towel.  Special shoes with thick soles were also needed to protect feet from the heated floors.

After various exercises, bathers would have the dirt and oil scraped from their bodies with a curved metal implement called a strigil. Then the actual bathing began.

Bathers would progress at a leisurely pace through rooms of various temperature.

They might start in the warm room (tepidarium), which had heated walls and floors and then proceed to the hot bath (caldarium), which was close to the furnace. After this the bather might spend some time in the tepidarium again before finishing in the cold room  (frigidarium) with a refreshing dip in the cold pool.

After they finished their bath, they could stroll in the gardens, visit the library, watch performances, listen to a literary recital, or buy something to eat from the food vendors.

Roman Baths also had large public latrines. These latrines often had marble seats located over channels in which there was a continuous flow of water, the first flush toilets. A shallow water channel in front of the seats contained sponges attached to sticks for patrons to clean themselves when finished.

The largest of all Roman baths were the Baths of Diocletian, completed in 305AD and covered an area of 130,000 sq. yards.

For more information about ancient Rome

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