The ancient Romans loved baths. Widely accessible and affordable, bathing at a thermae was a highly popular communal activity in ancient Rome.
Though the Greeks first pioneered bathing systems, the sheer feats of engineering and artistic craftsmanship that went into the construction of Roman baths reflect the Romans’ love of them, with surviving structures featuring complex underfloor heating, elaborate pipe networks and intricate mosaics.
Though the very wealthy could afford bathing facilities in their homes, Roman baths transcended class, with the staggering 952 baths recorded in the city of Rome in 354 AD being frequently visited by citizens looking to relax, flirt, exercise, socialise or make business deals.
For the Romans, bathing wasn’t solely for cleanliness: it was a pillar of society. Here’s an introduction to public baths and bathing in ancient Rome.
Roman baths were for everyone
Roman houses were supplied with water via lead pipes. However, since they were taxed according to their size, many houses only had a basic supply which could not hope to rival a bath complex. Attending the local communal bath therefore offered a better alternative, with fees to enter all types of baths being well within the budget of most free Roman males. On occasions such as public holidays, baths were sometimes free to enter.
Baths were widely divided into two types. Smaller ones, called balneum, were privately owned, though were open to the public for a fee. Larger baths called thermae were owned by the state and could cover several city blocks. The largest thermae, such as the Baths of Diocletian, could be the size of a football pitch and host some 3,000 bathers.
The state viewed it as important that baths were accessible for all citizens. Soldiers might have a bathhouse provided at their fort (such as at Cilurnum on Hadrian’s Wall or at Bearsden Fort). Even enslaved people, who were otherwise deprived of all but a few rights in ancient Rome, were permitted to use bathing facilities where they worked or use designated facilities at public baths.
There were also usually different bathing times for men and women, as it was considered improper for different genders to bathe side by side. This didn’t stop sexual activity happening, however, as sex workers were frequently employed at the baths to cater to all needs.
Bathing was a long and luxurious process
There were many steps required when taking a bath. After paying an entrance fee, a visitor would strip naked and hand their clothes to an attendant. It was then common to do some exercise to prepare for the tepidarium, a warm bath. The next step was the caldarium, a hot bath much like a modern sauna. The idea behind the caldarium was for the sweat to expel the body’s dirt.
After this, an enslaved person would rub olive oil into the visitor’s skin before scraping it off with a thin, curved blade known as a strigil. More luxurious establishments would use professional masseurs for this process. Afterwards, a visitor would return to the tepidarium, before finally taking the plunge into a frigidarium, the cold bath, to cool down.
There was also a main pool which was used for swimming and socialising, as well as a palaestra which allowed for exercise. Ancillary spaces in the bathhouse housed food and perfume-selling booths, libraries and reading rooms. Stages also accommodated theatrical and musical performances. Some of the most elaborate baths even contained lecture halls and formal gardens.
Archaeological evidence has also shed light on more unusual practises in the baths. Teeth and scalpels have been discovered at bath sites, suggesting that medical and dental practices took place. Fragments of plates, bowls, animal bones and oyster shells suggest that the Romans ate in the baths, while dice and coins show that they gambled and played games. Remnants of needles and textiles show that ladies probably took their needlework with them too.
Baths were magnificent buildings
Roman baths required extensive engineering. Most importantly, water had to be constantly supplied. In Rome, this was done by using 640 kilometres of aqueducts, an astonishing feat of engineering.
The water then needed to be heated up. This was often done by using a furnace and a hypocaust system, which circulated hot air under the floor and even in the walls, much like modern central and underfloor heating.
These achievements in engineering also reflect the rate of expansion of the Roman Empire. The idea of the public bath spread across the Mediterranean and into regions of Europe and North Africa. Because they constructed aqueducts, Romans not only had enough water for domestic, agricultural and industrial uses, but leisurely pursuits.
The Romans also took advantage of natural hot springs in their European colonies to construct baths. Some of the most famous are Aix-en-Provence and Vichy in France, Bath and Buxton in England, Aachen and Wiesbaden in Germany, Baden in Austria and Aquincum in Hungary.
Baths sometimes gained cult-like status
Those who funded baths wanted to make a statement. As a result, many high-end baths contained huge marble columns. Elaborate mosaics tiled the floors, while stuccoed walls were carefully crafted.
Scenes and images within bathhouses often depicted trees, birds, landscapes and other pastoral images, while sky-blue paint, gold stars and celestial imagery adorned the ceilings. Statues and fountains often lined the interior and exterior, and professional attendants on hand would cater to your every need.
Often, bathers’ jewellery was similarly elaborate as a means of showing off in the absence of clothes. Hairpins, beads, brooches, pendants and engraved gems have been discovered at bath sites, and demonstrate that the baths were a place to see and be seen.
Baths would sometimes take on a cult-like status. As the Romans advanced west in England, they built the Fosse Way and crossed the River Avon. They discovered a hot water spring in the area which brought over a million litres of hot water to the surface daily at a temperature of around 48 degrees Celsius. The Romans built a reservoir to control the water flow, as well as baths and a temple.
Word spread of the luxuries of the waters, and a town aptly named Bath quickly grew around the complex. The springs were widely viewed as sacred and healing, and many Romans threw valuable items into them to please the gods. An altar was built so that priests could sacrifice animals to the gods, and people travelled from all over the Roman Empire to visit.
A regular part of the daily lives of people in ancient Rome, the scale, workmanship and social importance of the baths across the ancient Roman Empire offers us a dizzying insight into the lives of a deeply complex and sophisticated people.