This article is formed from the transcript of The Roman Baths with Stephen Clews on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 17 June 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
The Roman Baths in Bath, Somerset date back roughly to just after the Roman invasion of Britain around 40AD. Over the next 300 years, the Romans would significantly add to the complex that forms what millions of tourists see when they visit the Roman Baths today.
However, following the departure of the Romans from the British shores in 410AD, the baths would eventually fall into disrepair. Despite there being Georgian Baths in the town in the 18th century (making good use of the natural hot-water springs of the area), the Roman Baths themselves weren’t rediscovered until the late 19th century.
From the ensuing excavation of the original Roman bathhouse site, a complex was discovered that defied the imagination in terms of size. As well as the bathhouse itself, there was also a temple, and multiple public pools. The sheer size indicates the multi-purpose nature of the complex.
Stephen Clews explains that the hot springs were “something for which the Romans didn’t really have a proper natural explanation, why does hot water come out of the ground? Why should it? And well, their answer was that they weren’t quite sure, so, therefore, it must be the work of the gods.”
“…where you find these hot spring sites, you also find that things like temples and places of worship develop. The springs are overseen by deities and so people come there to these sacred places sometimes seeking divine intervention to help them with a problem they might have; if they are ill, they might seek a cure.”
Whilst the springs were sometimes seen to have curative effects for certain ailments, Clews explains that, “We find we do have some unusual lead curses that have been thrown into the spring. And they are not actually seeking help to cure an ailment, they are seeking the goddess’ help to right a wrong.”
In this case, Clews recalls the story of Docimedes who lost two gloves, who asked that “the person who had stolen them should lose both his mind and his eyes.” Despite seeming somewhat harsh, Clews maintains that this was a fairly normal attitude to crime and punishment at the time.
These baths were open to anybody and everybody who could afford the pretty-negligible entry fee. Those who entered often took it as an opportunity to relax and unwind. Clews notes that the edict issued by Hadrian for separate baths for each sex wasn’t always adhered to; however, this was unlikely to be the case at this particular bath.
“People, obviously, sat on the bench in which case they would have been immersed in the water up to their necks. And so it may seem a bit obvious, but that does mean they were spending time in the water. It wasn’t just a quick dip, they were spending time here.”
Cleaning and curing
At the modern-day Roman Baths, various conservation projects have allowed for reconstruction of historic usage of the baths through computer-generated imaging.
In one room, Clews notes,
“you can see the various activities being acted out, massage, somebody at the back there is using the strigil, which is a kind of scraper to cleanse the skin, and there’s even one lady having her armpits plucked”.
Despite the fact that they are not used in this way today, Clews notes the enduring use of the baths for cleansing purposes, “…it might be because they were seeking cures. We know that, much later on in Bath, people were immersing themselves in hot water because they thought it would cure them.”
Main Image: (Creative Commons), credit: JWSlubbock