"Baths, wine, and sex spoil our bodies; but baths, wine, and sex make up life."
/Balnea, vina, Venus corrumpunt corpora nostra; sed vitam faciunt balnea, vina, Venus/
- Epitaph of Tiberius Claudius Secundus from Ephesus, a slave trader
The oldest archeological findings in Europe related to bathing habits date from the Bronze Age (2,400 – 800 BC). In the palaces of Knossos and Phaistos in Crete, the population of the Aegean Minoan civilization has left traces of special chambers devoted to bathing. Alabaster bathtubs excavated in Akrotiri (in Santorini Island), as well as wash basins and feet baths, showed how people from the Minoan civilization maintained their personal hygiene.
A water basin and the Queen's bathtub in Knossos, 1700-1400 BC
Bathtub from the Nestor Palace in Pylos, 1300 BC, Courtesy of Wiki Commons & Alun Salt
The Greeks on the mainland appreciated the healing properties of the water too. Homer and Hesiod often refered to the use of bath by their characters as a sign of hospitality. (The unfortunate Agamemnon was killed in his welcoming bath after his return from Troy. Odysseus took one last bath before his departure from the Island of Calypso).
The ancient Greeks early figured they could profit from the water. The first bathing types of equipment were constructed near natural hot springs. Later, around the 6th century BC, they started to build bathhouses in their cities. Bathing facilities were usually placed next to the palaestra and the gymnasium where people exercised different sports and games. They were positioned in an open space and represented elevated basins operating with cold water. Many vase paintings show that apart of various pools, the Greeks used other appliances, like a kind of showers and feet baths.
Bathing with warm and cold water were equally applied by Greeks. According to the Homeric Epos, Greek used cold water first and then hot; in contrast with the Romans who usually did the other way around - first hot and later cold water.
Ancient sources indicated that bathing was practiced from both sexes. After the water procedures, the Greeks (especially more elevated) anointed themselves with oil to soften their skins.
Plutarch mentioned public and private baths as existing in ancient Greece. A small amount was payable for the use of the public baths. One inscription of Andania fixes the fee to 2 chalkoi that equals to ¼ obol.
Greek athletes in the public baths. The inscription ΔΗΜΟΣΙΑ (PUBLIC) is very obvious in the middle of the bathing vessel. Image from a lost vase, Tischbein, 1791, vol. 1, pl. 58
Three bathing women and two servants holding oils and perfume. Image from a lost krater, Tischbein, 1791, vol. 4, pl. 30
Women taking a shower, Vase image form Bilder antiken lebens, Hrsg. von Theodor Panofka, 18, 9
- When asked by a foreigner why he bathed once a day, a Roman emperor is said to have replied "Because I do not have the time to bathe twice a day!" -
Public bath sign, Sabratha Roman Museum, Libya
SALVOM LAVISSE in the mosaic says: "It is a healthful thing to have bathed."
The Romans brought the bath experience to a higher level. They constructed the first large-scale spa facilities used by hundreds of bathers every day. The small, often private, bathing buildings were called balneae. The term comes from the Greek balaneion (βαλανεῖον - “bath”). The large imperial baths complexes were referred to as thermae (from the Greek adjective thermos (θερμός) - "hot").
Although wealthy people had their own baths at home, they still preferred to visit the public ones. The bathing was considered as a social event in a way we could hardly think of today. (For more on that, see the Baths of Caracalla in this post).
How popular the bathhouses were we could conclude from the fact that in 33 BC, there were 170 of them (public and private) in Rome alone. By the end of the 4th century AD, there were 11 public (some of them with a capacity of 2, 000 - 3, 000 bathers per day!) and 926 private baths in the Eternal City.
What did a regular Roman bath consist of?
The Roman writer Vitruvius (1st century BC) in his work “De Architectura” explained the design of a Roman bath. It was usually a building located in the center of gardens, walks, palaestrae (sport grounds) and shops.
The primary entry was known as apodyterium (from the Greek verb apodyo (ἀποδύω) - "to strip off, to take off"). That was a large changing room with cubicles or shelves where people took off and stored their clothes. There were benches ranged along the walls to facilitate the undressing. Ancient texts mentioned that room wasn’t a very secure place as pickpockets wandered around. So it was wiser to take one of the house slaves or to hire someone from the bathhouse to watch over the clothes during the bathing.
Once undressed, every Roman citizen could choose for himself in what order to use the bath facilities. Some went first to the palaestra to exercise. Others entered the tepidarium (from the Latin adjective tepidus – “moderately warm, lukewarm”) – warm room with heated floors and walls. The warmth of the tepidarium relaxed the human body and prepared it for the next procedures.
Tepidarium in Forum's Bath, Pompeii, Courtesy of the photo: http://himetop.wikidot.com/
Peinture: Théodore Chassériau, Tepidarium, 1853, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay
After that room, the bather could go in the caldarium (from the Latin verb caleo – “to be warm or hot”). That was a very hot steamy room located nearest to the furnace - the heating hypocaust system that Romans have invented. In the caldarium, there was a large bathtub or small pool with hot water. A vat or a small fountain of cold water (labrum) was placed nearby for the bathers who wanted to splash cold water on their heads.
Photo 1, 2: Caldarium and Labrum in Forum's Baths, Pompeii,
In one of the corners of the caldarium, in an immediate proximity of the heating brazier, there were separately positioned laconia or sudatoria; sauna-like chambers, dry and very hot with no presence of water, with the main function, to make the body sweat excessively. According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio (2nd-3rd century AD), the first laconium was introduced in Rome by Emperor Augustus' right hand - Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in his thermae on the south side of the Pantheon. It was named like that after the Spartans who were told to have accepted only that type of bathing procedures.
After the hottest rooms, the bather could temper a bit back in the tepidarium and then approach the frigidarium (from the Latin verb frigeo – “to be cold, to freeze”). It contained a large swimming pool filled with cold water that was used for cold-water baths and swim; sometimes located on the open air.
Peinture: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Le Frigidarium, 1890, oil on canvas, Private collection,
Photo 2 (left): Frigidarium - Musée de Cluny, Paris, Courtesy of Wiki Commons & Traumrune
Photo 3 (right): Frigidarium, Baths of Faustina at Miletus,
The water was supplied through a drain within the basin and was reused for flushing the toilets (latrinae) in the complex. The latrinae were often equipped with marble seats over a shallow water channel in front and anticipated the modern flush toilets by almost seventeen centuries.
How did the Romans use the baths facilities?
All the bathhouses in Rome (public or private) operated with small fees payable per visit. The amount of the money was reported to be a modest sum, so quite affordable for almost everyone in the city. Sometimes, on particular days, wealthy Romans paid free entrance for everyone as a part of their political chase for voters, making the baths open to literally every person in the town.
Women had to pay a higher fee than the men. They also were obliged to visit the baths either in separated (smaller!) part of the bath complex or to bathe in different hours than men. Often the time for female baths was established between early morning and noon (around 13 o’clock). The time slot between 14 o’clock and evening hours was reserved for the men.
People used the baths in quite various ways, according to what their taste and needs were. Between the procedures, they often had a massage (in special rooms) or walked or exercised or had a snack and drink. As the soap was unknown, Romans usually rubbed oil in their skins and then used a strigil – a special flat and curved implement – to scrape off the dirt.
Strigil - a Roman bathing implement for removing the body dirt
Roman army as a conveyor of habits
The bathing practices were so ingrained in the Roman way of living that, with the expansion of the Empire, bath facilities spread to all parts of the Mediterranean. The main conveyor was the Roman army. The legionnaires erected bathhouses around naturally found mineral and thermal springs in the newly conquered lands. They believed in the medicinal properties of those water sources and constructed around them recuperation centers for rejuvenating and healing the wounded soldiers. By building aqueducts, the Romans provided regular water supply not only for the living needs of the army but also for its recreation and leisurely pursuits.
Often baths were part of the military campuses, as at Chester on Hadrian's Wall, or at Bearsden fort in Scotland. Even though legionnaires had their own bathhouses, they frequented the numerous public bathhouses in their colonial towns. Hence, they established many local cities with mineral and thermal water as bathing centers. Thanks to their uninterrupted tradition of using, some of these places still operate as SPA and wellness centers. Among the most popular in Europe are Aix and Vichy in France, Bath and Buxton in England, Aachen and Wiesbaden in Germany, and Baden in Austria.
Roman baths in Bath (Somerset, South West England)