What are Roman baths?
Put bluntly, the Roman Baths, known as thermae, are a collection of bath houses that were built during the reign of the Roman empire. They were one of the many great achievements of Ancient Rome. They featured many different rooms with water being set to different temperatures within. Furthermore, they contained swimming pools and even sitting areas where citizens could read, chill out and even interact with each other in a manner recognizable to anyone who has visited a modern day bathhouse or seen one in film or television.
Why were the Roman baths important?
The thermae were mostly important for two reasons: architectural and societal.
The thermae played a crucial role in architecture as their design requirements necessitated development of the dome. The earliest surviving record that we have of a dome was found within the frigidarium of the Stabian Baths at Pompeii and is dated around 2 BCE. The combination of dome-based technologies like stiff mortared rubble and iron tie bars proved such a popular building asset that it would be worked into other public buildings, especially ones built on a large scale like a basilica.
The architectural merit of the thermae is so strong that even modern structures like the Chicago Railroad Station and New York’s Pennsylvania Staton have completely copied the layout of the frigidarium from the Baths of Caracalla.
Given their status as a forum for the rich and the poor, the thermae helped to foster communication between social structures and also served as one of the major leisure centers for the empire.
Who used the Roman baths and why?
While wealthy individuals might commission the construction of a small bathhouse for their circle of influence, known as a balneum, everyone used the stae-funded baths the Romans called thermae. One of the main reasons why the baths were used is that cleanliness was understood to be a universal necessity. Even though the thermae were public works funded by the state, they still incurred an entrance fee; thankfully the cost was relatively cheap, often no more than a single day’s wage for a free Roman male.
While the Romans could get running water at home, the lead pipes used in Roman homes were individually taxed and this taxation lead most families to get their cleaning done at the baths, leaving the water at home for use in less involved needs like cooking or washing clothes.
While the baths were designed to accept all comers, thus allowing for intermingling between social classes, genders rarely overlapped. The general arrangement was that women were allowed to go into the thermae while the men would be doing their jobs and men would enter the thermae once their work day was over. This generally resulted in women and children being the most common patrons from sunrise to 2-3 p.m., when the men would then head out to shed the stress of a hard day’s work in the early afternoon all the way into the evening.
Women who frequented the baths at the same time as men were often demonized as those hours were when sex workers would ply their trade.
How were the Roman baths heated?
Early versions of the baths were heated with either water springs connected to geothermal vents or braziers. The first innovation in heating mechanics came in the 1st Century BCE and took the form of sub-floor heating chambers that were fueled by wood-burning furnances, known as hypocausts and prafurniae, respectively. While the Greeks had made this discovery before, the Romans did what they usually did and incorporated and improved upon existing ideas.
The massive fires generated by these prafurniae would channel warm air beneath the raised floor, known as a suspensurae, that was supported by either narrow stone pillars, hollow cylinders or bricks shaped like circles or polygons. Said floors were paved with more than tiles that measured 60 square centimeters and these tiles, known as bipedales, would subsequently be covered with a decorative layer.
The walls of the baths could also generate heat by incorporating “tubuli,” hollow tubes that were shaped into rectangles and served as channels for the hot air generates by the prafurniae. Tegulae mammatae were special bricks that contained bosses along one side, allowing for greater insulation of a room by trapping the hot air. Glass windows, which start showing up in the 1st Century CE also allowed for better temperature regulation while adding the option of sunlight as a heating mechanism.
The vast amount of water needed for the larger baths was supplied by purpose-built aqueducts leading from natural springs and regulated by huge reservoirs in the baths complex. The reservoir of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, for example, could hold 20,000 cubic meters of water. This water would be heated in large lead boilers that fit directly above the prafurniae. Once heated, the water could then be channeled into the baths’ heated pools through lead plumbing and a bronze joint known as a testudo. Convection would then take care of circulating the hot water throughout the complex.
Features of Roman Baths
- Apodyterium. This was the changing room. Visitors would enter this facility in order to change out of their daily attire and into clothes more suitable for such rigorous wet and/or physical activity. The Romans would likely not have enjoyed these facilities in the nude like the Greeks were known to do. Indeed, the nature of the baths’ heating systems necessitated the use of thick-soled sandals in order to protect the feet.
It was not uncommon for an apodyterium to be staffed with attendants. These attendants would then take the visitor’s clothes and keep them somewhere safe while the visitor enjoyed the baths. Multiple floor plans indicate the presence of niches and lockers where clothes might be stored or exchanged. Other visitors might have been accompanied by one or more slaves and these slaves would have handled the undressing and redressing of their master and storage of his belongings.
It is also known that some apodyteria served more than one function. For example, the women’s apodyterium within the Stabian Baths of Pompeii served double duty as a frigidarium.
- Palaestrae. These were exercise areas like the ones you might find in a gymnasium. While some evidence shows women engaging in vigorous activity within this area, the overwhelming majority of people who used this area would be men. After changing clothes and applying some oil to their bodies, these men would likely begin their exercise routine, engaging in activities like wrestling, light weights, running, ball games and/or taking a swim in the natatio.
When a man was done exercising and ready to wash off the sweat, grime and oil of a hearthy workout, he would enter a portico leading to the various temperature-controlled rooms to begin his bathing routine.
- Natatio. This was an open-air swimming pool that was often positioned parallel to the alaestrae if not overlapping the same space..
- Laconica. This was a closed room that was both super-heated yet kept a dry atmosphere. The purpose of this chamber was to serve as a sweating room. Similar to a modern sauna.
- Sudatoria. This sibling to the laoonica was also a super-heated sweating room but one that kept a wet atmosphere instead of the dry feel of the laconica.
- Calidarium. One of the three main rooms housing water. The waters of the calidarium were heated and contained a separate water basin set on a stand, known as a labrum. This was the hot room, where you would go for the hot bath.
- Tepidarium. As the first part of this room’s name might lead you to suspect, the tepidarium was one of the other main water rooms of the thermae and its waters were warm but not hot. This was indeed the warm room. This temperature was achieved by indirect heat, basically receiving a diluted level of temperature from the hot waters of the calidarium.
- Frigidarium. While the waters of the tepidarium were tepid, the water of the frigidarium was frigid. This was where you came for the cold bath. Surprisingly, this room was often the largest and most ornate of the three water chambers and it would often contain a dome to further regulate the temperature of the area. In short, no respectable thermae or even balnae would shortchange the construction of this room.
- Latrines. Thermae were where the first flush toilets came into use. These areas were large public bathrooms that usually had marble seats placed over channels of continually flowing water so that any waste material could be directed into a cess pit. The seats of these toilets often featured sponges on sticks that were to be used in a manner we would associate with toilet paper.
- Gardens. It was not uncommon for baths to feature outdoor gardens, if only because so much water was being used.
- Library. While some might blanch at the idea of books being positioned so close to large fonts of water, these structures were just as much a social club or town hall as anything else. This meant that it was not uncommon to find people reading from scrolls that they had checked out from the facility’s library and occasionally voicing their agreement or disdain of the contents to other patrons.
- Food stalls. Whether you think of thermae as a water park or even a town hall, both sorts of facilities tend to have some sort of avenue to grabbing a bite. Some of the most common food and drink sold at thermae included:
- Mulsum. A type of wine that was enhanced with the addition of unfermented honey.
- Lucanian sausage. Linked sausage that was prepared with ground pepper, garum, cumin, rue, bay berries, fat, pine nuts and other condiments.
- Boiled eggs served within a sauce of pine nuts.
- Garum. This was a fermented fish sauce that the Romans put on everything and can still be purchased today.
- Mussels. This recipe would take 40-50 of these sea creatures and season them with garum, leek, cumin, a raisin wine known as passum, savory and another form of grape wine.
- Pear Patina. This was a baked dessert that consisted of mashed pears mixed with honey, passum, cumin, pepper and oil.
- Libum. A simple honeyed cheesecake.
- Lecture halls. Touching back upon the notion of the thermae being treated like a town hall, these facilities would often have lecture halls to debate and teach.
- Private baths. The Romans acknowledged the occasional need to enjoy the bath’s facilities without being seen in public and would often feature several private chambers that could either be reserved with an additional charge or might have been awarded to people in positions of power.
- Fountains. When you used as much running water as a thermae, it makes sense that some of its facets would serve double duty as art pieces.
- Health facilities. Some of the finer facilities would feature rooms where patrons could get a massage or other basic forms of care for the body.
A walk-through of an average trip to the bath houses
- If you were going to spend some time at the thermae and enjoy it at its most basic offerings, you would be sure to carry the entrance fee on your person. You would walk up to the entrance, pay your admission fee and then proceed to the apodyterium to change out of your day clothes and into whatever might have been worn at the time, including some thick sandals to protect your feet while walking along the tiled floor of the calidarium.
- If you were a man and concerned about your physical fitness, you might spend a bit of time working out in the palaestrae and you might even go for some brisk activity in the natatio, provided the weather was right for it.
- You would then proceed through the portico connecting the palaestrae and decide in which order you would move through the three large pools of water of the calidarium, the tepidarium and the frigidarium. One important detail to remember is that everyone would go through all three areas before leaving. Someone who understood how the body reacts to temperatures might decide to start with the ice cold water of the frigidarium’s pool to shock their system awake, then transition to the tepidarium to gradually warm up and then finish by spending some amount of time lounging about in the balmy waters of the calidarium.
- When you had had your fill of things, possibly even grabbing a quick snack of pears or sausage, you would dry off and head back through the complex to the apodyterium. There, you would grab your clothes, turn in the sandals and likely head home.
The Roman Baths In The City Of Bath, England
This famous fixture was built in the English province of Somerset and was known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis, meaning “the Waters of Sulis.” Despite the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century CE, and the subsequent Roman retreat from Britain, these baths were rebuilt and redesigned several times beyond then. The first notable improvement to the structure occurred in the 12th Century, when a curative spring was overlaid upon the King’s Spring. The 16th Century saw the addition of the Queen’s Spring in the southern portion of the complex. The next innovation to the complex occurred in the 17th Century and many of the structures within this area now bear a Victorian facade.
It is worth reiterating that despite the improvements, much of the original design and mosaics remain, though the British weather does require some protective measures to be taken in order to preserve certain external features: 19th Century carvings of various Roman politicians needed protection from acid rain and a new ventilation system was installed in 2006 to avoid corroding the stonework.
This thermae is preserved through a quartet of features.
- Sacred spring.
- Roman temple. The temple was built sometime between 60 and 70 CE and was dedicated to Sulis Minerva, an epithet of Minerva, the Roman analog to the Greek goddess Athena.
- Roman bath house.
- A cultural museum built by John Bryden. This museum houses various artifacts that have been dated to the site’s use by the Roman Imperials.
Visitors can tour the facilities and museum but the water is off-limits after a young woman died from complications of meningitis in 1978. Investigations into the cause of death revealed that the water was a natural environment for Naegleria fowleri, a brain-eating amoeba. Anyone longing to experience something close to what the thermae experience was like can visit the nearby Thermae Bath Spa or Cross Bath locales.
What other baths are still present in the world today and in what state?
- Lepcis Magna (Ruin). Located within modern-day Libya, this site was finished in 127 CE and is known for its well-preserved domes. It is also known by the specific names of Leptis and Leptis Magna.
- The Baths of Diocletian. Built within Rome, these were finished in 305 CE. The parts that have survived into the modern day have either been converted into religious facilities or considered part of the National Roman Museum.
- Timgad at Ephsesos (Ruin). Located within modern-day Algeria, these were completed in the 2nd Century CE. In its prime, this site had 14 bath complexes.
- The Baths of Antoninus aka The Baths of Carthage (Ruin). Located within Carthage, Tunisia, these were constructed and finished in 162 CE under the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius. The baths are not only a ruin but are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site for not only being a surviving part of Carthage but also for being among the three largest thermae constructed during the reign of the Roman Empire.
- Baths of Caracalla (Ruin). This thermae was built in southern Rome and is likely regarded as one of the best Roman baths with only Trajan’s Baths of Rome being larger. Finished in 235 CE, this venue featured huge walls and arches that can still be visited today. It was composed of nearly 7 million bricks and 252 interior columns. The area rises as high as 30 meters and takes up 337 x 328 meters of land. Ameneities included a one-meter deep Olympic swimming pool, a circular caldarium that spans 36 meters, glass windows, two libraries, a watermill, a waterfall, two 6-meter-long fountains and a terrace promenade on its second floor.
The Baths of Carcalla had four entrances and handled up to 8,000 patrons daily. 6,300 cubic meters of marble and granite were used on the walls and a glass mosaic within the ceiling helped to reflect light from the surface of the pools. Operations entailed 50 prafurniae that would burn through 10 tons of wood each day. While the overall structure is mostly preserved and some of its original marble flooring endures, this site is also a ruin.
Fun Facts about Roman Baths
- Ancient Roman Ruins from the thermae in Bath contained around 130 tablets that cursed people, mostly thieves who had made off with attire stored in the apodyterium.
- In 1615, Anne of Denmark noticed a flame caused by natural gas in the King’s Bath in Somerset, perceived it as an ill omen, and thereafter used either the New Bath or Queen’s Bath. A column was made in her honour, bearing a crown and inscribed with the Latin phrase “Anna Regnum Sacrum,” meaning “Anna’s Sacred Kingdom.”
- Roman Soldiers were encouraged to use the baths, to give them a greater sense of connection to Roman society. This was particularly important in the provinces.
- The local hot springs, a source of geothermal energy within the Roman Baths of Somerset results in water temperatures that can range from 156 to 205°F.
- Some of the artifacts in the museum of the Roman Baths include over 12,000 Denari and a gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva that was discovered in 1727.
- The museum of the Roman Baths also contains a scale model of what the facility looked like in its prime in the Roman world, during the Roman Empire.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Roman Baths – History And Facts" https://englishhistory.net/romans/roman-baths/, February 7, 2022