public baths in Ancient Rome

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roman baths

Ancient Roman baths formed an integral part of public and private life in ancient Rome. Some of the largest complexes in ancient Rome were in fact the baths which of course were only rendered possible by the huge quantities of water which the aqueducts faithfully channelled into the city.

The baths of Caracalla are particularly well known as huge portions of them are still visible on the south side of Rome. For many years they have been used as a stage set for summer operas and great concerts such as "The Three Tenors" with Pavarotti.

But ancient Rome actually sported a number of such baths built at different times by different emperors as a means of heightening the quality of life of their own citizens whilst at the same time benefitting from great propaganda for themselves.

The bathing tradition of ancient Rome seems to date back to at least the third century BC at which time cronicles tell us that the rural population would come to the city not only for the weekly market at the Forums but also in order to give themselves a wash/bathe. As a consequence it is not surprising that a great number of private entrepreneurs would own baths called balneae to which access could be purchased at a small price. Around 33BC there were as many as 170 balneae in the city.

Real downward pressure was put on access prices when Agrippa (Emperor Augustus' right hand man) built and inaugurated the first public baths called Thermae in the year 19BC: An excellent example of Augustus' renovation plans for the city and of his own propagandistic agenda. This example set the standard for all emperors who followed.

Some of the baths of ancient Rome included:

Later emperors followed a slightly different strategy of creating smaller local baths rather than one huge complex.

Other famous Roman baths are those at Bath (UK) and Hadrian's Villa (at Tivoli near Rome). In Rome it is worth visiting the baths of Caracalla we mentioned above and the baths of Diocletian which survived thanks to being transformed into the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli by Michelangelo in 1563. A little more is said about these below.

Nero's Baths

From the point of view of architecture and Rome's urban development Emperor Nero was an innovator. He was responsible for the first monumental Roman baths built in Rome (though built after those of Agrippa), close to the Pantheon, around 62-64AD. They were built at the same time as or shortly after the Palaestra (gymnasium for athletics) as part of his grand plan to orientalise Roman culture - hand in hand with the shift towards a more despotic ruling style.

The complex was constructed around a symmetrical axis facing north, measuring approximately 190x120meters in size, ie covering over two hectares (5 acres) between what we now know as the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. They were rebuilt in 227AD by emperor Alexander Severus who renamed them the Thermae Alexandrinae.

Passages from Martial make it clear that they were amongst the more notable monuments of the city and indeed a very popular recreational resort.

Book 2, 48

Coponem laniumque balneumque,

Tonsorem tabulamque calculosque

Et paucos, sed ut eligam, libellos:

Unum non nimium rudem sodalem Et grandem puerum diuque levem

Et caram puero meo puellam:

Haec praesta mihi, Rufe, vel Butuntis,

Et thermas tibi habe Neronianas.

A wine-merchant, a. butcher, a bath, a barber, a chessboard and pieces, and a few books (but give me the selection of them); one companion, not too unpolished; a tall servant, one who preserves his youthful bloom for a long time; a damsel beloved of my servant: secure me these things, Rufus, even though it were at Butunti, and you may keep to yourself the baths of Nero.

Judging from remains found during archaeological excavations it must have been of great beauty. A couple of the rose marble columns found from this site were used in the 17th century to replace two columns on the left hand side of the Pantheonís colonnade (pronaos).

Architecture of Roman Baths

Roman architecture of baths tended to follow a common layout to support their function and activities (although one could say pretty much the same of churches whilst at the same time finding so much variety of architecture). Much of the architectural success of these enormous complexes which easily compete with modern shopping malls for size lays in the use of the Roman's excellent engineering and construction skills and in the innovations brought by a skillful use of materials such as cement coupled with a good working knowledge of domes, vaults and arches.

A central axis divided the building into two almost symmetrical halves with rooms and halls coming off that axis. The very centre was essentially a basilica with a cold water pool called frigidarium. Coming off to one side of the frigidarium we would find an open air pool called natatio whilst on the other the heated covered pools - the tepidarium with warm water and the calidarium with hot water. There might even be what we would nowadays call a Turkish bath based on hot vapour, these were known as laconica or sudatoria.

The roof of the calidarium in particular would often be domed and have few windows in order to keep the heat in and reduce condensation from dripping, ie the dome would tend to bring the drops to dribble along the side and back into the pool.

It wouldn't be uncommon for rich private villa owners to have their own reduced version of the baths in their own Roman villas and homes. In such cases the pools would be smaller for obvious reasons and fewer, possibly with a cold and hot only. It would also be common for the hot pool to be built underground into the basement of the house given that it required little by way of lighting, possibly a single hole at the top of the domed roof whilst the ground fill all around would help with to insulate and keep the heat in.

Coming off the central axis we would have numerous other halls and rooms for a variety of activities such as changing rooms (apodyterium), music concert halls, large assemblies and conferences, gymnasiums (palaestrae), massage parlors, libraries, game rooms, medical surgeries and so on.

All of this would be decorated in a variety of marbles, mosaics, frescos and luxurious marble statues of which a number have survived (often as part of the collections of successive Popes and Papal families such as the Farneses). The exterior would be surrounded by gardens and parks for taking walks or simply resting in the shade.

One or more subterranean levels would be used for all the behind-the-scenes functions undertaken by those working at the baths as well as for the intricate heating systems called hypocausts - the word itself means "heat from below".

The Baths of Diocletian

These were built around the year 300AD to satisfy the needs of the growing population in that area. In reality the baths were built by Diocletian's co-Emperor Maximian and extended over an area of approximately 370 x 370 metres large enough for as many as 3,000  people at any one time.

The decline began some two and a half centuries (year 537AD) later when the Goths broke the aqueducts and water supply into the city. Their use as baths therefore ceased and gave way to their use as stores and stables as well as quarry of building materials. The ruins were later included into nearby constructions which fortunately still permits todays visitor to identify much of the original layout.

The Roman Baths of Caracalla

Inaugurated around the year 225AD the baths of Caracalla covered something in the region of 10 or 11 hectares (about 25acres!) and hosted up to 1600 people at any one time. The water for the various pools was stored in enormous reservoirs capable of holding up to 80,000 litres. Urbanisation and construction of the area required an entire street, the Via Nova to be widened from the Circus Maximus all the way to the baths. The street was the largest avenue in the city and spanned a full 30m in width. It was lined with numerous shops and services.

The baths of Caracalls were extremely sumptuous and some of the interior decorations may still be seen around Rome today, for example the enormous twin fountains at Piazza Farnese or the famous statue known as the Farnese Hercules.

As with the baths of Diocletian the baths of Caracalla also began to fall into general disuse after the water supplies were cut off by the Goths. An earthquake in 847 caused significant damages but the greatest damage of all was brought about Pope Paul III Farnese around 1540 who used the ruins as a quarry for materials to be used in the building of Saint Peter's basilica.

Using the ancient Roman Baths

The baths were generally open during the afternoon. Entry was open to just about everyone although as with the Colosseum's seating it wouldn't be unnusual for areas to be segregated. Proper segregation of men and women was brought about by law emanated by Emperor Hadrian following a series of scandals - hardly surprising if men and women are regularly bathing more or less naked. The law had to be reinforced about a century later.

When going to the baths you would normally be accompanied by your slave and be expected to bring your own linen and cleaning utensils which you would keep in a metal cylindrical box called a cista: Use of the baths would also involve cleansing oneself with Olive Oil and then scraping it (and dirt) off with an appropriate sickle-shaped piece of metal called a strigil.

Soap and Public Hygiene: it is worth mentioning public hygiene and soap although I haven't quite elaborated it into a proper subsection of the Roman Baths page. Soap has unclear origins although various types of soap have been found to have been made by the Babylonians, Egyptians, Romans, Gauls and Germanic tribes of the north. Roman myth would have it being discovered by accident as women realised that the clay at the bottom of a hill where plenty of animal sacrifices took place was particularly useful for cleaning and washing. In essence the idea of soap was based on mixing molten animal fats and wood ashes - not a difficult discovery to come by and pass on. In any case the Romans seem to have made little use of it, perhaps because Olive oil and a strigil was cheaper than animal fat? That is not to say that they were a dirty lot, and the impact on public hygiene after the fall of the roman empire and its craving for public bathing establishments was surely significant.

From Martial Epigrams book 12, 82 we can learn much of what it must have been like to go to the baths:

ON MENOGENES, A SEEKER OF INVITATIONS TO DINNER.

To escape Menogenes at the baths, hot or cold, is quite impossible, although you try every art to do so. He will catch up your warm ball with eager hands, that he may lay you under obligation for having several times stopped it. He will pick up the foot-ball, when collapsed, out of the dirt, and bring it you, even though he may have just bathed and have his slippers on. If you bring linen with you, he will declare it whiter than snow, even though it be dirtier than a child's bib. If you comb your scanty hair with the toothed ivory, he will say that you have arranged your tresses like those of Achilles. He will himself bring you the fetid dregs of the smoky wine jar, and will even remove the perspiration from your forehead. He will praise everything, admire everything about you, until, after having patiently endured a thousand tortures, you utter the invitation, "Come and dine!"

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"ancient roman baths" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia, updated September 2011 for www.mariamilani.com