Two thousand years ago, Roman engineers created magnificent cities, buildings, roads and monuments throughout their vast empire. But of all their architectural achievements, there was one building that stood out from all the others - the public bath. Public Roman bathhouses or thermae were community centers as well as a daily ritual that defined what it meant to be Roman.
In Ancient Rome, elegant men were described as lauteus, which literally translates as well washed. Baths started appearing as early as the mid-third century B.C.in the private homes of wealthy Romans. It was in the second century B.C. that the first public baths in Rome emerged. According to a census, by 33 B.C. there were 170. By the fourth century A.D. there were nearly 1000 public bath buildings in Rome alone. Nearly every town and village throughout the Roman Empire had at least one public bath. Roman ritual dictated that before engaging in any sort of religious activity, they had to first purify themselves. Stemming from very ancient times, men and women (including slaves) would wash themselves from a tub of water or perhaps a very simple bathhouse before entering a religious sanctuary. We see that from very early on, daily washing became an important facet in Roman life.
Public bathhouses were an important social venue for the Romans. Most were operated by the state and very affordable. Entrance fees were a quarter of an as (a copper coin) or half-a-cent. Bathing was a daily, primarily afternoon, ritual for most Romans regardless of age, sex, or social status. They were a way for Romans to relax and delight in the company of others.
The afternoon was the most popular time for bathing. There is evidence that at one time men and women bathed together. However, scandalous behavior prompted Hadrian to put an end to it sometime between the years of 117 and 138 in a decree mentioned in the Historia Augusta, which separated males and females. This separation was achieved by assigning different hours for men and women to bathe. Women typically used the baths in the early afternoon while the men used them from mid-afternoon until evening after which they went home for dinner.
The bathing process in itself was rather elaborate and contained several steps. The first step was to work up a sweat. This was usually achieved by some sort of athletic activity like playing ball or wrestling. This took place on what they called the palestra. However, another less physical route was to sit in a steam room or sunbathe. Incidentally tans were very fashionable. After the bather was drenched in sweat, he/she entered the hot room called the caldarium. The temperature of the floor was so hot in this room that bathers wore sandals with wooden soles to protect their feet from burning. He/she would proceed into the next room that was warm. There the bather would scrape the dead skin, sweat, and dirt from their pores with a stirgil. Stirgils were usually made out of some kind of metal, but some were also made of wood. Next was the tepidarium to cool off and last was the cold pool called the frigidarium. Some would conclude with a massage.
One of the most important
aspects of the ancient Roman bathhouses was social. Friends would
get together and gossip business may have been discussed, it was a time
for socializing. Many baths also had snack shops, meeting rooms,
and gardens. They were really the equivalent of a modern day health
club or YMCA. This next passage is a letter written by Seneca to
one of his friends talking about what it s like to live over a bathhouse.
It gives us an idea of the sorts of activities that transpired.
I live over a bathing establishment. Picture to yourself now the assortment of voices, the sound of which is enough to sicken one. . . . When the stronger fellows are exercising and swinging heavy leaden weights in their hands, when they are working hard or pretending to be working hard, I hear their groans; and whenever they release their pent-up breath, I hear their hissing and jarring breathing.
When I have to do with a lazy fellow who is content with a cheap rubdown, I hear the slap of the hand pummeling his shoulders, changing its sound according as the hand is laid flat or curved. If now a professional ball player comes along and begins to keep score, I am done for. Add to this the arrest of a brawler or a thief, and the fellow who always likes to hear his own voices in the bath, and those who jump into the pool with a mighty splash as they strike the water. In addition to those whose voices are, if nothing else, natural, imagine the hair plucker keeping up a constant chatter in this thin and strident voice, to attract more attention, and never silent except when he is plucking armpits and making the customer yell instead of yelling himself. It disgusts me to enumerate the varied cries of the sausage dealer and confectioner and of all the peddlers of the cook shops, hawking their wares, each with his own peculiar intonation.
- Seneca the Younger, c. A.D. 63
The architecture is what was truly impressive. The bath building itself would be made out of stone or wood and the interior lined with some sort of ceramic tile. Many baths were characterized by majestic domes and expansive vaulted ceilings. The baths were heated using a hypocaust, or underfloor heating system fueled by wood. However, these enormous baths could not have been possible without the Roman aqueducts. Unfortunately the Romans left no blueprints, no technical specifications. Furthermore, there are no adequate remains of pipes for experts to completely understand the system of plumbing the Romans used to provide water to places like Terme di Caracalla.
Baths of Caracalla
The Baths of Caracalla
(Terme di Caracalla) was the second-largest public bath in Rome.
The bath could accommodate more than 1,600 people and consisted of pools,
a couple of gymnasiums and gardens as well as two libraries, one for works
in Greek and one for works in Latin. The building itself was once
covered in marble and adorned with mosaics and other artwork. Some
of the sculptures are now found in the Vatican Museums such as the Belvedere
Torso and several to the Persian god Mithras. The marble flooring
from the bath now used to decorate the floors of Palazzo del Quirinale,
the president of Italy s residence. The bath is named after the Emperor
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who was nicknamed Caracalla. He inaugurated
them in 216 A.D. although they were not completed at the time.
Today one can only imagine the splendor of this ancient bath whose
ruins ascend nearly 100 feet.
The thermae have been described by historians
as a "Palace of RomanWater." It was the palace of the people and
brought all people of the Republic together in some way. This defined
what it was to be Roman! Many of ancient Rome's engineering
secrets originated in the building of baths: concrete which made the construction
of the Coliseum possible and the domed ceiling without which, the breathtaking
Pantheon would not have been. Even today, one of the ruined rooms
in the Baths of Caracalla was the model for Pennsylvania Station in New
York. Tragically, the fall of the Roman Empire closed the chapter
on these amazing, technological masterpieces.
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