Roman Baths as Social Congregation Places and Roman Bathing Culture
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
Finnish saunas, Japanese centos, and Turkish baths which are modern versions of Roman baths, are quite famous and touristic attractions for many people around the world. In today’s modern societies, bathing is basically cleaning unlike in ancient and early modern Mediterranean societies. Enjoying public baths was daily social activity in ancient Roman times as they were social congregation and political propaganda places, as well. Dr. Fikret Yegül, who is an architectural historian at University of California Santa Barbara, states that it is important to understand why bathing was so significant for Roman daily life, and how the Romans bathed.
Hot water brings pleasure
The first and the most important factor for having bath in Roman society, according to Yegül, was the pleasure. Feeling the heat and warmness, and relaxing in a hot environment is always a great pleasure for people. Moreover, perfumes, body oils, massage sessions and beautiful marbles, sculptures also charmed Romans. In addition to that, bathing became a very important and unique part of Roman culture including all urban population of an area, but not just the elite.
Roman baths were also symbols of luxury and wealth, as another factor. For a rich master, going to a bath with his slaves and clothing nicely must have been a cool way of showing off his wealth. Martial (d. 102 – 104 AD), an Roman writer, tells about Menogenes who was looking to be invited for a dinner by a rich man in a bath. However, we know that Roman culture was highly inspired by ancient Greek traditions in which public baths, gymnasium, occupied a significant social role, as well. Romans knew about the gymnasium via ancient sources and literature they inherited. Moreover, there were already Greek baths in southern Italy and Sicily before the Roman thearmaes. Bathing in gymnasium was a great enjoyment and pleasure for Greeks, and Romans adopted this nice relaxing activity in their daily life.
Public and cheap
Another reason why public baths and bathing took an important place in Roman daily life, must be the cost of it. Most of the baths in the Roman Empire were very cheap and the imperial ones were free of charge despite their luxury and abundance. This means that anyone, even the poor ones, could access the baths and have the same relaxing pleasure as masters or high ranked soldiers do. Unlike in gymnasiums, Greek baths, thearmaes were open for everyone without any distinction; women, man, rich, poor, old, young, child or adult. M. F. Ferrari mentions that Plebeians, Roman common people, were one of the major groups of visitors. Moreover, even the slaves were allowed to access the baths, but it was brief and during the times when their regular duties were finished for the day.
Political propaganda in public baths
The last reason why public baths were widely common in Roman world, should be that thearmaes, as the imperial baths, were also propaganda tools for the emperors and senators or other high ranked state officers. Many Roman emperors attended in the baths with their subjects. All Roman society, without any distinction, enjoyed together in the imperial baths provided by the state. In nowhere else, a group of random Roman citizens could be closer to each other than they could in a public bath. Plebeians, patricians, soldiers, senators, emperors, consuls, women were all together without social barriers. Yegül suggests that the warm atmosphere in baths made people closer to each other, because bathing made each of them pleasant in a way. People left their ranks and other characteristic signs outside, as they left their uniforms and cloths which dissociated them from each other. This is an interesting point with Roman society which had certain distinctions and classifications among its people. They were physically equal in baths despite their social statuses outside of the baths.
Roman bath culture
Furthermore, the Romans created some customs to increase the pleasure of bathing. Roman bathing custom was well organized, too. For instance, there were pre-bathing practices in palaestra, the open area for the non-bathing activities. They were playing some ball games or spent time with gym.Unlike ancient Greeks, Romans did not spend so much time for gym. They preferred just exercising before they had bath, rather than focusing on building muscles. According to Romans, having some sport activities before bathing was good for health. Galen of Pergamon (d. 200-216 AD), the court physician, advised ball
games for health. Yegül, states that there were five favorite ball games in addition to wrestling, running, boxing, swimming and fencing.
In March 2014, while I was visiting Aquae Sulis (city of Bath, England), I was given a mixture of herbs including mint, lavender and bay leaf. The lady who gave me the mixture, said that it was used by Romans to have nice smell during bathing. Likewise, Pliny the Younger (d. 113 AD) wrote that he was oiled, exercised then had bath. Perfumes and oiling bodies were essential in Roman bathing culture, they had a kind of toilet kit called as cista, in which they had oils, perfumes and strigula to strip the oil out from the body. Furthermore, unlike ancient Greeks who preferred being naked in gymnasium, Romans had a kind of tunic for palaestra. On the other hand, Yegül states that there is no certain information about the cloths Romans wore during bathing, but at least they must have covered their genital areas. Also sources report that Romans criticized Greeks because they liked being naked and had pleasure with that. In addition, Roman also they had clogs, by this way their feet did not touch to dirty water.
Romans liked bathing in day time (mid-afternoon) with sun light. Martial suggests the “eighth hour” as the best time for bath (A Roman day was twelve hours from sunrise until sunset) Roman baths, especially the imperial ones, had tall and high windows which let sun shines reach inside. Even though it was not impossible, it would be more difficult to have bath after sunset. However, Yegül states that it happened rarely and the imperial baths were closed just before sunset.
I have mentioned above that Roman baths were well organized. After playing some games and gym, first the customers should have followed the order from warm to hot, then cold: tepidarium, caldarium and frigadarium. They had different level temperatures, and they could feel it by passing through those sections mentioned above. There were also saunas and steam rooms. Iaconicum was to make visitors sweat under dry air condition, while sudatorium was to sweat with steam and moisture. Moreover, there were even heliocaminus, special areas for sunbathing. In addition to using or swimming in hot water, people could also relax and clean by removing toxins and dust away from their skins.
Having some food, of course, was one of the requirements for joy during bathing. There were shops near baths and there were food sellers in the baths. A tablet showing the prices of nuts, peanuts, beverages, bread and meat was found in Herculaneum baths (CIL 4, no. 10674). Bowls, plates, kantaros (or canthraus), pig, chicken and lamb bones were found in some other bath excavations. Eating in baths was a kind of pre-dinner session for the visitors, because we know that cena, Roman dinner, was after bathing and it was another pleasure of a Roman day.
Because imperial baths were really essential and center of Roman daily life, their function was further than just entertainment and fun. We see that baths functioned also as theater, library, athleticism clubhouse (union) or even as literature clubs. Some Greek and Latin tablets found in Trajan baths prove that there was a permanent athleticism union which was called as Curia Athletarum and they had their own section in the bath complex. According to the records, some athletes came from Anatolia, and Emperor Hadrianus (r. 117-138 AD) enjoyed and appreciated their performance, so he provided them a permanent place in the bath complex. There are also sculptures of them in the bath. According to Yegül, this athlete group must have organized regular training sessions and some competitions. In this way, we can relate Roman thearmae to Greek gymnasium as a sport center.
I have mentioned that there were also libraries in the imperial baths. Romans read books in the special parts of the imperial baths. A source from 4th c. BC, tells that Ulpia Libraries in Forum Trajan was moved to Diocletian Baths probably to enrich the library already existing there. Even though we know there were libraries in the imperial baths (thermae), it is unknown how many and what kind of books were stored in the baths. However, Yegül, indicates that arranging place for libraries in the imperial baths must have been adopted from the Greek gymnasiums as well. He states that gymnasium had an important place in ancient Greek education system, gymnasium was the place of philosophers and poets. As depicted by Renaissance painter Raphael (d. 1520) in his famous painting of the School of Athens in Vatican.
Additionally, there were gardens, courtyards, quiet places, walking paths as surroundings of the baths. Those must have attracted poets and philosophers to visit baths more often. Those places should have been great and amazing for them, they could meet there and have time together for discussions with other scholars, politicians, and artisans. It seems like the imperial baths functioned as today’s modern shopping malls, society halls, parks and maybe even cafes in a way of social gathering location.
In conclusion, baths and bathing were very characteristic and significant Roman daily habits which gathered different social classes in one place. There were many baths, both imperial and private ones, that means there was a high demand for them. The warm atmosphere was a call for all Romans, even for the poor ones, slaves and Plebeians. Interestingly, baths were widely common all over the Roman ruled lands. Baths and bathing were a kind of common knowledge for those different people, a binding instrument perhaps. They had fun, they enjoyed while training their bodies or talking about politics or poetry. Apparently, enjoying in the baths was a clear way of being a Roman citizen.
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Ferrari, M. F.,2010. “Baths and Bathing in the Roman World” Academia. https://www.academia.edu/8261423/Baths_and_Bathing_in_the_Roman_World
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