- This page is on buildings used for Roman bathing. For the activity in general, see Ancient Roman bathing.
Most Roman cities had at least one, if not many, such buildings, which were centers of public bathing and socialization. Baths were extremely important for Romans. They stayed there for several hours and went daily. They were accompanied by one or more slaves. When they paid their fee, they would strip naked and put on sandals to protect their feet from heated floors. The slaves carried around their masters towels and got drinks for them. After bathing, they exercised. They did things such as running, mild weight-lifting, wrestling, and swimming. After exercising, oil and dirt got scraped off by servants.
Roman bath-houses were also provided for private villas, town houses and forts — these were also called thermae. They were supplied with water from an adjacent river or stream, or more normally, by an aqueduct. The design of baths is discussed by Vitruvius in De Architectura.
TerminologyThermae, balneae, balineae, balneum and balineum are all commonly translated as "bath" or "baths"; but in the writings of the earlier Roman authors these terms are used with discrimination.
Balneum or balineum, which is derived from the Greek βαλανείον signifies, in its primary sense, a bath or bathing-vessel, such as most persons of any consequence amongst the Romans possessed in their own houses (Cic. Ad Alt. ii. 3), and hence the chamber which contained the bath , which is also the proper translation of the word balnearium. The diminutive balneolum is adopted by Seneca to designate the bathroom of Scipio, in the villa at Liternum, and is expressly used to characterise the modesty of republican manners as compared with the luxury of his own times. But when the baths of private individuals became more sumptuous, and comprised many rooms, instead of the one small chamber described by Seneca, the plural balnea or balinea was adopted, which still, in correct language, had reference only to the baths of private persons. Thus Cicero terms the baths at the villa of his brother Quintus balnearia. Balneae and balineae, which according to Varro have no singular number, were the public baths. But this accuracy of diction is neglected by many of the subsequent writers, and particularly by the poets, amongst whom balnea is not uncommonly used in the plural number to signify the public baths, since the word balneae could not be introduced in an hexameter verse. Pliny also, in the same sentence, makes use of the neuter plural balnea for public, and of balneum for a private bath.
Thermae (borrowing from the Greek adjective thermos, hot) meant properly warm springs, or baths of warm water; but came to be applied to those magnificent edifices which grew up under the empire, in place of the simple balneae of the republic, and which comprised within their range of buildings all the appurtenances belonging to the Greek gymnasia, as well as a regular establishment appropriated for bathing. Writers, however, use these terms without distinction. Thus the baths erected by Claudius Etruscus, the freedman of the Emperor Claudius, are styled by Statius balnea, and by Martial Etrusci thermulae. In an epigram by Martial — subice balneum thermis — the terms are not applied to the whole building, but to two different chambers in the same edifice.
Building layoutA public bath was built around three principal rooms: the caldarium (hot bath), the tepidarium (lukewarm bath) and the frigidarium (cold bath). Some thermae also featured steam baths: the sudatorium, a moist steam bath, and the laconicum, a dry steam bath much like a modern sauna.
By way of illustration, this article will describe the layout of the Old Baths adjoining the forum at Pompeii, which are among the best-preserved Roman baths. The references are to the floor plan pictured to the left.
The whole building comprises a double set of baths, one for men and the other for women. It has six different entrances from the street, one of which (b) gives admission to the smaller women's set only. Five other entrances lead to the male department, of which two (c and c2), communicate directly with the furnaces, and the other three (a3, a2, a) with the bathing apartments.
AtriumPassing through the principal entrance, a, which is removed from the street by a narrow footway surrounding the building and after descending three steps, the bather finds upon his left hand a small chamber (x) which contained a water closet (latrina), and proceeds into a covered portico (g, g), which ran round three sides of an open court (atrium, A). These together formed the vestibule of the baths (vestibulum balnearum), in which the servants waited.
This atrium was the exercise ground for the young men, or perhaps served as a promenade for visitors to the baths. Within this court the keeper of the baths (balneator), who exacted the quadrans paid by each visitor, was also stationed. The room f, which runs back from the portico, might have been appropriated to him; but most probably it was an oecus or exedra, for the convenience of the better classes while awaiting the return of their acquaintances from the interior. In this court, advertisements for the theatre, or other announcements of general interest, were posted up, one of which, announcing a gladiatorial show, still remains. At the sides of the entrance were stone seats (scholae).
Apodyterium and frigidariumA passage (e) leads into the apodyterium (B), a room for undressing in which all visitors must have met before entering the baths proper. Here, the bathers removed their clothing, which was taken in charge by slaves known as capsarii, notorious in ancient times for their dishonesty. The apodyterium was a spacious chamber, with stone seats along two sides of the wall (h, h). Holes are still visible on the walls, and probably mark the places where the pegs for the bathers' clothes were set. The chamber was lighted by a glass window, and had six doors. One of these led to the tepidarium (D) and another to the frigidarium (C), with its cold plunge-bath (referred to as loutron, natatio, natatorium, piscina, baptisterium or puteus). The bath in this chamber is of white marble, approached by two marble steps.
TepidariumFrom the frigidarium the bather who wished to go through the warm bath and sweating process entered the tepidarium (D). It did not contain water either at Pompeii or at the baths of Hippias, but was merely heated with warm air of an agreeable temperature, in order to prepare the body for the great heat of the vapour and warm baths, and, upon returning, to prevent a too-sudden transition to the open air. In the baths at Pompeii this chamber also served as an apodyterium for those who took the warm bath. The walls feature a number of separate compartments or recesses for receiving the garments when taken off. The compartments are divided from each other by figures of the kind called Atlantes or Telamones, which project from the walls and support a rich cornice above them.
Three bronze benches were also found in the room, which was heated as well by its contignity to the hypocaust of the adjoining chamber, as by a brazier of bronze (foculus), in which the charcoal ashes were still remaining when the excavation was made. Sitting and perspiring beside such a brazier was called ad flammam sudare.
The tepidarium is generally the most highly ornamented room in baths. It was merely a room to sit in and be anointed in. In the Old Baths at Pompeii the floor is mosaic, the arched ceiling adorned with stucco and painting on a coloured ground, the walls red.
Anointing was performed by slaves called unctores and aliptae. It sometimes took place before going to the hot bath, and sometimes after the cold bath, before putting on the clothes, in order to check the perspiration. Some baths had a special room (destrictarium or unctorium) for this purpose.
CaldariumFrom the tepidarium a door opened into the caldarium (E), whose mosaic floor was directly above the furnace or hypocaust. Its walls also were hollow, forming a great flue filled with heated air. At one end was a round basin (labrum), and at the other a quadrangular bathingplace (puelos, alveus, solium, calida piscina), approached from the platform (schola) by steps. The labrum held cold water, for pouring upon the bather's head before he left the room. These basins are of marble in the Old Baths, but we hear of alvei of solid silver. Because of the great heat of the room, the caldarium was but slightly ornamented.
LaconicumThe Old Baths have no laconicum, which was a chamber still hotter than the caldarium, and used simply as a sweating-room, having no bath. It was said to have been introduced at Rome by Agrippa and was also called sudatorium and assa.
Service areasThe apodyterium has a passage (q) communicating with the mouth of the furnace (r), called praefurnium or propigneum; and, passing down that passage, we reach the chamber M, into which the praefurnium projects, and which is entered from the street at c. It was assigned to the fornacatores, or persons in charge of the fires. Of its two staircases, one leads to the roof of the baths, and one to the boilers containing the water.
There were three boilers, one of which (caldarium vas) held the hot water; a second, the tepid (tepidarium); and the third, the cold (frigidarium). The warm water was turned into the warm bath by a pipe through the wall, marked on the plan. Underneath the hot chamber was set the circular furnace d, of more than 7 ft. in diameter, which heated the water and poured hot air into the hollow cells of the hypocaustum. It passed from the furnace under the first and last of the caldrons by two flues, which are marked on the plan. The boiler containing hot water was placed immediately over the furnace; and, as the water was drawn out from there, it was supplied from the next, the tepidarium, which was raised a little higher and stood a little way off from the furnace. It was already considerably heated from its contiguity to the furnace and the hypocaust below it, so that it supplied the deficiency of the former without materially diminishing its temperature; and the vacuum in this last was again filled up from the farthest removed, which contained the cold water received directly from the square reservoir seen behind them. The boilers themselves no longer remain, but the impressions which they have left in the mortar in which they were imbedded are clearly visible, and enable us to determine their respective positions and dimensions. Such coppers or boilers appear to have been called miliaria, from their similarity of shape to a milestone.
Behind the boilers, another corridor leads into the court or atrium (K) appropriated to the servants of the bath.
Women's bathThe adjoining, smaller set of baths were assigned to the women. The entrance is by the door b, which conducts into a small vestibule (m) and from there into the apodyterium (H), which, like the one in the men's bath, has a seat (pulvinus, gradus) on either side built up against the wall. This opens upon a cold bath (J), answering to the natatio of the men's set, but of much smaller dimensions. There are four steps on the inside to descend into it.
Opposite to the door of entrance into the apodyterium is another doorway which leads to the tepidarium (G), which also communicates with the thermal chamber (F), on one side of which is a warm bath in a square recess, and at the farther extremity the labrum. The floor of this chamber is suspended, and its walls perforated for flues, like the corresponding one in the men's baths. The tepidarium in the women's baths had no brazier, but it had a hanging or suspended floor.
PurposeThe baths often included, aside from the three main rooms listed above, a palaestra, or outdoor gymnasium where men would engage in various ball games and exercises. There, among other things, weights were lifted and the discus thrown. Men would oil themselves (as soap was still a luxury good and thus not widely available), shower, and remove the excess with a strigil (cf. the well known Apoxyomenus of Lysippus from the Vatican Museum). Often wealthy bathers would bring a capsarius, a slave that carried his master's towels, oils, and strigils to the baths and then watched over them once in the baths, as thieves and pickpockets were known to frequent the baths.
The changing room was known as the apodyterium (Greek apodyterion, apo + duo "to take off" here of clothing).
Cultural significanceThe baths were an important place in the lives of Romans. Built as public monuments, they were used by everyone, whether rich or poor, free or slave. A person could eat, exercise, read, drink, shop, socialize, and discuss politics. The modern equivalent would be a combination of a library, art gallery, mall, bar/restaurant, gym, and spa.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/lostempires/roman/
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." http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/lostempires/roman/day.html
Emperors often built baths to gain favor for themselves and to create a lasting monument of their generosity. If a rich Roman wished to gain the favor of the people, he might arrange for a free admission day in his name. For example, a senator hoping to become a Tribune might pay all admission fees at a particular bath on his birthday to become well known to the people of the area.
LocationBaths sprung up all over the empire. Where natural hot springs existed (as in Bath, England, and Băile Herculane) thermae were built around them. Alternatively a system of hypocausta (Greek hypocauston < hypo "below" + kaio "to burn") were utilized to heat the waters heated by a furnace (praefurnium).
Remains of Roman public bathsA number of Roman public baths survive, either as ruins or in varying degrees of conservation. Among the more notable are the Roman baths of Bath in England as well as the Baths of Caracalla, of Diocletian, of Titus, of Trajan in Rome and the baths of Varnahttp://www.ancient-bulgaria.com/2008/05/09/the-roman-thermae-in-varna/.
- William Smith Roman Baths (Balneae) from "A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities", pub. John Murray, London, 1875.
- ThermeMuseum (Museum of the Thermae) in Heerlen
- Traianus - Technical investigation of Roman public works
- Roman Bath: a day at the baths An interactive site using the Baths of Caracalla as an example
- Barbara F. McManus Roman baths and bathing
- 3d reconstruction of a roman baths Limes in Austria
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