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Roman bathtimes

Dinah Starkey takes you behind the scenes to wash with the ancients

They ranged from the last word in luxury to the downright squalid. There were baths paneled with marble and set with glittering mosaics, and there were baths where fumes from the furnace overcame the bathers and toenail clippings floated in the murky water.

High and low, rich and poor all visited the baths. It was the Roman equivalent of a trip to the health club and combined a workout in the gym, beauty treatments, a chance to meet friends and do a bit of networking.

Women used them as well as men (though not necessarily at the same time).

The Roman day started early and most people finished work by noon. The main meal wasn't until late afternoon or early evening, so a long luxurious trip to the baths filled in the intervening period nicely. Two o'clock was the recommended starting time and prudent Romans knew better than to bathe on a full stomach; one unfortunate met a sudden end while entering the baths with a stomach full of half-digested peacock.

Everyone went to the baths. Friends greeted each other with the phrase bene lave (good washing) and in polite society it was common to inquire of a stranger which bathhouse he patronised. It was an important question because there were fashions in baths and once-popular establishments quickly fell out of favour if they did not install the latest sweat chamber or open-air pool.

Your friendly, neighbourhood bath

Every settlement had its public baths and they ranged from small neighbourhood bathhouses to splendid establishments floored with luxurious tessellated pavements and adorned with marble statues.

The Thermae of Caracalla boasted dozens of columns made from marble and imported stone. The floors and walls were covered with marble panelling in 10 different colours and the roof glittered with glass mosaic. There were niches for more than 100 statues, including a colossal figure of Hercules and capitals and friezes were lavishly gilded.

Through the palatial rooms of the thermae moved the most pampered of bathers, borne in litters and accompanied by vast retinues of slaves.

Richly jewelled and delicious smelling, they drank expensive wine from fine goblets and dried themselves on towels of the finest wool rather than the cheaper linen. It was a far cry from the cramped provincial bathhouses where the water was never changed from one year to the next and bathers crouched in dark, fume ridden chambers.


On their arrival bathers paid the entrance fee and went into the changing rooms. Thieves were always a problem and those Romans who could afford it brought a slave to guard their clothes or tipped the bathhouse attendant to perform the same service.

Cheapskates who lost their clothes could always swear a cur+se against the thief and, in the city of Bath, examples have been found written on lead tablets. "Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty (my) bathing cloak and tunic. Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrongI unless he reveals himself and brings the goods to your temple." Sometimes curses worked. A Turkish text tells of a thief impelled bythe gods to return a stolen cloak and admit to his crime.

The exercise room

The Romans did not use soap. They began bathing by rubbing perfumed olive oil into their skin and then proceeded to work up a sweat. The physician Galen recommended exercise with small balls as suitable for the less athletic. Keep-fit fanatics could warm up with weights or through running, wrestling or boxing.

Women worked out too and Juvenal disapprovingly described society ladies using dumbbells. Hoops and swimming, he suggests primly, would be a more suitable exercise for their sex and station.

From hot to cold

From the exercise room bathers could move through into the tepidarium (the warm room) and from there into the caldarium (the hot room). Many establishments also offered a laconicum - a room offering an intensely hot dry atmosphere like a sauna.

Meanwhile, a furnace roared night and day, driving hot air into the hypocaust, the system of pillars supporting the floor of the caldarium.

This was tended by slaves who fed it constantly with wood and charcoal, and even grass. They were forbidden to use darnel, a kind of weedy grass, because it gave off fumes that caused headaches and dizziness, but it was said that in Greek bathhouses the weed was used expressly to clear out unwanted crowds.

Toward the end of their visit bathers returned to the tepidarium for the serious business of getting clean. By now oil and sweat had loosened the dirt and it was possible to scrape it off with a sickle-shaped strigil.

Those who could afford it might treat themselves to a massage or a shave.

The first century writer Seneca lived over a bathhouse and described the deafening screech of the hair plucker as he touted for trade: "He only shuts up when he's plucking a customer's arm pits and can make someone else do the yelping for him."

The more luxurious bath suites included plunge pools and bathers might finish off their session with a refreshing plunge in the frigidarium (the cold room). Some, like the complex at Aquae Sulis in Bath, included a large pool where bathers could relax at the end of the session.

A social event

There were snacks for sale and at Caerleon the remains of glass plates, jugs and cups suggest that bathers refreshed themselves to some purpose. A price list from Herculaneum offers nuts, drinks, hog's fat, bread, cutlets and sausages.

But some would be saving their appetites because a visit to the baths was often the prelude to a supper party. Even then, fame had its price. The poet Martial was exasperated by a hanger-on who persisted in angling for an invitation. He was so determined to break into Martial's circle that, although he had finished his bath and was dry and changed, he returned to the exercise room in an attempt to push his way into a ball game with Martial and his friends.

Aquae Sulis

When the Romans discovered natural hot springs at Bath in Somerset, they took it for granted that the phenomenon was the work of the gods and that this was a sacred site. They named it Aquae Sulis in honour of the Celtic deity associated with the spot.

A temple was built there, dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva and a complex of baths grew up alongside it. But this was no common bathhouse. It was a religious site dedicated to healing and it attracted pilgrims from all over the Empire. Many threw jewels and coins into the sacred spring as thank offerings.

Others offered curses to the goddess and a fine crop have survived. Curses were traditionally inscribed on lead, probably because the metal was cheap, easily worked and associated with the sinister planet Saturn. The lead was hammered into very thin sheets, inscribed with the curse and then folded, or rolled up. In some cases a nail was driven through them in what seems to be a vindictive attempt to intensify the power of the curse. Most of the Bath tablets curse petty thieves who have stolen money or clothing. They include the names of suspects and suggested penalties. Throwing them into the sacred spring invoked the aid of the goddess who was seen as a kind of supernatural detective. The stolen goods were sometimes offered to her as a reward. "To Minerva the goddess Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood."

Pupil activities

* Write a piece of instructional text on how to use each room in the bathing complex.

* Give children a plan showing the typical layout of a bathing complex (see graphic above) and ask them to label each area and add information.

* Read Seneca's description (on page 21) of living above a bathhouse and write an eye-witness account of a visit to the baths.

* Solinus in the 3rd century ad wrote what amounted to an advert: "In Britain are hot springs adorned with sumptuous splendour for the use of mortals. Minerva is the patron goddess of these." Be inspired like Solinus and write a tourist brochure about the baths and the spring.

* Make a mosaic using coloured pencils or pieces of paper on squared paper.

Mosaics are a good focus for work on tessellation. Roman mosaics were often based on square grids. Or make a more complex mosaic with a scene in the middle and a decorative border (look at the bath decoration, right, and on previous pages). This could be for individual, small group or whole class work.

WebsitesRoman re-enactment site. A great resource for crafts and and well organised site offering maps, a time line and much morewww.thinkquest.orgHoards of unusual and original information www.vroma.orgbmcmanusromanpages.html


Here's how the Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca described the baths in about ad 55: "I live right over a public bath. Just imagine the noise. I hear the grunting when the body builders work out. When they let out their breath there's a whistling and wheezing at maximum pitch.

If I'm up against a lazy type, someone who settles for the cheap massages given here, I have to hear the crack of the hand as it hits the shoulders, one sound when it's the flat of the hand, another when it's the cupped hand. But if a ball-player arrives on the scene and begins to count shots, then I'm done for.

"Add the hard men looking for a fight, the thieves caught in the act and the people who like to sing in the bath-tub. Add the people who dive bomb into the pool with a deafening splash.

"On top of all these, don't forget the professional hair remover, forever forcing out that screech of his when he advertises his services. He only shuts up when he's plucking a customer's arm-pits and can make some one else do the yelping for him. Then there's the drink seller with his various cries, the sausage-seller, the cake-seller and all the managers of the restaurants, each hawking his wares with his own special call."

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