Communal baths in Ancient Rome were a matter more of economics than social relationships. Most households could not afford their own private bathing areas, so these bathhouses became a staple of cities, towns and military forts. Over time, the social element began to take a much firmer hold as the bathhouses became a place to talk about business or politics, as well as a place for general gossiping.
The first bathhouses built during the Roman Republic tended to be smaller and cozier. Communal bathing houses began to expand in size and complexity during the Empire. Many times, a bathhouse was financed by the emperor. When this was not the case, it was financed by a wealthy citizen.
Men and women did not bathe together. Either there were different times set aside for members of each sex to visit the bathhouse, or there were separate facilities for each sex within a single building.
Typical Male Bathing
The average workday of a Roman male ended in the early afternoon. Traditionally, Roman males went straight from their workplaces to the baths to relax until the sun set.
Exercise Before Bathing
Very few Roman citizens went directly from the outside into the waters of the bathhouse. The more likely scenario involved exercise of some sort to work up a sweat before heading into the waters. Men would often wrestle or lift weights, while woman often played a came called trochus before bathing. This was a game in which a metal hoop was rolled along by a stock with a hook on the end.
A room called the tepidarium was usually the first stop of visitors to the bathhouse. The water was lukewarm and it was used by the bathers to become more relaxed. The next step would be to visit the caldarium, which featured not only hotter water, but oils to be applied to the body. The oils were used for cleansing in place of soap, which was unknown to the Romans. This process was followed by a visit to the frigidarium, which featured cold water. The final step before leaving the bathhouse would usually involved either a massage for men or some kind of beauty treatment for women.
Heating the water in the caldarium was accomplished using a process known as hypocaust. This heating system allowed different chambers of the bathhouse to be heated simultaneously. Hypocaust involved using an underground furnace with a flame kept burning by slaves. The hot air created by the furnace would circulate beneath the floor of the bathhouse, which was raised on pillars. Circulated hot air would be enough to warm the floor to the point where sometimes it was necessary to wear wooden soles to avoid having your feet burned.
- Historyonthenet.com: The Romans Bath House
- "Ancient Rome: From the Republic to the Empire;" Duncan Hill; 2007
- Photo Credit Davis McCardle/Digital Vision/Getty Images
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