Tuesday, August 29, 2006

BENE LAVE! Bathe well! : The Roman Bathhouse

Amy Olson
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

In Ancient Rome, the work day began slightly before sunrise, meaning that it ended around midday. Roman men would retire from a hard day’s labor into one of the many public bathhouses around the city, for two or three hours of gambling and games, massage, physical exercise, and of course, bathing. The largest bathhouses were fully equipped with cafes, rooms for conducting business, various shops, impressive works of art, and even libraries, making them excellent settings for relaxation and entertainment. The baths provided a pleasant transition from toil to leisure every day (Dupont, 263).

Roman Bathhouses varied greatly in size and elaborateness. As early as the 5th century BC, bathing was used as a healing measure. A wide array of maladies was merited internal and external prescriptions of water. For example, a doctor would have recommended spa therapy for any of the following ailments: chest or back pains, pneumonia, respiratory problems, fatigue, arthritis, headache, gout, stomach disorders, skin diseases, and even constipation, urinary tract, and menstruation problems (Porter, 4). As the Roman Empire expanded, bathing only continued to become more popular. The first Roman bathhouses built for recreation reasons (as opposed to being intended for religious or medicinal purposes) appeared in the early on in the history of the empire, during approximately the 2nd Century BC. These bathhouses were small and modestly decorated, used no more than a few times a week (Nardo, 66).

By the 2nd century AD, public bathhouses (referred to as balnea) were becoming popular (Stambaugh, 202). At first, they were very similar to private bathhouses, in that they were owned by rich nobles who charged an entrance fee to any who wished to use the facilities. These earlier buildings usually had two separate sets of baths, one for women and one for men. Soon, however, this trend disappeared and instead, men and women were assigned different hours of the day for bathing (Meiggs, 406). Women had access to the facilities during the morning hours, while men had much longer and much more preferable hours, from early afternoon until closing. Building bathhouses became a public way for rulers to acknowledge that they cared about the health and happiness of the populous. More elaborate baths began to emerge all over Rome until eventually, Agrippa built the first thermae in 25 BC (Stambaugh, 203). Ten more of these huge edifices, too splendid to be referred to simply as balnea, were built in Rome before the collapse of the empire. Bathing became an extremely important daily ritual. Upon Nero’s death, the Roman writer Martial managed to sum up this sentiment very succinctly with the quote, “What was worst than Nero? What was better than Nero’s hot baths?” (Editors, 80).

It was not at all uncommon for the very rich to bathe with the very poor, since the entrance fee to public bathhouses was minimal enough that none were unable to afford it. Men paid approximately one half or one quarter of an as, which would be equivalent to a few cents today. Women paid twice as much, but this was still only a small amount. Children were admitted for free (Nardo, 66). Despite this commonality, there were strict rules against men and women bathing together. Several emperors made decrees forbidding mixed bathing, indicating that it was, indeed a problem. Prostitution was fairly common among both men and women, as could be imagined considering the festive air of the baths and the lack of proper dress. It would not be too inaccurate to say that women were almost another type of sport offered at the bathhouses: men of all ranks, especially the wealthier ones, would pursue the favors of specific women who frequented the baths during the men’s hours (Hermansen, 158).

Nudity had an interesting equalizing effect in the bathhouses. Bathing in the nude was a Greek phenomenon, not a Roman one, but Romans shed enough of their customary wear when they entered the bathhouses that there was little left to denote class distinction. Rich costumes were temporarily cast aside. As a result, the common people walked among the prosperous. The wealthy were aware of this effect, and it was part of the reason why they came to bathe in public in the first place. After all, it was not uncommon for rich members of society to have private baths in their homes (James, 38). However, the public bathhouses were luring for other reasons: they were entertaining, raucous places, equally enjoyable for all classes of society. This does not mean that it was impossible to distinguish the rich from the poor. Even if his face wasn’t very recognizable, there were telltale signs of a wealth bather; those who were well off could afford to bring their own slaves instead of hiring them, brought with them finer quality towels, and other riches such as perfumes, oils, and tools (Dupont, 263).

When a visitor entered a typical Roman bathhouse, he or she would find themselves standing in the apodyterium, or dressing room. The walls of the room were lines with cubbies or shelves, giving bathers a place to leave their unnecessary garments. A slave stayed behind to guard these personal items, because although theft was frowned upon, it was not uncommon. Usually, before bathing, visitors would participate in games or other forms of light exercise in the palaestra, an outside courtyard usually lined with decorative columns and small shops. From the palaestra, they could enter the tepidarium, a room designed for lukewarm bathing. The tepidarium was connected to the caldarium, which was placed centrally and contained the hottest baths in the facility. The frigidarium was constructed for the opposite purpose; it held the coldest baths, and provided a refreshing, chilly dip. Many baths also contained a laconicum, a dry, hot room equivalent to today’s saunas (Stambaugh, 203).

The baths were incredibly expensive to build and maintain. When baths were first built by the Romans, they were small enough to be supplied by wells. However, by the time that royally-sponsored thermae were being built, it was necessary for them to get water straight from the nearest aqueducts (Meiggs, 132). The largest baths required their own aqueducts in order to function properly. The result was that more water per head was channeled into ancient Rome than is used in modern-day New York City (Snedden, 28). This was expensive enough, but bathhouses of any kind, especially the illustrious thermae, also had to be staffed by a large number of slaves and servants, which was costly as well. Not only did the water in the baths need to be constantly replaced and heated, but the facilities had to be cleaned, the furnaces had to be kept burning, and accoutrements such as furniture and bathing tools had to be kept in good condition. Some slaves had more visible jobs, such as selling food and bath supplies or plucking hair for visitors (Stambaugh, 205). On top of these tasks, there were always several slaves available that could be hired to guard personal belongings while their owners bathed. Finally, a lot of man labor went into the acquisition and transport of wood to fuel the fires. The wood itself was a struggle to acquire in such large quantities, and its transport was costly (Meiggs, 270). All of these expenses were covered by large donations from local noblemen who wished to earn the favor of the populous (Chrisp, 32).

The heating system invented for bathhouses was in itself a novelty. Commonly referred to as a hypocaust, it consisted of a large, central furnace underneath a raised floor, which blasted hot air into pipes built into the walls and floors of the bathhouse (Corbishley, 17). The results were heated walls, and floors so hot that visitors had to wear shoes to avoid burns (James, 38). Water for the baths was heated either in the hypocaust or in separate boiler rooms, and then brought into the rooms of the bathhouse by hand. In the most technologically advanced baths, hot water was channeled directly from the boiler rooms into the baths using gravity. The caldarium was situated directly above or very nearby to the furnace, making the room the hottest in the building. The other rooms were situation farther away, and, logically, the frigidarium was usually the farthest away of all. Maintenance of the hypocaust was incredibly dangerous. The job of keeping the fires lit and the pipes clean belonged to a large group of slaves, many of them children. In the ruins of several hypocausts, archaeologists have found the skeletons of children who perished on the job, as well as the bones of several domestic animals, such as dogs that were undoubtedly searching for warmth and became trapped (Meiggs, 410).

The floor of a Roman bathhouse removed (in Bath, England), in order to allow the viewer to see the raised floor of the hypocaust.

The skeleton of a dog found in a Roman bathhouse located in modern-day Germany

The Romans made use of many tools in the bathhouse to aid in getting themselves clean, especially since they were completely unaware of the existence of soap. The richest men brought slaves with them, who carried jars of precious massage oils, perfumes, grooming sets, towels, and bathing garments. One of the most well known tools used in the baths was called a strigil. At any point during, before, or after the bath, a slave would rub oil into the skin of the bather, and then scrape it away using the strigil, which was a simple curved tool made out of metal. This removed dirt from the skin, taking the place of soap (Corbishley, 16). Among the other tools found in excavations of bathhouses have been instruments for cleaning underneath the fingernails, flasks for carrying oil, tweezers, earwax scoops, and shallow pans (called patera) for ladling water onto the body (James, 39).

A pair of ancient strigils, attached to an oil flask

Two examples of beautiful mosaics found in Ostia Antica. Among the other artifacts that have been found in Roman baths are remnants of the art that once covered the walls and floors. Parts of statues, along with beautifully complex and colorful mosaics, have been unearthed in many facilities. Some of the mosaics are decorative, while others have helped us to piece together what types of activities were conducted at the baths: they depict several scenes such as people gambling, engaging in sporting events, or having business meetings. In addition, stone game pieces have been found, which also attest to the popularity of gambling (Corbishley, 17).

Ostia Antica is a rather forgotten town located on the western Italian coast. Today it is completely in ruins, but it was once the main sea port for all of Rome and the surrounding areas. Its magnificence is generally overshadowed by the immense popularity of the ruins at Pompeii. For this reason, visiting Ostia is an extremely pleasant experience; the ruins are bursting with history, there are no large crowds of tourists, and there is plenty to see.

Ruins at Ostia Antica

In the 2nd century BC, Ostia became Rome’s most important port city due to several factors. Firstly, Rome was in need of a port because the Tiber River was too unreliable to facilitate easy shipping. Jagged rocks in the riverbed were capable of gutting ships, in addition to the fact that the current was unreliable in some places. Ostia was a prime sight for a port city because it was located on the sea, precisely at the mouth of the river. Valuables could be unloaded in Ostia, and then put onto barges and dragged up the river, or brought by land to Rome. Claudius was the first emperor to build an impressive harbor at Ostia, but the city did not truly begin to flourish until the emperor Trajan had the port rebuilt, during the 2nd Century AD. The city flourished in its new role as Rome’s link to the sea, and took on a decidedly busy, commerce-filled ambiance. Roman institutions such as forums, bathhouses, temples, and various types of housing began to spring up around the city, as traders and other businessmen began to settle into the area. At its peak, the population reached 60,000 people. However, over time the port silted up and went into disuse. The city became a more relaxed quarter, where the wealthy came to escape from the city and spend a few days on the beach. Eventually, though, even these people were chased out by an increase in malaria and by the oppressive summer heat. Today, Ostia Antica is still well preserved in some spots (Stambaugh, 268-274).

Ostia is home to approximately 14 baths, a large quantity, even though this is a humble number in comparison to the hundreds that existed in Rome. Likewise, the biggest baths in Ostia did not reach the same levels of extravagance as the thermae in Rome, but some Ostian baths, notably the Forum Baths and the Baths of Neptune, were still quite elaborate. The Forum Baths are a particularly excellent archaeological demonstration of a Roman bath. They were built in the age of Antoninus and have some unusual physical features, partially due to the international atmosphere of the town and the influences it had on the contruction of the baths (Meiggs, 411-414).

I was particularly interested in the curious shapes of the rooms in the Forum baths, because after doing my preliminary research, I was still puzzled by the function of many. Researching further, I discovered that archaeologists are in the same position. The use of several rooms in the baths are debatable. The following floor plan of the Forum Baths in Ostia will clarify my meaning:

The Frigidarium and Caldarium—rooms 1 and 5, respectively—underwent reconstruction during the 4th Century, resulting in the apses now found in their walls (Meiggs, 146).

Room number one is the Frigidarium, with a dressing room on either side (apodyterium). Moving westward, we see that the tepidaria are both labeled as number four and that the caldarium is marked as number five. These rooms were equipped with heated walls and floors, as was typical. To the eastern side of the caldarium, there were boiler rooms in which water was heated and then brought to the baths. The roughly triangular palaestra is located behind these rooms, and contains a small temple, labeled as number six. Lining the palaestra are a series of columns, which are deliberately constructed out of contrasting types of granite. This was an intentional choice of the architect; the foreign materials match the flavor of the town. Shops would have lined the edges of the palaestra. Finally, on the Cardo Maximus, we see a set of latrines, tagged as number seven. These rooms are all fairly typical, but rooms two and three have more disputable uses. Room number two has a very interesting octagonal shape, and was most likely used as a sunbathing room (called a heliocaminos), as is evidenced by its very large windows and lack of heated walls. Tans were considered a stylish possession at the time (Dupont, 264). The windows were almost certainly kept open. The elliptical room stamped as number 3 was probably a sudatorium, or in other words, a sweating room. It was the hottest room in the building, with heated floors, walls, and vaults, plus being optimally located to receive direct sunlight, from the windows in its southern wall. The room contains stone seating, which runs around the chamber’s entire perimeter, and would have allowed the bathers to sit while they perspired (Meiggs, 413-414).

Hypocaust pipes (made out of terra cotta) in the walls of the first tepidarium at the Forum Baths

The ruins of the Forum Baths are situated fairly high above sea level which means that they have been looted by everyone who passed through the city between now and the time Ostia was abandoned. Therefore, very few artifacts have been found in this specific set of baths. However, the Forum Baths were once beautifully decorated and very grandiose, by Ostian standards. Sculptures, paintings, and mosaics would have adorned the floors and walls, making the building a handsome place to retire after a difficult and monotonous day of work. It is also appropriate to remember that Ostia was a major port town—the architecture of and the d├ęcor in the baths would have been slightly unorthodox, because the work was done by members of the diverse populous that had traveled from abroad and settled in Ostia (Ibid, 415). Today, we still care about Ostia because it is such poignant evidence of how the Romans lived and spent their time on a daily basis. Like many other ancient sights in Rome, there is still more to be excavated at Ostia. Perhaps the city still holds secrets, which will continue to draw our attention for years upon years to come.

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