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Ancient Roman Baths

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire was the most powerful civilization on Earth, stretching from North Africa and Asia Minor across Europe to the British Isles. The Romans unified these diverse lands by military might, their unique culture and language, and, not least, their mastery of engineering.

Many of Rome's engineering secrets originated in one of its most important institutions: the Roman bath. A vital focus for leisure and social interaction, the public bathhouse incorporated intricate systems for plumbing and heating, sophisticated vaulted ceilings, and a revolutionary new building material we now call concrete. These buildings represented a new concept of luxury and sophistication in an age more often marked by violence and squalor. Indeed, the bathhouse was one of Rome's most effective tools for converting its conquered subjects to the Roman way of life. Supported by generous state subsidies, the bath functioned as pleasure palace, public health facility and community center in every town under Roman rule.

After a morning's work at the office or shop, most Roman's enjoyed spending the afternoon at the thermae or public bath. They were a social meeting place. Both men and women enjoyed coming to the baths not only to get clean but to meet with friends, exercise, or read at the library.

The baths had hot and cold pools, towels, steam rooms, saunas, exercise rooms, and hair cutting salons. They had reading rooms and libraries, as among the freeborn, who had the right to frequent baths, the majority could read.

Generally, Romans would first go to the unctuarium where they had oil rubbed onto their skin and would then exercise in one of the exercise yards. From here they would move to the tepidarium or warm room where they would lie around chatting with their friends. Next, it was on to the caldarium, similar to a Turkish bath, hot and steamy. Here they sat and perspired, scraping their skin with a strigil, a curved metal tool. Attendants would serve them snacks and drinks. Finally came a dip in the calidarium (hot bath) and a quick dip in the frigidarium (cold bath). After swimming, the bather might enjoy a massage where he might have oils and perfumes rubbed into his skin.

Feeling clean and relaxed, the Roman might drift through the beautiful gardens decorated with mosaics and colossal scruptures or enjoy athletic events in a theaterlike rotunda.

The largest of all Roman baths was the Diocletian, completed in A.D. 305 and covered an area of 130,000 sq. yards.

The Roman baths used the Hypocaust system for heating the building and the pools. This underfloor heating system had hot air heated from the basement fires flowing between the brick or concrete columns which support the ground floor. The the warm air flows through wall ducts into the rooms at the baths and quickly heats them. In some baths the floors would be so hot that the bathers would have to wear wooden sandels to stop their feet from being burnt. The fires in the basement were stocked by slaves of the baths.

The baths were generally crowded but the people loved them.

At one time, there were as many as 900 public baths in ancient Rome. Small ones held about 300 people, and the big ones held 1500 people or more! Some Roman hospitals even had their own bathhouses

The baths were not free and children were not permitted.

Baths of Caracalla

The Baths of Caracalla, or the Antoninian Baths, were begun by Septimius Severus in 206 and inaugurated in 217 by Caracalla. Sixteen hundred persons could bathe here at the same time. There were rooms for cold, hot and warm baths, splendid ceilings, porticoes, pillared halls, gymnasiums, where the rarest marbles, the most colossal columns, and the finest statues were admired by the people; even the baths were of basalt, granite, alabaster.

Baths of Trajan

Trajan Bath Plan

Surprisingly, despite the cultural and architectural importance of the Roman bath, many of its workings are still poorly understood. Just what recipe of sand, lime, water and rubble did the Roman builders use to make their watertight concrete? Perhaps the most intriguing feature is the hypocaust, or underfloor heating system. One of the Roman engineers' most revolutionary advances, it made possible a clean, dry, efficient form of heating without the problems of smoke and gas by-products.

A Day At The Baths

Roman Baths and Bathing

Hadrain's Baths

Roman Bath Resources

Copyright ©Lura Morgan Allen October 2002 All rights reserved