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Thermae, the Roman Baths

Updated on August 11, 2017
Hypocaust
Hypocaust | Source

Roman baths were the essential part of life in Ancient Rome. People came there not only to wash themselves, but also to talk, to gossip, to know the news, and to just relax in a company of other people. Although, aside of that, there are many details people do not know, or forget about the Roman thermae (which is what they were called in those days.)

Heating system

It would usually take several days to heat up the thermae (unless it had a hot thermal spring nearby to draw water from), so the fire in the furnace was kept constantly burning, for the baths were always in use. This was done with a hypocaust, said to have been invented by the Roman engineer Sergius Orata. The hypocaust was an empty space that existed under the floor of certain rooms in the baths, filled with pillars to hold up the floor while a furnace burned in a nearby area and let the hot air flow into it. There were hollowed out tubes in the walls to not only draw away the smoke, but to allow the hot air to heat the walls as well as the floor. Usually the water supply—the one that needed heating anyway—was also close to the furnace before being distributed to the hot baths.

Baths of Caracalla
Baths of Caracalla | Source

Medical use

The thermae were not only a center of social life, but also a great place of medical use. It is known that if you were in pain, the ancient Roman physicians would first ask you if you have visited the baths that day, and if not, they would immediately send you to one. The thermae were considered a cure for many problems, from headache to some gynecological problems, and naturally, the perfect way to relieve stress or backache. But hot water was not the only thing useful for Roman medicine in thermae. The poor citizens who did not have a servant to scrub their back used the thermae walls to rub their back against them--the result was the thick layer of old skin and dirt over the walls, which the physicians later scrubbed off to make the ointments out of it.

Strigils
Strigils | Source

Bathing procedure and tools

The regular roman would usually take a servant or two with them, to help them scrub themselves, using a tool named strigil, which often was carried along with the little flask of oil to help it to remove the dirt. A strigil resembles a hook in shape, although it was flat to allow the user to scrape oil off the skin, much like how a squeegee is used to scrape water off of windows. They would also have a towel with them, as the bath didn’t hand out towels to use. In case if a person didn’t have a servant with them, he could pay to one of the bath servants to take care of his or her things and to watch over their clothes so no one would steal them, or to rub their back. Men and women bathed separately, and the women’s baths were usually smaller. A regular Roman citizen would usually spend an afternoon bathing, then they would go back to their work or the household.

Palaestra in the Great Baths, located in Tunisia
Palaestra in the Great Baths, located in Tunisia | Source

The rooms of baths

Each bathhouse had a palaestra (the equivalent of a modern day gym), tepidarium, caldarium, and frigidarium, all of which were the most important components of the bathhouse. There were other rooms for toilets and changing clothes as well as storing them, along with entertainment areas, but these were not part of the bathing ritual.

The palaestra was the first room the visitors of the baths saw after they came in. Often an open-air courtyard where men and women alike would exercise, playing sports and lifting weights and jogging to work up a light sweat, this was a main area for socializing in the baths as groups of people would often come together to talk and play. There was nothing competitive about the games, it was for fun and health, as Roman doctors believed that daily exercise was essential for good health—much like modern doctors. Combined with the belief that bathing and massages and a good diet were all other components to live a healthy lifestyle it is not surprise that all could be found in the baths.

Bronze brazier in the tepidarium, Pompeii
Bronze brazier in the tepidarium, Pompeii | Source
The caldarium in bath ruins
The caldarium in bath ruins | Source

Once out of the palaestra, having exercised enough, the tepidarium was the next stop. This is where Romans cleaned themselves using oil and a strigil, and was also the warm transitioning room between the hot and cold baths, so that the body would have time to adjust between the sudden dramatic temperature changes. It was often a very large room and richly decorated in mosaics and marble, as it was where everyone spent most of their time. Warm floors and walls were its key feature thanks to the hypocausts underneath it, along with places to rest while bathers were massaged or cleaned by a servant. Sometimes they even had their hair plucked as well. A person often brought one of their servants with them to clean them, rather than doing it themselves, as that was seen as a mark of poverty among Romans. People here often talked and made other sorts of conversation while they were cleaned before heading off to the caldarium.

The hot baths were the hottest rooms in the thermae, so hot that someone needed sandals with wooden soles in order to walk on the floor. It was also where the briefest time was spent, with a small pool in the room using for a quick dip in order to cleanse the body with hot water after all of the scrubbing from the tepidarium. There were also pans that could be used to pour cooler water over the head in order to refresh the body after the hot dip.

Frigidarium pool in the bath house at Miletus
Frigidarium pool in the bath house at Miletus | Source

After that it was a trip to the frigidarium—through the tepidarium first, though—the cold baths. The inside could vary between something as small as shallow pool of water or as large as a swimming pool, but either way it was used to refresh and close the pores that had been opened by the hot temperatures of the previous rooms. Sometimes visitors relaxed in here and swam if the pool was large enough before heading out to the other areas of the thermae. This was the last room they visited while they were still washing themselves.

Though, the thermae complex was not only baths, but libraries, poetry reading rooms, little food and drinks bars, and exercise rooms. The food was usually little snacks, because bathing usually took place before cena, the main meal of the day, so too much food wouldn’t be necessary.

Baths in Khenchela
Baths in Khenchela | Source

Thermae still in use modern days

While the most of the ancient Roman thermae houses are ruined these days, there are still some buildings which can make you understand what they looked like and what it was like to be there. The best example of ancient Roman thermae still being in use during the modern day is the bath’s ruins in Khenchela, Algeria. There, the baths built by Romans 2,000 years ago are still in use, and even more, they are as much of a center of social life as they were during the Roman Empire. It is unknown if the water quality is good for bathing there, but the locals enjoy it greatly.

Bath, England
Bath, England | Source

The other amazing example of what the ancient people experienced visiting their bathhouses can be found in the city of Bath, England. You will not be allowed to take a bath there, for the quality of water is below the modern standards, and the pipes are made of lead which is poisonous to the body. However the architecture is so well-preserved that you will have the impression you have actually visited the Roman thermae. They even organize weddings there, so in case if you are very fond of Roman baths, you can think of having one.

Antique pool in Turkey
Antique pool in Turkey | Source
Baths in Pompeii
Baths in Pompeii | Source

The thermal pools located near the ruins of the ancient city of Hierapolis (near modern Pamukkale) in Turkey used to be a very popular spa center during Roman times, and many wealthy people came there to find a cure for diseases they had. These days some pools of Hierapolis are still in use and you can swim there, touching the ancient Roman ruins and the columns lying in the water. The city became a great touristic attraction and a wonderful entertainment for those who love the ancient Rome.

The city of Pompeii also has some very well-preserved bathhouses ruins, naturally, so if you go there, don’t miss the opportunity to see them.

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    • Linnea Lewis profile imageAUTHOR

      Linnea Lewis 

      2 years ago from South Carolina, USA

      Thank you very much! In the Roman world it really was more than just going to wash oneself, although the word "bath" diminishes the importance of it in the modern day. I'm glad you liked it!

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 

      2 years ago from Australia

      An interesting article. The amount of effort and time involved implies it was much more than a cleansing ritual. Thanks for sharing

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