‘Bathing occupied a central position in the social life of the day.’ To what extent does the available evidence support this claim about the Roman baths?
Several aspects of the question need to be addressed. ‘Bathing’ could simply mean the physical process of taking a bath, but for the purpose of this essay I will look at the relationship between this and all the other possible activities that may have been undertaken at the baths. The term ‘day’ could be interpreted as the time period of imperial Rome rather a specific day of the week but I will also investigate the frequency and timing of bathing during the average Roman ‘day’ to see if it was indeed a ‘central’ or regular feature of or whether it was of minor or infrequent importance. I will use a wide definition of the term ‘social life’ as this might include activities that allowed interaction between Romans but it might also require an emphasis on social class and the extent to which different groups in society were represented in bathing, and the extent to which it reflected, reinforced or challenged the social order of ancient Rome.
If we first consider ‘bathing,’ in its most literal sense, some of the evidence points to an activity that was more concerned with personal hygiene than with socialising. Almost all the surviving examples of baths such as the baths of Caracalla (DVD 4 Section 3, Track 1)) and those at Aquae Sullis (www.romanbaths.co.uk) contain the sequence of rooms -tepidarium, caldarium, frigidarium -necessary for the individual to open the pores, build up a sweat and refresh in cold water. The literary sources also indicate that the baths were used to preserve individual health and sharpen intellect. (Pliny, Letters, 2.8, 3.5) This is backed up by the statues of Asclepius and Hygieia that were clearly found in some baths (Lucian, Hippias or the Bath, 5) The fact that wealthy citizens attended the baths with a personal retinue of attendants to care for their bodily needs such as massage, hair removal and manicure, indicates that ‘bathing’ could be a highly personal experience. (Seneca , Letters from a Stoic, Letter 56)
However the archaeological evidence suggests that bathing itself was a chance to socialise with other Romans. For example, the large swimming pools in the public thermae of Caracalla (DVD4, Section3, Track 1)) and Aquae Sullis (www.romanbaths.co.uk), suggest that part of the bathing process involved interaction with large groups of bathers in a social space. Also the benches around the walls of the rooms such as those at the Stabian baths in Pompeii, would suggest an amount of interaction. (Block 4, p.106)) Unfortunately the archaeological record does not allow us to determine exactly how much people interacted with one other duringthe bathing process, and although many of the literary sources mention interaction between individuals whilst bathing, this is often done for comic effect. (Martianl Epigrams, 1.23, 7.76) The evidence also contradicts itself as some of the literary sources indicate that bathers were particular about bathing with each other and sometimes shunned interaction. (Martial, Epigrams, 6.81, 2.70) This evidence may however be poking fun at anti-social members of the elite who believed they were above mixing with the public.
It would appear however that many social activities other than simply bathing took place at the baths. Evidence from the baths of Caracalla for example indicates two large palaestra which were almost certainly used for exercising. (Illustrations Book, plate 48) This becomes clear in the literary accounts which mention sports such as ball games, weights and wrestling in public and private baths.(Seneca , Letters from a Stoic, Letter 56, Pliny, Letters 2.17) However if we are to believe the satires exercise was a chance to show off and display ones social status rather than genuinely work out (Petronius, Satyricon 27) Pliny on the other hand seems to exercise more seriously as part of his daily bathing routine (Pliny, Letters 9.36) but his evidence is just as questionable for this is part of his summer holiday routine in Tuscany and reflects the views of a serious minded semi-retired member of the Roman elite. It is difficult to determine the exact nature and typicality of exercise at the baths therefore.
There is evidence that the baths might be a place to meet prostitutes and to have sexual encounters. Martial associates bathing with sex on many occasions (Martial Epigrams, 1.62, 7.82, 1.96) but the nature of his writing makes it difficult to tell whether this involved prostitution, casual sex or is simply his use of innuendo to create scurrilous gossip about the Roman elite. Much archaeological evidence appears however to suggest that sex and indeed prostitution did take place in the baths, for example the graffito from the Suburban baths in Herculaneum. (Readings Book 2, 4.28) These examples also seem to indicate that sex acts were reserved for particular rooms in the baths which may have served as brothels. (Readings Book 2, 4.28) However the archaeological evidence does not allow us to determine how typical this practice was.
The literary evidence suggests that Romans would also eat and drink, sometimes extensively, at the baths (Seneca , Letters from a Stoic, Letter 56, Martail, Epigrams, 12.19, 12.70) These sources might be questionable as they were both created for comic effect or to make a philosophical point, however the archaeological evidence for food and drink from sites such as Caerleon and the graffito price list from the Suburban baths in Herculaneum adds support for the claim . (Reading s Book 2, 4.28) Of course eating does not necessarily involve social interaction and there are suggestions that the food available was of the snack variety (Seneca , Letters from a Stoic, Letter 56) and may have been purchased on the way to or from the baths.(Reading s Book 2, 4.28) It cannot be stated with certainty that eating was part of a social activity at the baths.
Roman public baths also perhaps served as a place where business meetings could take place, where clients and patrons could meet, and where people could seek to network and meet dinner guests (Martial, Epigrams 7.76) Although much of Martial’s evidence seeks to criticise the vanity of these activities and therefore perhaps exaggerates their prevalence, the existence of colonnade structures does almost suggest that the baths mirrored the social function of the Roman fora. (Illustrations Book, plates 47-48) More intellectual social activities such as poetry reading and lectures are also attested to in the baths although it is difficult to determine typicality, (Horace Satires, 1.4.74, Martial, Epigrams 3.44.12, Vitruvius, De Arch, 9.11) and the remains of the baths of Trajan and Caracalla indicate library rooms, although this cannot be proved without question. (Readings Book 2, 4.25)
The baths had a wider social function. They helped to reinforce and strengthen the Roman social order. There is no doubt that baths such as those of Caracalla and Diocletian were built to reflect and reinforce imperial power by constantly reminding visitors of the greatness and benevolence of the ruling emperor. This is indicated by the sheer scale and opulence of bathing complexes such as those of Nero, Trajan and Caracalla. The Roman elite also sought to build baths that served a similar function. For example we see Pliny providing for the construction of public baths (Inscription CIL V 5262) and Hippias constructing fabulous baths for the populace (Lucian, Hippias or the Bath 5-8) The evidence does not however allow us to see how the ordinary Roman population reacted to this display of social benevolence.
Town Communities were also encouraged to fund bathing complexes themselves and so it is clear that baths could serve to reflect civic pride and that they could be part of the encouragement of Romanization in the provinces. (Pliny, letters, 10.39) The proliferation of public bath houses in towns that were in conquered territories such as Aquae Sullis and Lugdunum supports this view.
The extent to which attendance at the baths represented the diversity of Roman society is another key question. From Vitruvius it would appear that there were separate public bathing establishments for men and women. (Vitruvius, On baths, 5.10) However we must be clear that he was a renowned architect who was writing an ideal model for the building of major public baths. This may be an ideal that was not kept to by many lesser architects especially in smaller or private bathing establishments. The satires tend to indicate that men and women could bathe together but they often associate this with innuendo. (Martial, Epigrams 3.51, 11.75) This may indicate that only women of immoral persuasion might engage in mixed bathing, but we have to be careful with this evidence. We must also allow for changes in custom over time. Vitruvius was writing in the early Imperial period whilst Martial was writing towards the end of the first century at a time when most public thermae were being built without separate areas for men and women. (Readings Book 2, 4.28) The fact that many emperors from Hadrian onwards banned mixed bathing does suggest that it was a practice that was frowned on and that women of respectable nature were expected to bathe in a separate place or at a different time. On the other hand, Clement of Alexandria mentions that it was possible to meet noble ladies in the baths. (Readings book 2, 4.28) So the literary evidence is contradictory and the archaeological evidence cannot allow us to see whether women and men used the baths at different times.
Equally difficult is the issue of which social classes used the baths. The literary evidence suggests that members of the social elite such as Pliny frequented the baths but Pliny seems to prefer bathing privately in his villa, although he does mention that he would sometimes use the public baths in a nearby town. (Pliny letters 2.17) Seneca appears to view the public baths as noisy and uncouth (Seneca, Letters of a Stoic, Letter 56) and advises that it is best to avoid a large crowd. (Letter 7) This may suggest that for high ranking elites it was not desirable to attend the public baths. On the other hand this may reflect the particularly conservative views of Pliny and Seneca. In fact the very highest of the elite-the emperors – were sometimes said to frequent the public baths (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Titus, 8.2) although once again this source is characterised by salacious gossip. Some of the sources seem to show disdain for public bathing and indicate that it was an activity undertaken by commoners (Martial, Epigrams 5.20, 6.81) It is simply very difficult to find a clear picture. Evidence such as the graffito from the baths at Herculaneum would seem to show ordinary Roman citizens making use of the public baths, (Readings Book 2, 4.28) and inscriptions show that freedmen and women frequented them. (CIL VI 15258) but again there is no way of telling how widespread bathing was amongst each class. It is possible that the very lowest degree of plebes could not attend the baths because they could not afford the entrance fee. Evidence from inscriptions shows that some baths allowed free entry (ILS 5672 and 573) but this may well have been an occasional gift provided by a particularly generous benefactor. It is equally difficult to tell whether slaves were allowed to bathe. There is plenty of evidence of slave attendants at the baths (Martial, Epigrams, 12.70, Petronius, Satyricon, 27-28) but although Martial hints that slaves sometimes bathed with their masters (Epigram, 11.75) and there are definite examples of slaves being allowed to use public baths ((ILS 5672 and 573)it is impossible to determine how widespread the custom was and the archaeological evidence is unhelpful in this respect.
Finally the importance and centrality of Roman bathing in the daily routine must also be considered. Pliny clearly suggests that bathing was part of his daily routine (Pliny, letters 9.36) but this is only when he is on holiday in Tuscany, so we do not know if this would be typical of city life. Also Pliny was a particularly fastidious individual so his routine may be atypical. Martial seems to indicate that relaxation should take place in the sixth or seventh hour of every day but he does not specifically mention bathing here. (Martial, Epigrams 4.8) Inscriptions indicate that bathing was part of the ‘essence’ of life,’ but again this is not specific. (CIL VI 15258) Sources do indicate that bathers habitually bathed with their dinner guests for the evening ahead (Martial , Epigrams 4.8, Petronius, Satyricon, 28). Bathing after dinner was not recommended (Petronius, Satyricon 72) but It is simply impossible to tell whether bathing was practised every day by most Romans or infrequently and how far this depended on wealth and status. The evidence does indicate however that bathing was a highly valued experience by many people who experienced it. (CIL VI 15258).
Bathing was clearly a major part of social life for many Romans in the Imperial period, but the evidence does not allow us to prove that it was a part of the daily routine or the social life of all.