The Ancient Roman baths (thermae) were designed along a central axis: the caldarium or hot bath; a smaller area for the tepidarium or warm bath; the basilica, which held the frigidarium or cold bath; and the natatio, an open-air bathing pool. Symmetrically arranged on either side of the baths were rooms for changing, massage, depilation, and medicinal use. From the changing rooms (apodyteria), one would go to the gymnasia (palaestrae) to exercise and from there to a sauna (laconica) to induce an even greater sweat. Then the bather passed to the caldarium, after which he scraped his skin clean with a strigil, and to the tepidarium for a cooler bath and, finally, to the frigidarium for a bracing plunge in a cold bath.
Ancient Roman Baths - The Daily Bath
To the Roman of early times the bath had stood for health and decency only. He washed his arms and legs every day, for the ordinary costume left them exposed and he washed his body once a week. He bathed at home, using a primitive sort of wash-room which was situated near the kitchen in order that the water heated on the kitchen stove might be carried into it with the least inconvenience.
Roman Baths - The Public Baths
By the last century of the Republic the process of bathing at home changed. The bath had become a part of the daily life. It was taken, too, by preference, in one of the public bathing establishments which were by this time operated on a large scale in all parts of Rome, in the smaller towns of Italy, and even in the provinces. They were often built where hot or mineral springs were found. These public establishments offered all sorts of baths, plain, plunge, and with massage (Turkish). In many Roman Public baths features, borrowed from the Greek gymnasia, included exercise grounds, courts for various games, reading and conversation rooms, libraries, gymnastic apparatus, everything in fact that athletic clubs or modern gyms now provide for their members. The accessories had become really of more importance than the bathing itself and justify the description of the bath under the head of amusements. In places where there were no public baths, or where they were at an inconvenient distance, the wealthy fitted up bathing places in their houses, but no matter how elaborate they were, the private baths were merely a makeshift at best.
Ancient Roman Baths - The Public Baths There are ruins of the public and private baths found all over the Roman world. For the luxurious bath of ancient times several elements were thought necessary:
a warm anteroom
a hot bath
a cold bath
rubbing and anointing with oil
an exercise ground (palaestra) with a pool at one side (piscina) for a cold plunge
a room adjacent (destrictarium) in which the sweat and dirt of exercise were scraped off with the strigilis before and after the bath
To the simpler bathhouse of the earlier times as well as to the bath itself was given the name balneum (balineum). The more complex Roman public baths of later times were called balneae, and to the very largest, which had features derived from the Greek gymnasia, the name thermae was finally given.
Ancient Roman Baths - Rooms Required
All the facilities required might have been provided in one room as all but the last are furnished in every modern bathroom. However, in Ancient Rome at least three rooms set apart for the bath in very modest private houses. In the public establishments this number might be multiplied several times. In the more modest public baths space was saved by using one room for several purposes. In the better equipped baths the following rooms and facilities were provided:
a room for undressing and dressing (apodyterium), usually unheated, but furnished with benches and often with compartments for the clothes
the warm anteroom (tepidarium), in which the bather waited long enough for the perspiration to start, in order to guard against the danger of passing too suddenly into the high temperature of the next room (caldarium)
the hot room (caldarium) for the hot bath
the cold room (frigidarium) for the cold bath
the room for the rubbing and anointing with oil that finished the bath (unctorium), from which the bather returned into the apodyterium for his clothes.
Ancient Roman Baths - Heating the Baths Heating the Roman baths. The arrangement of the rooms, were they many or few, depended upon the method of heating. This in early times must have been by stoves placed in the rooms as needed, but by the end of the Republic the furnace had come into use, heating the rooms as well as the water with a single fire. The hot air from the furnace was not conducted into the rooms directly but was made to circulate under the floors and through spaces around the walls. The temperature of the room depending upon its proximity to the furnace. The laconicum (sauna), if there was one, was put directly over the furnace, next to it came the caldarium and then the tepidarium; the frigidarium and the apodyterium, having no need of heat, were at the greatest distance from the fire and without connection with it. If there should be two sets of baths in the same building, as there sometimes were for the accommodation of men and women at the same time, the two caldaria were put on opposite sides of the furnace. There were really two floors; the first was even with the top of the firepot, the second (suspensura) with the top of the furnace. Between them was a space of about two feet into which the hot air passed. On the top of the furnace, just above the level, therefore, of the second floor, were two kettles for heating the water. One was placed well back, where the fire was not so hot, and contained water that was kept merely warm; the other was placed directly over the fire and the water in it, received from the former, was easily kept intensely hot. Near them was a third kettle containing cold water. From these three kettles the water was piped as needed to the various rooms.
Ancient Roman Baths - Facts and Description of the Caldarium The Caldarium. The hot-water bath was taken in the caldarium (cella caldaria), which served also as a sweat bath when there was no laconicum. It was a rectangular room. In the public baths its length exceeded its width. One end was rounded off like a bay window. At the other end stood the large hot-water tank (alveus), in which the bath was taken by a number of persons at a time. The alveus was built up two steps from the floor of the room, its length equal to the width of the room and its breadth at the top not less than six feet. At the bottom it was not nearly so wide; the back sloped inward, so that the bathers could recline against it, and the front had a long broad step, for convenience of descent into it, upon which, too, the bathers sat. The water was received hot from the furnace, and was kept hot by a metal heater (testudo), which opened into the alveus and extended beneath the floor into the hot-air chamber. Near the top of the tank was an overflow pipe, and in the bottom was an escape pipe which allowed the water to be emptied on the floor of the caldarium, to be used for scrubbing it. In the apse-like end of the room was a tank or large basin of metal (labrum, solium), which seems to have contained cool water for the douche. In private baths the room was usually rectangular, and then the labrum was placed in a corner. For the accommodation of those using the room for the sweat bath only, there were benches along the wall. The air in the caldarium would be very moist, while that of the laconicum would be perfectly dry, so that the effect would not be precisely the same.
Ancient Roman Baths - Facts and Description of the Unctorium The final process, that of scraping, rubbing, and oiling, was exceedingly important. The bather was often treated twice, before the warm bath and after the cold bath; the first might be omitted, but the second never. The special room, unctorium, was furnished with benches and couches. The scrapers and oils were brought by the bathers; they were usually carried along with the towels for the bath by a slave (capsarius). The bather might scrape (destringere) and oil (deungere) himself, or he might receive a regular massage at the hands of a trained slave.
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The Establishment of Roman Public Baths
Public baths are first heard of after the Second Punic War. They increased in number rapidly; 170 at least were operated in Rome in the year 33 B.C., and later there were more than eight hundred. With equal rapidity they spread through Italy and the provinces;12 all the towns and even many villages had at least one. They were public only in the sense of being open to all citizens who could pay the modest fee demanded for their use. Free baths did not exist, except when some magistrate or public-spirited citizen or candidate for office arranged to relieve the people of the fees for a definite time by meeting the charges himself. So Agrippa in the year 33 B.C. kept open free of charge 170 establishments at Rome. The rich sometimes in their wills provided free baths for the people, but always for a limited time.
Roman Public Baths - The Entrance Fees
The entrance fee (balneaticum) was hardly more than nominal. The bather furnished his own towels, oil, etc. Women paid more, perhaps twice as much, while children up to a certain age, unknown to us, paid nothing. Prices varied, of course, in different places. It is likely that higher prices were charged in some baths than in others in the same city, either because they were more luxuriously equipped or to make them more exclusive and fashionable than the rest, but we have no positive knowledge that this was done.
Roman Public Baths for Women Public Baths for women for Women. Women of respectability bathed in the public baths, as they bathe in public places now, but with women only, enjoying the opportunity to meet their friends as much as did the men. In the large cities there were separate public baths devoted to their exclusive use. In the larger towns separate rooms were set apart for them in the public baths intended generally for men. It will was noted that the rooms intended for use of the women are smaller than those for the men. In the very small places the public baths bath was opened to men and women at different hours. Late in the Roman Empire we read of men and women bathing together, but this was true only of women who had no claim to respectability at all.
Roman Public Baths - Bathing Hours Bathing Hours. The bath was regularly taken between the meridiatio and the cena; the hour varied, therefore, within narrow limits in different seasons and for different classes. In general it is said to have been taken about the eighth hour, and at this hour all the conductores were bound by their contracts to have the baths open and all things in readiness. Many Romans preferred to bathe before the prandium and some, at least, of the public baths in the larger places must have been open then. All were regularly kept open until sunset, but in the smaller towns, where public baths were fewer, it is probable that they were kept open later and lamps found in large numbers in the Roman public baths at Pompeii seem to point to evening hours. Basically, the managers would keep the doors to the Roman Public Baths open as long as was profitable!