Ancient Roman Baths, A Very Public Affair

If you were asked on a 'date,' by someone that you were fond of, your first thought might be to visit a favorite restaurant, artsy little café, or some other place with a quaint atmosphere. Chances are your first thought would not be to jump into a bath with them!


However, in ancient Roman civilization, it would be quite normal to bathe with someone you hardly knew. Courting, business deals, relaxation and much more took place quite often at the bath houses; the hygiene aspect was almost the added benefit.

The ancient Roman baths were typically constructed in public bath houses called 'thermae.' Quite like the modern day spa or sauna, they were visited daily by the nobles and the poor alike.

Roman Bath History - Men, Women, Peasant and Nobility

Charged a small fee, a peasant woman or a well-to-do lady would typically be escorted to a changing room where she could remove her street wear and ready herself for the bath.

From there, slaves would follow her to a warm room called a 'tepidarium.'

These rooms typically had heated walls and floors, but no pools. Built with space on the sides and bottom to allow heating from a very large furnace, the actual bath room was closest to the furnace.

Armed with towels and flasks of scented oils, the slaves would wait for their lady to leisurely make her way to make her way to the 'caldarium,' or the room with the bath.

They were pools which contained very hot water, usually with a nearby fountain that ran cool water for the bathers to splash on their faces and necks. Whether she was nobility or peasant woman, there is no doubt that the steaming, fragrant water provided a relaxing getaway from the bustle of everyday life.

Men enjoyed the bath houses as well, usually for longer and more often than the women. The typical time to visit the thermae was around midday and the length of the average visit was several hours. Men would meet and enjoy the hot, relaxing water while discussing politics, business, rivalries and much more.

Types of Roman Public Baths

Very wealthy Romans often indulged in the luxury of having a private bath constructed in their villas and town houses. Surely the envy of the poorer citizens, those with money would often create a separate heated room where they could soak their aches and frustrations away.

Often times, soldiers were provided with private baths as well, such as those which existed in Bearsden Fort or Chesters on Hadrian's Wall. Although these Romans had the luxury of a private bath to enjoy, it didn't stop them from visiting the public bath houses quite often.

There were many smaller bath houses constructed, called 'balnea,' which were considered to be private, although public bathers were given a warm welcome for a small fee. Owned by the state, the larger bath houses were the most popular baths for all citizens to visit.

These baths also charged a small fee for entrance. Because our closest thing to the Roman baths might be a sauna or spa, it's difficult to get a clear understanding of the size of the thermae without actually seeing it. The Baths of Caracalla were so large that they could hold 1,600 bathers at one time.

The largest of the public ancient Roman baths was the Baths of Diocletian. These had the space to hold 3,000 bathers! This is quite a large number of people and speaks of the massive space that was dedicated for these public thermae.

Roman Bath Technology

The ancient Roman baths were built in such a way that they were heated by a hypocaust, which is a process of burning wood and coal beneath the ground. This heat transformed the cool water in the aqueducts into steaming hot water, ready for the bathers.

The hot pools were closest to the furnace, and the further away the rooms were, the cooler they were. For this reason, rooms closer to the actual hot pool rooms often contained no pools and were more like steam rooms. Here, bathers would gather for relaxation before and after the bath.

At any given time, a few noble women might sit side by side with a couple of peasant women. Although their concerns were very different, here, they enjoyed the same things and may have shared friendly conversation while they relaxed.

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