What the Romans Left Behind: The Baths


One of the main points of focus in Roman life was the bath. The Romans bathed fully only once a week. But because their arms and legs were exposed, the Roman people bathed those extremities daily. Many baths were private, but the public bath became a part of everyday life. Men usually bathed with other men; women usually bathed with other women. In the villages and smaller towns, mixed baths were permitted. But usually, decorum ruled. And it wasn’t just bathing, either. People could get a massage as well.

Bath houses were huge and housed much more than pools. Exercise grounds, gymnastic apparatus, courts for games, libraries, rooms for reading and conversation–all these things could be found in the Roman bath house. The people made a point of going to the bath to meet their friends and associates.

The more luxurious baths started with time in a dressing room (apodyterium), usually unheated. This room, which can be seen in the picture at right, usually had compartments for bathers to store their clothes. The bather then moved into the first room of all common baths, the warm anteroom, or tepidarium. Here, they waited until perspiration started, so they wouldn’t pass suddenly from cold or normal temperatures to the very hot temperatures of the bath. Once the bather was sufficiently warmed up, he or she passed into the hot room (caldarium) for a hot bath and then went on to the cold room (frigidarium) for the cold bath. Finally, the bather entered a room for rubbing and anointing with oil (unctorium). In this way, the bathing experience could take quite a bit of time and allow for much interaction between bathers.

Much has been made of the unique way in which these baths were heated. The earliest baths were heated by charcoal stoves. Later, the hypocaust (a primitive furnace) was used to heat both rooms and water. The bath had two stories, in between which was two feet of space through which the heat passed. The heated bath rooms were closest to the furnace. Even so, they needed the heat to carry from the furnace to the rooms. Hot air circulated under the floors and through spaces in the walls. In this way, the hot rooms were kept hot and the cool rooms were kept cool (by being farthest away from the hypocaust).

Remains of Roman baths can be found in several places within Britain. The most famous set of remains is probably Aquae Sulis, at what is now Bath. As at other sites, the carvings and structure here are very ornate. The Romans knew that their people would spend much time at the baths, and the artists took great pains to make the bathing experience as rewarding and relaxing as possible.