Roman Baths and Bathing

Review by Kathleen Coleman

Harvard University

Bathing in Public in the Roman World by Garrett G. Fagan, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999, pp. xiii + 437; 30 figs., 8 maps, 3 tables + 2 charts. ISBN 0-472-10819-0


Versus Balnearum. Die antike Dichtung über Bäder und Baden im römischen Reich by Stephan Busch, Stuttgart and Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1999, pp. xiv + 616; 1 diagram. ISBN 3-519-07256-4

Thus from the way people lave themselves

You can tell how under other circumstances they will behave themselves

 Ogden Nash, Splash! from I'm a Stranger Here Myself


A spate of recent studies connected with Roman baths and bathing[1] has now been augmented by two revised Ph.D. dissertations. Garrett Fagan, an alumnus of Trinity College, concentrates on the epigraphic record, mainly in prose, in order to examine the development of the bathing habit in the Roman world. Stephan Busch collects and studies poems in both Latin and Greek that commemorate baths and bathing.  F. poses specific questions and adduces evidence to answer them, whereas B. adopts a more discursive approach, elucidating each poem or extract with a detailed commentary in order to explore certain themes. The overlap between these two studies, one historical and the other literary, is complementary rather than redundant. Together they help us to see a little more clearly what is 'Roman' about the way the Empire attended to its ablutions.

One of the most copious sources on Roman baths, though hardly the most objective, is the poetry of Martial, and both studies make good use of it. F., alert to sources literary as well as epigraphic, uses Martial's treatment as a way in to his topic, to allow us 'to get a feel for the vitality of the Roman bathing experience' (38). He examines the growth of the bathing habit, the popularity of the public baths, the supposed therapeutic effect, the social status of benefactors who endowed baths in Rome, Italy and the provinces, the amenities themselves (with emphasis on their unsavoury aspects balancing the often ostentatious construction), and finally the status of the people who used them. F. has devoted considerable thought to clarity of presentation, debating each point fairly before drawing a crisp conclusion from the evidence, and relegating issues of technical or statistical complexity to appendices (the spread of public bathing in Italy to c. a.d. 100; the distribution of non-imperial baths at Rome; and the parts of baths mentioned in his epigraphic sample). Statistics are lucidly tabulated. There are 4 indexes (names, places, topics, and ancient sources), and a concordance of the inscriptions in the Epigraphic Sample.

The Sample contains 339 items divided into four sections, one Greek, the rest Latin (constructional benefactions, non-constructional benefactions, and non-benefactory texts). The introduction to the Sample is a model of its kind, setting out under six headings the criteria and conventions that F. employed in compiling it. Each item is accompanied by a commentary. F. supplies translations for nearly half these inscriptions, omitting translations for primarily formulaic items that have already been included early on in the Sample. For our convenience, he marks with a dagger those items that include a translation, and with an asterisk those that mention women. The main discourse makes thorough use of the material in the Epigraphic Sample, presenting it in such a way that the reader is not forced to flip to the Sample to understand the point being made, but will inevitably become so intrigued that (s)he looks it up anyway, in order to appreciate the item in its own right. The Sample therefore illustrates the topics investigated in the book, and also constitutes an independent resource. Repetition is reduced to a minimum.

B. brings together 132 poems from the Roman and Byzantine world: 85 in Greek (364 lines), 45 in Latin (326 lines). Many of them, surviving on the stone where they were originally carved, have not been through the sieve of an ancient anthologist applying literary standards of elegance and sophistication. The collection therefore exudes an immediacy that bears unique testimony to the central role that baths and bathing played throughout the communities of the Empire. The poems are grouped into four main sections: epigrams on baths (ecphrastic poems; epigrams on construction, renovation, and upkeep; epigrams on particular qualities of baths; baths at hot springs; general observations); life at the baths, with emphasis on Martial (baths at Rome; technical aspects and bathing customs; nakedness); attitudes (the hedonism exemplified by the Assyrian king Sardanapal; Christian moderation; the association between the heat of the baths and the flame of love; therapeutic value); miscellaneous (versified 'directions' for visitors to baths; dedication to Salus from a legionary bath; epitaph for a putative hydraulic engineer; poems about a spa; riddles about baths). Each poem or extract is accompanied by a German translation. In the commentary smaller typeface sets apart material that is ancillary to the main discussion. The conclusion to the book is followed by three appendices, supplying the text and translation of Statius, Silvae 1.5, Seneca, Epist. 86.1-12, and the Lex metalli Vipascensis 19-31. There are nine indexes: epigrams treated, Greek then Latin, arranged alphabetically by first word; sources; persons; gods and mythological figures; places; baths and hot springs; res balneariae (arranged, oddly enough, out of alphabetical order); literary and epigraphic motifs; intellectual and cultural concepts. Several of the inscriptions and graffiti are illustrated by line-drawings, diagrams, or a transcription from CIL, which are very helpful in clarifying features such as insets, lacunae or corresponding panels.

The arrangement of the material in a study of this kind poses manifold problems for the editor. Even were we sure when and where all the poems were written, geographical or chronological arrangement would sacrifice thematic coherence. As it is, related topics are sometimes treated far apart: for example, 'baths for men and women' at 328-331, but 'nakedness' (subsuming 'men at the baths', 'women at the baths' and 'immorality at the baths') at 463-512. At the same time, by grouping the poems thematically without numbering them and supplying a concordance, B. has made it rather difficult for readers to find their way round the book. Layout could have clarified the situation, but there are no headings or prominent source-references indicating where the treatment of a particular epigram starts, and the order in which the epigrams are discussed within each section depends upon links that B. devises between them in structuring his narrative. This means that the reader should ideally read the whole book from beginning to end to understand the cumulative picture that B. provides.

Few, however, will be able to afford that luxury; most will want to consult the discussion of a particular poem or theme. Hence the user must rely on the indexes. But terminal page-numbers appear neither in the alphabetical list of epigrams treated nor in the list of sources. This means more work for someone who wants to see whether a particular epigram is given full treatment or simply receives a brief mention. The commentary on each poem is not arranged under lemmata but composed as continuous narrative, so that it is not very easy to trace its progress. Longer poems, however, are divided into sections, with translation and commentary appended to each. Statistics (e.g. those categorizing the poems by metre and length, 370-371) might have been clearer in tabulated form. The crucial point, however, is this: many of the poems are preserved on fragmentary inscriptions and require very skilful editing and elucidation, for which we are in B.'s debt. So, even though tighter editorial control could have reduced the daunting length of this project and sharpened the focus of the individual discussions, we have here a collection broad in range and rich in detail.

What sort of picture emerges from the combined evidence of this pair of studies? One point is fundamental: the conspicuous consumption of water in parts of the world where it is in comparatively short supply advertises wealth and power. The consumption of water in the city of Rome c. 50 b.c. is staggering: 198 gallons per capita, compared to 35.5 gallons in London in 1936, a year in which - significantly - Rome still led the world, though her consumption had dropped to a comparatively modest 150 gallons (F. 74). A recent study reminds us that, in ancient cities where water was abundant, consumption might even outstrip that in Rome.[2] But in large tracts of the ancient world an adequate water-supply required considerable expenditure and labour, and correspondingly it invited versified commemoration. An epigram from Smyrna (AP 9.678, B. 111-114) praises the renown accruing to a certain Agakleides, who was responsible for 'improving the parched land of the once-resident nymph Bassa with water and baths'. Many bath-complexes exploited natural hot-springs; but where Roman engineering installed a furnace and hypocaust to heat the water and raise the ambient temperature in the caldarium and tepidarium, the paradox of taming water with fire suggested itself as readily as that of the parched desert under floodwaters. Statius exploits this fundamental antithesis in his awestruck praise of the baths at the villa belonging to Manilius Vopiscus (Silv. 1.3.43-46, B. 58-59): 'Shall I describe the baths which steam as they rise on the grassy edge, and the fire which is built on the freezing banks? Or where the river, united with the vapour-laden furnace, laughs at the nymphs panting in the stream close by?'

Statius' nymphs, it seems to me, are the literary equivalent of the artistic decor that was carefully chosen to match the aquatic nature of baths and nymphaea. They recur in his description of the villa belonging to Pollius Felix at Surrentum, where they prefer Pollius' combination of fresh- and sea-water baths to their own environment (Stat. Silv. 2.2.17-20). Mythological currency is not the natural vehicle for the modern imagination; beyond that, burdened as we are by sensory overload, we probably take far less notice of the decor of our surroundings than the Romans did, whether in a private villa or a public context. But in Antiquity the decoration of public spaces was sharply competitive. An example that is not a bath seems, nevertheless, apposite: the mosaic of the marine deity Oceanos with which the emperor Probus graced a nymphaeum at Antioch (capital of Syria) was so striking that the building was thereafter known as 'the nymphaeum of Oceanos' (Malalas, Chron. 11.12). Here we see the civic pride that was invested in these facilities, creating a market in which benefactors could earn dividends of renown.

The most obvious examples are those enduring monuments of civic rivalry, the great imperial baths built in the city of Rome by emperors from Nero to Diocletian. It is noteworthy that no poetry about them survives. Indeed, B. (581) suggests that none was attempted, since their scale and magnificence invited the response 'beyond human grasp' (but one might, I think, expect precisely that mode of flattery to be articulated, as it is, for example, by Statius in broaching the subject of a dinner at Domitian's palace, Silv. 4.2.5-10). Throughout the Empire, however, civic authorities and private sponsors were constructing, embellishing, and repairing baths as a manifestation of their magnanimity and sense of civic responsibility; and these inspire poetic admiration. F.'s most significant contribution is to demonstrate more precisely who sponsored these projects outside Rome, and why. It is not the central authorities representing the emperor who show concern here, but private benefactors and local authorities, especially municipal councils. F. observes that we do not have the evidence upon which to base an interpretation of the baths as an instrument of 'social control' wielded by the élite to manipulate the behaviour and attitudes of the masses (221). Instead, he makes a convincing case for the co-operative model: an expectation that the élite would provide for popular leisure is matched by accompanying self-glorification (222).

In our society, fuelled by materialism and supported by taxation, the Roman model may seem to diminish the independence of the poor, and supply inadequate motivation for the rich. But these attitudes are anachronistic. Bath-benefactions provide an ideal laboratory for testing expectations and motivation. It is obvious that a type of immortality would accrue to the individuals whose names were inscribed on a bath-building, at least while it remained in good condition: short-term investment. Funds to cover repairs, on the other hand, look forward to an uncertain eventuality instead of reacting to circumstances (F. 164): long-term investment. An honorific statue might be the pay-off for benefactions tied to perpetual or recurring situations; these were sometimes restricted to specific groups in the community. Like endowments to fund games every so many years, or banquets at which the decurions would recline and the plebs would sit at trestles, so a benefactor might endow free bathing, phials of oil, or even firewood to heat the baths (F. 160-164). An allusion to this last category would, I think, give extra point to Martial's witty advice to Tucca, whose marble thermae lacked a supply of firewood; in advising him to chop down the wooden balneum that he had already built before superseding it with his thermae (9.75, B. 442-4), Martial might be hinting that there was one benefaction that Tucca had overlooked.

Ostensibly, the baths were for getting clean. But it is not until the Christians draw a parallel with baptism that this particular aspect joins the canon of benefits associated with the baths in laudatory verse (B. 374). A powerful impetus was given to the bathing-habit by the enthusiasm of the medical profession (an attitude perhaps pioneered at Rome by Asclepiades of Bithynia c. 100 b.c.: B. 27, F. 93-103). The endorsement was not only general ('baths are good for you'), but extremely specific (F. 86), ranging from external problems (e.g. eye-complaints) to internal ailments (e.g. inflammation of the bowel). Yet, as in so many areas of ancient medicine, and despite the ubiquitous statues of Hygieia in the baths, it is striking that the Romans entirely missed the point: the unhygienic conditions of many bath-buildings (powerfully evoked by F. 179-184), and the presence of ill and diseased persons among the throngs using them, must have qualified the baths as prime breeding-grounds for infection.

The removal of the sick from public contact in the modern western world makes it easy for us to forget what a common sight the ill and disabled must have been, especially in a context that promised them relief. Yet in another sense, too, a set of baths was similar to a modern gym and fitness-centre: they were a social gathering-place. Here the theatre provides an instructive parallel. Rome's first permanent theatre, built by Pompey in 55 b.c., is best understood as an entire complex of buildings, almost a mini-forum, comprising his temple to Venus, the auditorium (ostensibly the stepped approach to the temple), the scaenae frons, and the portico, where Romans could stroll among paintings, statuary, and exotic plants. So, too, the baths comprised a sequence of rooms and open spaces for physical exercise, massage, cosmetic procedures (Seneca memorably describes the yelps of people having their armpits plucked, Epist. 56.2), sweating, and actual immersion. Refreshments were available, business deals were struck, friends caught up on news, acquaintances cadged dinner-invitations.

And, as with the theatre and the amphitheatre, part of the reason for going to the baths was to be seen. An entourage of attendants advertised one's status. F. argues persuasively against the theory that the baths were a social leveller (213-219); that would fly in the face of the extreme status-consciousness manifested in every other arena of Roman social behaviour. At the theatre and the amphitheatre, for example, at least in Rome under legislation promulgated by Augustus, seating was strictly demarcated according to social and marital status, gender, age, provenance and other finely-tuned distinctions. The baths are different, in that there is little evidence that there were times reserved for the use of specific groups, though the plebs might be excluded during a visit by the emperor, or there might be hours reserved for women (mixed bathing, however, was common, and it is fruitless to look for uniformity in this area: B. 490, F. 29). Rather, as F. demonstrates, the mingling of the classes brought the lowly into proximity with the lordly parading their jewellery and servants.

It is hard for us to imagine a member of the élite in a state of semi- or complete nudity preserving his (or her) dignity in the company of social inferiors. Granted that Martial mocks the physical attributes of various personalities in the context of the baths, it is nevertheless clear that many people exhibited a less than perfect physique without compromising their social standing. The frank exhibition of nakedness at the baths, amply documented by both these studies, might be pressed for more implications. Consider, for a moment, statuary: when the emperors had themselves sculpted in a pose of heroic nudity, their facial features were grafted on to an idealized body; but nudity, even idealized, would be unthinkable for a representation of a modern statesman. Maybe the frank exposure of the human body at the baths helped the Romans to accommodate it as an element of portraiture.

Another factor comes into play, however: the distinction between public and private baths.[3] We might regard a private bath to be essential for providing privacy, but for the Romans that was evidently not a key concern. It might be more convenient to bath at home, but no stigma attached to using a public facility; Pliny remarks that, if there is no time to heat up the bath in his Laurentine villa, there are three perfectly good facilities in the local vicus for him to choose from (Epist. 2.17.26, F. 193). A private bath, however, afforded another distinct advantage in addition to convenience: it was an amenity advertising the owner's wealth and good taste to his friends and acquaintances. It would be good to know the roll-call of persons who made use of the lavish baths attached to the emperors' private residences. But simultaneously the image of primus inter pares was being played out by Augustus and some of his successors; just as it was advisable for an emperor to share the enthusiasms of the fans at the games, so too it was a sign of comitas for him to bath among the patrons of a public facility. Titus, who had the right instincts for public relations, did both, shouting and gesticulating in support of Thracian gladiators at the Colosseum, and sometimes bathing with the public in the Thermae Titi (Suet. Tit. 8.2). F., however, cautions us against assuming that this behaviour was common (190-192); there was clearly a special point in the emperor establishing his physical presence at baths (or indeed an amphitheatre) that he had built himself.

But there is another sense in which the baths provide access to the emperor. The rhetorical tradition trained encomiasts to turn each and every circumstance to their advantage. Hence the witty pair of couplets that Leonidas of Alexandria composed on the occasion of an emperor's birthday in the first century AD (AP 9.349, B. 566): 'As you celebrate your birthday, Caesar, may the waters of Cutiliae pour upon you a heap of healing, so that the whole world can greet you as grandfather of three, just as it saw you the father of triple happy offspring'. The hot springs at Aquae Cutiliae, in Sabine territory, were the favourite resort of Vespasian, who presumably visited them for a cure on November 18 (his birthday) in the year before his third grandchild was born, i.e. a.d. 72. This epigram is therefore a masterpiece of ingenuity, combining good wishes for Vespasian's birthday and prayers for his recovery with the theme of dynastic longevity; and it brings into focus the connection between baths and healing, and the publicity given to the emperor's visit to such an establishment. It also reminds us that, in a society where advancement depended upon an alert response to the needs of the influential, even the bathing-habits of an emperor could provide an encomiast with circumstances for flattery.

In the mid nineteen-eighties at Silifke (Seleuceia on the R. Kalykadnos in Cilicia) an opus sectile floor was excavated that displayed a Greek inscription in eight hexameters honouring Paulina, wife of Zeno, who was probably a general under Theodosius II. The floor speaks for itself: 'After the burden of old age I have embarked once more upon my former youth', it concludes. The structure dates to the high Empire; the inscription is probably fifth-century. Hence the building must have accommodated a function that survived the transition from paganism to Christianity. The obvious candidate for such thorough renovation would be a bath-building.[4] Understandably, B. and F. cannot deal with material that does not explicitly mention baths. But their studies make it clear that an inscription like this fits perfectly within a society in which renovation of the local bath-house was both a benefaction worthy of the wife of a high official, an obligation that the community could expect of her, and a route for her to earn prestige for her family. Typical, too, was the expectation that such a building should be lavishly decorated. And poetry is the natural medium to complement the decor and simultaneously honour the generous lady; replete with a Homeric epithet for her husband, the epigram lends suitable decorum and éclat to the commemoration.

Baths throughout the Empire reflect Roman attitudes to the proper functioning of an ordered and civilized society. Ogden Nash deduces personality-traits from bathing-habits: people who bath in a tub are 'sybaritic softies', as opposed to 'Spartans' who take a shower. The Romans collectively, it is now clear, would not have appreciated the speed and efficiency of a mode of bathing that allows time neither for social intercourse nor for the civilized appreciation of facilities accomplished by the harnessing of nature to art.

[1] Notably (and omitting studies of individual baths) K. M. D. Dunbabin, 'Baiarum grata voluptas: pleasures and dangers of the baths', Papers of the British School at Rome 57 (1989) 6-46, A T. Hodge, Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply (London, 1992), F. Yegül, Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992), I. Nielsen, Thermae et Balnea: The Architecture and Cultural History of Roman Public Baths2 (Aarhus, 1993).

[2] Rabun M. Taylor, 'Publici usus, privatae voluptates: water and demographics in the ancient metropolis', in: Mary R. DeMaine and Rabun M. Taylor (eds), Life of the Average Roman. A Symposium (White Bear Lake, Minnesota, 1999), 67-83.

[3] This does not, alas, provide a precise fit with the terminological distinction between thermae and balnea , where the difference seems to be lavish vs. plain rather than public vs. private: B. 29, F. 18.

[4] S. Sahin, 'Inschriften aus Seleukeia am Kalykadnos', Epigraphica Anatolica 17 (1991) 155-163.

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