A friend of mine is currently studying abroad in London, and got the opportunity to go to Bath, England this weekend. In honor of that, I thought we’d take a look into the workings of Roman baths (and looks at some cools pictures, of course). Most people don’t know that Roman baths involved more than just giant bathtubs; they were gyms and social centers as well. Romans would typically go to the gym, or palaestra in latin, and exercise before indulging in the actual baths. preparing for a work out in ancient Rome didn’t just include stretches. There are two huge things that have really changed in the modern gym. One: the romans would apply oil to their skin before a workout to collect any sweat and dirt that had,and would, accumulate through their workout and daily activities, and two: they stripped. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Romans exercised naked. (So did the Greeks, by the way, most notably in the Olympic games. Can’t say I’m sorry we stopped that tradition.) After tier workout, a good Roman would then move towards the baths. One didn’t simply dive in, however, there was a specific order in which a roman would partake in the different tubs. Baths typically had three pools of varying water temperature. the Frigidarium, or cold bath, would come first. This seems a fitting way to cool off after a good work out. next was the Tempidarium (warm room) and then the Caldarium (hot room). I think it is clear that the Romans didn’t bathe the way we do today. Remember the oil that they covered themselves with when they entered the baths? That is their soap. During their visit to the Caldarium, this oil gets scraped of with a curved implement called a strigil, which looked like this:
This picture also shows a glass flask that probably would have held oil. (picture from: http://www.stalbansmuseums.org.uk/Media/Museum-Images/Roman-strigil-and-oil-flask).
I’m sure you’ve probably seen this statue (Apoxyomenos by Lysippos), that depicts a young man cleaning himself with strigil, that is unfortunately now missing. (Picture from: http://maa.missouri.edu/objects/castgallery/castApoxyomenos.html)
So now that the Roman experience in the baths has been briefly discussed, I want to talk a little about how the romans engineered their baths. Obviously, there was no electric water heater, so how did the hot baths stay hot? The answer is simple, yet marvelous Roman engineering. the Romans used something called a hypocaust system. In layman’s terms, under the floor of the hot baths were small towers of brick raising the level of the floor, so that there was a space beneath it. there would be an opening able to access this space, where a hearth would be placed. the fire in hearth would heat the air underneath the floor of the hot bath and therefore heat the water. Simple, but brilliant. Here is an example from Fiesole:
In Bath, where my friend is now, the Caldarium is fueled by natural hot springs, so this set up wasnt necessary. I do suggest you visit if you have chance though, since the baths are incredibly beautiful.