Some Prejudices About the Roman Baths

The bathhouses played a fundamental role in ancient Rome, and each of us picture the Caracalla or Diocletian bathhouses. We often think that they were at the heart of Latin culture, or were one of the greatest achievements in terms of hygiene brought to us by the Romans. However, these statements hold prejudice, and things might have been quite different from what one could think.

If there were indeed some public bathhouses in the 2nd century BC, they were rare and very small in size. It is only in the 1st century BC that they developed, mostly as private bathrooms (balnearium) among the richest. In one of my books The Riddle of a Murdered Slave, I describe such a room found in Ostia. The immense and public bathhouses, as we all have them in mind, came much later. They only appeared at the beginning of the 1st century AD (nearly 200 years later). We must therefore wait until the apogee of the Roman world to see them at the center of social life.

    One has to wait until the apogee of the Roman world to see bathhouses at the center of social life.

In the 1st century AD, around the time of Vespasian, where I based three of my novels, the bathhouses had become more than just public baths. They fulfilled functions and amenities we still enjoy today, although maybe not all in the same place.

They were gymnasiums on the Greek model, not very different from our current sports clubs; they were also, and obviously, a place where to find hot tubs and steam rooms, similar to the Japanese onsens or the Turkish baths; but they were above all meeting places where one could do business or socialize (bathhouses were therefore the Facebook of ancient Rome).

The bathhouses were like our spas; places where every Roman came to relax and take care of themselves. But, more surprisingly for us, there were also a place to dine out and where to read, filled with restaurants and libraries. This may seem surprising at first glance, but it shouldn’t if we remember that they also served as social clubs, similar to the English clubs of the 19th century.

We are all used to consider them as an improvement in terms of hygiene. Again, this is a prejudice. It would be good not to look at them as such, because they did not bring many benefits in this field, nor did they contribute to improving the health of the Romans. One could even argue to the opposite.

Many believe bathhouses were an improvement in the Roman personal hygiene. Again, this is a prejudice. It would be good not to look at them as such, because they did not bring many benefits in this field, nor did they contribute to improving the health of the Romans. One could even argue to the opposite.

Hygiene in the baths was little to non-existent. People may have smelled better, but the bathhouses were mainly vectoring the spread of bacterial, and fungal diseases, such as tuberculosis, typhoid, leprosy, and practically all contagious skin diseases. There were several reasons for this.

First, water quality was very poor; remember that it was better to drink wine than unboiled water. In the bathhouses, it was neither cleaned nor renewed sufficiently to be considered healthy. Moreover, the quality of the springs used was not necessarily adequate either.

Second, bathhouses were recommended to treat many skin and respiratory diseases. Galen himself recommended those to cure rabies, tuberculosis, diarrhea and skin infections. Surgeons were even available for the wealthiest right next to massage and skin treatment facilities. But it was the way the Romans cleaned themselves that was the main issue.

Finally, soap was not used and sapo (the ancestor of soap) was still uncommon among a large segment of the population. People washed themselves scraping off sweat and dirt while sitting on the benches of the laconicum (hot room) or tepidarium (tepid room). They used a sort of blunt knife– the strigil –for this purpose, or rubbed themselves directly against the walls of these hot and humid rooms, before rinsing themselves in the swimming pools.

The Roman bathhouses were therefore marvelous bacterial and fungal breeding grounds. It would have probably been better to stay dirty and smelly but healthy, rather than enjoying such facilities.