Ancient Rome is famous throughout history for its extravagant, and even barbaric, forms of entertainment. History books are filled with detailed stories of gladiator battles in Roman amphitheaters and chariot races in enormous stadiums that mesmerized crowds of all ages and status levels. However, a lesser known pastime, but one that was equally as popular at the time, was Roman bathhouse culture.
For the ancient Romans, bathhouses were more than just places to wash the body. Many of these complex facilities included places to socialize, or work out, with some even featuring large libraries. Across ancient Rome, most cities had at least one “Thermae” (a large bathing complex) or “Balneae” (a smaller public or private facility) for people living there to use and unwind. They were a cultural staple and a cherished pastime.
History of Ancient Roman Baths
Towards the end of the 3rd century B.C., bathing customs made their way into Italy from Greecian culture. At the time, early Romans were not accustomed to bathing regularly. They would wash their arms and legs to remove dirt and grime from working, but they would only wash their entire bodies roughly every nine days.
When daily bathing practices started to take root, Romans built bathrooms in their houses, but it wasn’t until the 2nd century B.C. that we see the emergence of the first bathhouse.
Public baths were a common feature of ancient Greecian towns, but instead of large bathing areas, they were normally limited to hip-baths (a bath up to the hip). Per typical Roman fashion, they took the idea and expanded on it to include a wide variety of facilities and baths. They became common in small towns around the forum and even in the private homes of Rome’s wealthiest citizens. However, it was in the larger cities that you’d find elaborate bath complexes with extensive colonnades and wide-spanning arches. These bath complexes were made of fireproof terracotta bricks with mosaic floors, marble-covered walls, and decorative statues.
Areas of Roman Baths
These innovative and expansive bathhouses were fitted with various rooms, each offering a different experience for its many daily visitors. Here is a typical list of features you might find in an ancient Roman bathhouse:
apodyterium - changing room where bathers would go first after entering a bathhouse
palaestrae - exercise room for those who wanted to workout
natatio - an open-air swimming pool to float and relax
laconica and sudatoria - superheated dry and wet rooms to make you sweat
calidarium - a heated room equipped with a hot-water pool
tepidarium - a warm room indirectly heated with a tepid pool
frigidarium - a cold room with a cold bath, often vast in its size and domed at the ceiling
The Roman’s Innovative Heating Systems
Early baths used natural hot water springs or braziers for heat sources, but from the 1st century B.C. on, Romans developed more sophisticated heating systems such as under-floor heating fuelled by wood-burning furnaces. The huge fires from the furnaces sent warm air under the raised floor which laid on narrow pillars of solid stone, hollow cylinders, or circular bricks that would heat water flowing to different rooms in the bathhouse.
Ancient Roman Bath Culture
During the early days of Roman bath use, there were no rules about nudity or the mixing of genders. For women who were uncomfortable with this practice, there were special baths designated for women’s use only. Eventually, widespread complaints about promiscuous behavior in Roman bathhouses caused Emperor Hadrian to separate males and females. It was then considered uncouth for men and women to bath together, so they each had their own designated times at the bathhouse. For example, women may have been allowed in the bathhouse in the morning while men were allowed in the afternoon and vice versa. Women’s fees for bathhouses were twice as expensive as men’s fees.
An Ancient Roman Bath In Use Today
Centuries may separate modern life from the culture and practices of the ancient Romans, but even now, pieces of the past are still enjoyed today.
Two thousand years later, in the city of Khenchela in the northern part of Algeria, Roman bath ruins, called Hammam Essalihine, live on to offer a place for socializing and relaxation. Locals come to take a daily wash in the plentiful supply of hot water and enjoy the companionship of good friends.
The water here is pure and rich in minerals, offering therapeutic properties known to help rheumatic, respiratory, and dermatological diseases. The fresh mountain air in Khenchela combined with the therapeutic benefits of the baths attract almost 700,000 visitors to the Roman ruins every year.
Italian Bath Culture Today
When you step into an Italian spa to enjoy a Roman style bath, you enter with a bathrobe, slippers, and towel. A cap is not required, but long hair must be secured near the head either in a ponytail or a bun. In the bathing areas of the spa, it is mandatory to wear a bathing suit, however, for those choosing to spend time in the sauna, it is recommended to go nude for hygienic purposes.
An interesting part of Italian spa culture is that it’s in fact paid for by the government! The reason being is that Italians whole-heartedly believe that spending time bathing in mineral rich water drastically impacts their overall health and longevity.
The government allows its citizens one week per year to relax in its ancient spas. Every tax payer in the country can take advantage of this week as long as they have a prescription by a national health GP. Tax payers are charged a fee of 50 euros for the entire treatment; however, if someone’s income is less than 36,000 euros per year, they are awarded spa treatment for as little as three euros.
Best Roman Baths to Visit in Italy
Today, Rome boasts a variety of luxurious bathhouse facilities that have deep roots in ancient Roman bathing practices. Here are a few to visit if you’re planning on a trip to Rome.
QC Termeroma in the Fiumicino District
The QC Termeroma resort and wellness center is located on a historic estate on the Roman coast. Wind your way through restored ancient buildings to a beautiful garden, biosaunas, steam baths, whirlpools, and regenerating waterfalls to enjoy a modern take on Roman bath culture. This large spa complex offers areas to relax with friends and family in a tranquil setting.
Terme dei Papi
In the city of Viterbo, not far from Rome, you can combine nature, luxury, and history while you explore its medieval district. Spend time touring in the morning and then enjoy an afternoon at Terme dei Papi: baths, spa, a hotel, and a restaurant all together in one beautiful complex.
Once known as the Terme Etrusche (the “Etruscan Baths”), the Romans cherished the beauty of the city and its thermal springs. Over the years, remnants of various Roman baths have been discovered along a seven-mile stretch of the Via Cassia, an ancient road that runs between Rome and Tuscany. The ancient Roman baths were all in the proximity of three large thermal springs, including the Bullicame Spring, the center of the Terme dei Papi.
The Bullicame Spring contains a variety of minerals and stays at a temperature between 104° to 127° F. This particular spring feeds into a beautiful 6,000 square foot pool. In addition to the spring, the Terme dei Papi also offers a volcanic pool, which combines the lavic clay bed of the pool and the thermal waters.
These hot springs are arguably one of Italy’s best kept secrets and an absolute must if you find yourself traveling to the country. Silk blue water cascades down different levels of bathing pools to provide a visually stunning experience. The water is heated by a nearby volcano and flows through the thermal hot springs at a constant temperature of 98 degrees Fahrenheit.
If this inspires you to book a trip and jump on the next plane to Italy, we hope you enjoy some of the country’s beautiful roman baths. If traveling isn’t an option, we hope you’ll come see us at Sauna House where you can enjoy bathhouse benefits a little closer to home.