The Romans had it figured out from day one, which in this case is somewhere around 27 BCE. They believed that the basic principles of good health were exercise, good diet, bathing and massage, so they built community complexes providing those services.
These facilities weren’t just stand alone buildings with a few pools, they were giant megalithic structures sprawling over acres, big enough to accommodate hundreds, sometimes even thousands of bathers at a time. They housed fitness centers, bars, restaurants, and even had arenas for live performances.
The majority of homes in ancient Rome lacked private bathing space, so heading to a public bathhouse was standard practice. They were accessible to everyone, from the lowest class to the highest, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t flaunt your wealth within the space. The richest bathers would sometimes rent or bring in personal slaves to watch over their things, would order food and drinks, get a massage, or hire a musician to entertain them. These were just upgrades to what was otherwise a very leveling social institution. The baths were a place to reconvene after a day’s work and converse with every age and sex in community. They were the heart of each community, and as the Roman Empire grew, their bathing practices spread around the globe.
The larger Roman bathhouse complexes were called a thermae, this word stems from the Greek word thermos, which means hot. The smaller Roman baths were referred to as balneae, from balaneion, which means bathing. The general set up was the same in each
First, you enter the palaestra, an open courtyard for light exercise, to maintain good health and work up a light sweat before the baths. The men ran, wrestled, or boxed, while the women partook in activities like yard games. Post exercise, bathers made their way to the apodyterium, which can be compared to an early locker room. Clothes were stashed in open shelves, where valuables were sometimes raided by thieves if there was no one there to keep them safe.
The first bath was the tepidarium. This lukewarm pool was used to cleanse oil, sweat, and dirt from the body. In all honesty, this water was disgusting. It wasn’t renewed very often, and at its warm temperature, it was a breeding ground for bacteria. The Romans understood that warm water had a therapeutic value, but also knew better than to enter the tepidarium with a fresh wound or they could get gangrene. Following the initial cleanse was the caldarium, the hottest room in the baths. The pool was heated by an underground furnace creating steamy air in the room with temperatures of over 100℉, which opened pores and restored the skin. Chances are that the floor of the caldarium was so hot that bathers had to wear some sort of shoe to protect their feet. Typically near the caldarium was the laconicum, a dry sweating room. Here bathers would work up an extreme sweat and detox the body. Bathers would cool themselves in the frigidarium, a cold pool to close the pores, invigorate, and refresh!
Where to go
- For some historical immersion in perhaps an unexpected location, look no further than north east Algeria! To this day, Roman ruins give a glimpse into an ancient world. There are market squares, amphitheatres, and small villages that have weathered over centuries, but remain as a reminder of the rich history of an earlier era. In the town of Khenchela, there is a Roman bathhouse that is still being used roughly 2000 years after it’s construction. This place is open to locals and tourists alike, and the odds are that this is the most authentic Roman experience you could find in the modern era. There are no gimmicks and frills that you would find and a modern “spa,” simply pools ranging from cold to hot, where the community can come together and bathe.
- For a “look, but don’t touch” kind of experience, visit the Roman Baths in Bath, England. No bathers allowed, but you are able to walk through one of the most effectively preserved ancient baths in the world. It’s a niche museum of Roman architecture, art, and society.
- Obviously, in this day and age, bathing practices are not as rustic as they once were. If you’re interested in something big and modern, that feels a bit more like a resort vacation than blast from the past, visit Aquardens. Aquardens describes itself as a thermal water park. Yes they have the typical amenities that you may expect to find at a bathhouse, steam room, sauna, massage therapy, etc, but they also have an outdoor complex of pools and slides for kids. So if you’re traveling as a family, and looking for an experience everyone could enjoy, this is a good fit.
What to do
Bathhouses were once fully nude, with a blend of gender segregation and communal space. Now, there is not one clear set of rules for Roman baths. With the Roman empire spread out across the globe, remaining customs and expectations are dependent on the local community more so than what was once the cultural norm. Our best advice is check out the policies of specific locations before arrival, but in general bring your swimsuit. If the space is mixed gender, you’ll most likely be expected to have a little modesty.