The history of baths and bathing from Roman times..

Apr 30, 2020 | admin

I attended an on line presentation recently given by Sara Riccardi (www.artacross.co.uk ) where she talked about the history and culture of bathing and baths, so I thought I would share some of the information with you.

The Romans were probably one of the first to realise the value of  thermal experiences in everyday life and in fact they considered the baths that they constructed to be “the glue that held society together” washing and hygiene were almost considered a religious process.

The bath houses were available to all citizens (except slaves who formed a part of Roman society) and were cheap to enter, in some instances politicians would pay the entry fees for every citizen for an entire year to curry favour with them and gain political advantage.

The Romans considered bathing of such importance that they would construct bath houses wherever their empire expanded to – for example the Roman Baths at Bath in the UK.

The Roman Baths – Bath UK

The baths were available to various groups of society at different times throughout the day, women and children would attend in the mornings and men in the afternoon/evenings.

This was primarily because Roman men generally worked from dawn till midday.

The baths offered thermal experiences and also a swimming pool or pools, but in the larger baths such as those built by the emperor Caracalla (shown below), they also included theatres, shops and places to dine.

The baths at Caracalla

The bathing experience commenced with the removal of robes followed by a number of processes to gradually increase the body temperature, induce sweating to aid the  removal of dirt, and a massage with oils. They would also use exercise prior to bathing to induce sweating before commencing the heat treatments.

The thermal experiences themselves were heated by a number of underground ovens or chambers, some were massive as in the case of Caracalla where horse drawn wagons carrying full size tree trunks would be driven in to feed the fires that created the heat.

The conditions underground would have been unbearable for the slaves tending the fires as temperatures exceeded 40/50 degrees.

The heat generated down below would be delivered to the rooms above by a series of hollow cavities in the floor and walls, and the temperature could be regulated from cool to very hot.

The bath houses themselves were often decorated in a very opulent way, and art and sculpture was used widely to “inspire” citizens and to encourage them to make good choices in life.

We can get a good idea of just how grand the interior design and décor was by clicking on the video and taking a “Virtual Tour”.

The Romans believed strongly in a “Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body” and that the baths encouraged the “Morale of the body and the hygiene of the soul”.

Now we can move on from the Roman baths towards those of the Middle Eastern cultures where the use of water was and is a ritual in religion and fundamental to life.

Their baths were operated on a similar principal to that of the Romans, with cool to hot thermal experiences, but adding a more humid or steamy experience to the “Turkish Bath”.

The most telling difference however is the philosophy, where water is regarded as sacred and the philosophy is also different between moving and still water.

Cold water when used to cool the body would have to be running not still as in a cold plunge pool.

The Turkish baths would be a an affordable place to clean the body, and also a place to meet with a social element. With regard to décor, there would was a lack of statues and art, the décor being opulent, but based around elaborate tiling.

The Sultan Amir Ahmed Bath House – Iran

The rooms would be heated in a similar manner to those in Rome, and relaxation was a key element to bathing.

The baths were available to both sexes on a segregated basis, however there was sometimes a social “stigma” attached to women who used the baths, as bathing was and still is closely linked to sexual activity in the Muslim/Middle Eastern cultures, bathing is an important act before commencing sexual activity.

“The Turksih Bath” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

In the mid 19th century, bathing and the bath houses became popular in the UK, and a large number of “Turkish” bath houses were built, however unlike those in Rome, these were often privately owned and expensive to enter, providing luxury for the rich.

Key words used in the advertising of such bath houses would be “Comfort” “Cleanliness” “Health” and “Happiness” as in the advertisement below.

Advert for the Southampton Turkish Baths – London

In 1848 a law was passed to provide access to baths for the general public and the entry charge was set at two pence for a “second class” male entry.

The baths were generally constructed with a mix of English and Middle eastern design as shown by the image below of the Turkish Baths in Harrogate.

Another good example of such a facility would be the Victoria Baths in Manchester which was constructed in 1906.

The Victoria Baths, Manchester constructed in 1906

The building was constructed in the style of Art Nouveau coupled with some “Oriental” design features.

Victoria Baths – The First Class entrance

The facility offered a number of swimming pools including a “First” and “second class” pool which was smaller than the first class pool, but did also allow limited access to the Turkish Baths.

The image below shows a stained glass window at the Victoria Baths with the “Angel of  Purity” and also makes several references to nature.

Stained glass window showing “The Angel of Purity”

We have seen from this that all baths from Roman and Turkish times have used art and décor to enhance the experience, and would not be as effective or enjoyable if plain walls were used.

The design of baths is really a “mirror on society” and a reflection of “who we are” and how we are engaging with our bodies, and it is suggested that we can tell a lot about society by the way we wash.

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