Romans enjoying a large hot thermal pool
Welcome to the start of my Roman Baths section that explains the history and many general aspects of Roman bathing facilities. To skip this introduction page, click these links: The Baths of Caracalla or the The Baths of Diocletian. You can also click EXPLORE ROME in the navigation bar above and select from the sub-menu.
On this page, I will explore what all Roman bathhouses - large and small, and all over the empire - had in common. I will explain the history and evolution of public baths in Roman society, followed by a look at many other aspects of the Roman bathing culture. Some of those aspects include the bathing routine, entry fees, hours of operation, where the water came from, how the water arrived at the baths, Etc. Everything I explore is listed below in the "Section Links" guide. To look at a particular subject, just click the link or scroll down the page.
Going to the baths every day was an essential part of Roman life and civilization. As a result, enormous resources were devoted to constructing the aqueducts, buildings, plumbing, heating systems, and artwork required to deliver a satisfying bathing experience to all citizens throughout the Roman Empire. And thanks to Roman aqueducts that carried vast amounts of water over long distances, all Roman cities were supplied with abundant water for small and large public bathing facilities.
"Bathing is good for you!"
Roman bathhouse floor mosaic. Beside the sandals is a container for oil used on the skin.
For the average Roman, going to a bathing facility meant much more than just cleansing the body. Many Romans went to the baths daily to bathe, sit in a sauna, get a massage, and just relax. But they also went to baths to socialize and conduct business, to exercise in a gym or play sports, to read in a library, to listen to poetry or a lecture, to buy food or drink from a vendor, and to watch a performance. To the ancient Roman, these huge bathing facilities were also massive leisure and entertainment centres.
Natatio Pool of Hadrianic Baths, Lepcis Magna, 2011
Image Courtesy of Ben Sutherland
Even the bathing experience itself was multi-faceted, with pools of water set at different temperatures ranging from cold to hot. And some of these pools were huge, such as the Natatio outside pool of the Baths of Diocletian, which was three times the size of an Olympic swimming pool.
In these two pages, I will focus on the largest and most luxurious baths the Romans ever built in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD - the Baths of Caracalla and the Baths of Diocletian. I will discuss many aspects of these baths, such as the architecture, the plumbing, the bathing routine, the exercise routines, the artwork, the entry fee, how the water was heated and from where it came.
I will also discuss the level of hygiene in baths that accommodated thousands of people daily without using chlorine to disinfect the water. I will also ponder how noisy a huge Roman bathhouse could be inside its cavernous halls filled with thousands of people talking, splashing, and shouting. Finally, I will explore the reality of mixed bathing (men and women bathing together), nudity, and sexual activity in Roman bathhouses.
Three hundred years before the first public bathhouse appeared, most Romans did not bathe. Instead, they washed different parts of their body at different times. For example, they washed their arms and legs daily, but the body itself was washed only once a week.
Those Romans who could afford houses had access to a small bathing room called a Lavatorium or Balnea. However, only the very rich had access to the water, plumbing, and the permission required to have a fully functioning indoor bath. Poorer Roman homeowners without access to running water had to settle for just a small tub or inground pool, which had to be filled and then emptied by hand - a lot of work. And the water had to be carried to the house from the nearest public fountain - many trips back and forth. It is not surprising, therefore, that public bathhouses quickly became popular because they were essential and convenient.
The first Thermae Baths built in Rome 25 BC / BCE
Baths of Agrippa & Basilica of Neptune, located Pantheon rear, 2007
Image Courtesy of Richard White
Small public bathhouses started to appear in the Second Century BC and then steadily grew in number. There were no large bathhouses for over a hundred years until 20 years after the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
Starting in 25 BC, the first huge and luxurious Roman bathing facility opened to the public. It was built by the famous Roman General and architect Marcus Agrippa, who was the right-hand man of Emperor Augustus. This new type of bathing facility, the Baths of Agrippa, was located just behind the Pantheon in Rome (shown in the photo above). From this point on, large public baths grew in size as successive Emperors built new ones. By the early Fourth Century, there were 11 large baths in Rome and almost a thousand smaller bath houses.
Meeting the bathing needs of a vast Roman population required the construction of large bathing establishments called Thermae, which were built and operated by the Roman government. These vast, state-owned baths were also categorized as "Imperial Baths," a term based on the fact they were built by a Roman Emperor, and also their large size and number of amenities.
The largest - and the last - Thermae ever built in the whole Roman Empire was the Baths of Diocletian in the year 306 AD. The second-largest Roman bathing establishment was the nearby Baths of Caracalla, which opened 90 years earlier in 216 AD.
These two baths were also the most luxurious in the Roman Empire. In addition to having hot, warm, and cold water pools, these baths also had sizeable outside swimming pools. Also found in these baths were: saunas, gymnasiums, libraries, lecture halls, high ceilings, floors and walls covered with exotic marbles and mosaics, and numerous tall columns and statues.
** Regionary Catalogs, Notitia Topographical survey, 312 AD.
Roman neighbourhood with many Insulae buildings in 300 AD
These five-storey high structures were called Insulae, a Latin word meaning "Islands." These dwellings had no plumbing or bathing facilities despite the plentiful water that flowed into Rome from its eleven aqueducts.
Unlike today, where household plumbing is standard, Rome's water was channelled primarily to public baths, fountains, and latrines. To get access to the Roman water supply system for your home, special permission from the Roman authorities was required. Water was supplied to a house via lead pipes and bronze valves. This kind of luxury was the preserve of the Roman elite who were rich and powerful.
For the vast majority of Romans, if they needed water, they went to public fountains, and if they wanted to bathe, they went to public or private bathing facilities. Moreover, if they had to relieve themselves, they used public latrines.
Over 90% of the public baths were small in size and mostly privately owned - these were called Balneae (Balnea or Balnium singular). These smaller bathhouses were much plainer, darker and limited in amenities compared to the large baths.
The huge Thermae bathing facilities were all state-owned and found only in large cities. They are also called Imperial Baths and they were typically a few city blocks in size. Below are two images, with a Thermae on the left and a Balnea on the right. The Thermae shows an outside Natatio swimming pool, and the Balnea image shows a lady bathing in a Caldarium room tub. The word Balnea can also mean the bathroom area of a Roman house or villa.
Large Thermae Baths compared to small Balnea Bathhouse
Romans loved going to the Baths; it was an essential part of their lives. This epitaph on the tomb of
Tiberius Claudius Secundus sums up three of the great pleasures of Roman life:
Balnea, vina, Venus corrumpunt corpora nostra;
sed vitam faciunt balnea, vina, Venus
Baths, wine, and making love spoil our bodies;
but baths, wine, and making love make our lives worth living.
After public bathhouses came into existence in the Second Century BC, not only did bathing become more popular, but people started going to the baths daily. There are stories told about Romans that bathed several times a day. For example, Emperors Commodus, Gallienus, and Gordian III bathed six or seven times a day, and some even had their meals while bathing because they spent so much time in the pool. Bathing and all its social functions became a near-obsession for Romans. It is not unlike the importance of television, smartphones, and social media today - a near obsession for many people.
As bathing became increasingly important, by the Third Century AD, Roman Emperors spent enormous sums building huge and luxurious Thermae bathing palaces for the public. There were eleven Thermae in Rome alone. This page focuses primarily on the two largest Thermae baths built in the 3rd and 4th centuries in the city of Rome - the Baths of Caracalla and the Baths of Diocletian.
Both these vast bathing complexes still exist, but they were damaged by earthquakes and pillaging over the centuries. Unfortunately, other noteworthy Imperial baths in Rome no longer exist. For example, only a small part of the Baths of Agrippa remains along the Pantheon's back wall. Also, only a few columns remain of the Baths of Nero/Alexander. Furthermore, the Baths of Titus was completely demolished, and only a few ruins remain of the Baths of Trajan.
The Baths of Caracalla will be the primary focus as I explore various aspects of bathing. Because so much of its overall structure still exists, one can gain a good understanding of an Imperial baths overall architecture and layout. And, though the Baths of Diocletian also still exists, many parts of it are missing or have been converted into a church and museums.
As I explore the various aspects of Roman baths and bathing practices, I will focus on the following subjects of interest:
How many kinds of bathing pools were there in a large Roman baths? What features and amenities did Roman baths have beyond the obvious bathing pools?
Did the staff ring a bell to inform patrons when the baths were ready and open in the morning? And what was the purpose of having pools of water that ranged in temperature from cold to room temperature to warm and then hot?
Was there an entry fee, even for the state-owned baths? And what were the typical hours of operation?
Where did huge baths get the vast amount of water required every day? How was all this water transported from far away, distributed, and stored?
Was there a typical routine that bathers followed? What kinds of games or sports did the Romans play at the baths?
Were Roman baths clean and safe, or were they filthy and bad for health? And, with thousands of bathers, vendors, hair pluckers, Etc., talking and yelling below those vast, echoing ceilings, just how noisy were these baths?
Did Roman men and women bathe together in public bathhouses? If they did, when did it start and how prevalent was the practice? Also, how prevalent was sexual activity in the baths?
As you can see, many aspects of Roman bathhouses will be looked at and explained through photos, discussion, diagrams, and drawings.
Like all other large Thermae, the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla were divided into three main interior bathing areas, each containing a pool of water that differed from the others according to water temperature - from Cold to Hot. In addition, all large baths also had one or more outside swimming pools, called a Natatio, whose temperature was that of the surrounding air. Sometimes, a Natatio could be part of the main building, sharing its walls, but it would be roofless.
Hot water bathing pool
Warm water bathing pool
Cold water bathing pool
Outside air temperature
The diagram below shows the location of the four kinds of water pools inside the Baths of Caracalla. Each section, labelled Frigidarium or Tepidarium or Caldarium, is just an area or large room of the baths that contains several small pools of water. For example, the Caldarium of this bathing facility is a large circular room that has seven pools of hot water arranged along the periphery of the room, whereas the Frigidarium is an area of the building that has four pools of cold water, two on each side. It is incorrect to assume that each area had a large, rectangular pool that filled almost the entire room. The only part of a Roman baths that had a large, rectangular pool was the outside swimming pool called the Natatio.
The Baths of Caracalla's 14 Water Pools
In addition to having pools of water at different temperatures, some Roman baths also had saunas (shown in the diagram above), called Sudatorium in Latin. The location of a gymnasium courtyard area, called a Palaestra, is also shown in the diagram (far left and right).
The two main entrances are at the bottom left and right corners of the diagram. Each of these entrances led into a room so large that it is believed athletes could exercise there in addition to using the Palestrae gymnasium. There are also two additional entrances along the bottom, on either side of the Natatio swimming pool. The diagram below shows a cross-section of the map above going from top middle to bottom middle, right through the Caldarium and to the Natatio.
When looking at the map diagram above, please note that there was a series of structures (some still exist) all around the main baths building that are not shown in the diagram. These structures, which formed a kind of outside wall around the baths, included libraries, lecture halls, and meeting rooms. These peripheral structures were built by Emperor Heliogabalus and Emperor Severus Alexander after the death of Caracalla.
Cross-section through centre of Baths of Caracalla
In the image above, you can see the Great Hall between the Frigidarium pools on either side. Statements saying this hall is located between the Tepidarium and Frigidarium are incorrect. There were two pools of cold water on either side of the hall, for a total of four Frigidarium pools. It would be more precise to say that the Great Hall of the Frigidarium lies between the Tepidarium and the Natatio area of the baths.
In contrast to the huge Thermae like the Baths of Caracalla, smaller Balneae baths rarely had an outside Natatio swimming pool. Saunas and exercise courtyards also might not have been available. Furthermore, instead of an inground pool, an above-ground tub might have been used. For example, while a Balnea might have an inground cold water pool in its Frigidarium section, the hot water might be provided in an above-ground tub in the Caldarium area. Patrons would thus stand or sit in the tub and pour buckets of water over themselves.
What was a typical routine at a Roman baths like? Later, in this section, I will provide my own best guess of what most Romans did when they went to a bathhouse with many amenities.You will find several versions of what happened by different authors. However, the fact is, no one really knows for sure - people are either guessing or simply repeating what someone else has written.
In our own century, for example, what is the typical routine of someone in a health club? Beyond heading for the changing room first, what next? Lifting weights? Treadmills? Squash courts? Personal training? Exercise bikes? Dance exercise? Sauna? Swimming pool? Which activities, and in what order? Perhaps some people mostly socialize at a health club and do very little physical exercise. Maybe others go there just to swim or use the sauna.
Therefore, when discussing a typical routine in a Roman bath or today's health clubs or spas, I think common sense tells us that there is no set routine, which varies from person to person based on their unique preferences and needs. The quote below supports my own thoughts on this subject:
The Romans did not content themselves with a single bath of hot or cold water; but they went through a course of baths in succession, in which the agency of air as well as water was applied. It is difficult to ascertain the precise order in which the course was usually taken, if indeed there was any general practice beyond the whim of the individual.
John Murray, A Dictionary of Greek & Roman Antiquities 1875.
Let us look at just one small aspect of the Roman bathing ritual: When did the Romans apply oil to their skin and then have it scrapped off at the baths? Was it right at the start before exercising? Or was it applied in the warm pool area (Tepidarium)? Or was it just before or after the hot pool area (Caldarium)? Or maybe they did the oil process right at the very end. Perhaps, each one of those answers is correct - it all depended on the individual's preference or beliefs.
When describing the actual bathing routine, people often refer to the Roman physicians Galens or Celsus' recommendations (which differed from each other) regarding the baths. Of course, some Romans may have followed the advice of those famed physicians, but certainly, many others followed their own course as all humans are often prone to do.
Anyhow, whatever the case may be, I will describe a bathing routine that a typical Roman may have followed, based on what seems to make the most sense. I write this description while fully realizing that there were many variations in the routine. Therefore, I invite you to make your own best guess of what the routine may have been.
A day at the baths typically began with a visit to the Apodyterium changing rooms, where people undressed and stored their clothes and other items. The photo below of an actual room recreation shows how a typical Apodyterium might look. This image may seem surprising because it seems so real and almost modern. It is important to remember that when seeing Roman ruins, we see buildings stripped of all marble, plaster, paint, wood, furniture, Etc. However, the Roman world was as real as ours and they decorated and furnished their structures in a pleasing and robust way. Note: Apodyterium is the Latin version of the Greek term "Apodyterion," meaning the same thing.
"Apodyterium" Roman bath changing room recreation
Image from the Baths of Carnuntum in Austria
After undressing in the Apodyterium changing room and putting on a light garment called a subligaculum, the usual routine for bathers was to engage in light or heavy exercise in the Palaestra area, a large colonnaded courtyard in the large baths that was, essentially, a gymnasium.
Mosaic showing women exercising in a bathhouse Palestra
Roman Villa of Casale - Sicily - 320 AD
Image courtesy of Paul Asman & Jill Lenoble CC BY-2.0
There, they would stretch, lift weights using barbells, or throw a ball around, as seen in the Roman mosaic shown above. Sometimes, women would wear a kind of bikini outfit for exercising, which was perhaps also worn while bathing.
After building up a sweat, they would then enter the warm Tepidarium area heated by hot air passing through the walls and floor. The warmth coming from so many surfaces would help promote more sweat and prepared the bather before proceeding into the very hot Caldarium section.
Roman bronze Strigil for scraping oil off skin
However, after having built up a sweat, it was now time for the bather to remove the sweat and accumulated dirt from their skin. They did this by first applying perfumed olive oil, rubbing it in, and then using a strigil (shown above) to scrape the skin - this work was done either by themselves or by a slave.
Bringing a strigil and a container filled with oil was essential when going to a Roman bath. As shown in the photo below, it was perhaps common for Romans to come to the Baths with strigils and oil container attached conveniently together. Here, we see an ancient pair of strigils and oil container attached with small chains to a ring.
Key ring with strigils and oil container attached
British Museum - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
A bather might also receive a massage. The bather would then spend time in the warm water to prepare for the next stage.
Heated by 50 underground wood-burning furnaces, the hot water of the Caldarium plunge pools and the hot air of the sauna (Laconium) was around 55°C / 130°F in temperature. After a hot bath, the next step was to enter the cold Frigidarium to cool off and close the pores.
The final and optional stage was to swim in the large, outside Natatio swimming pools. The painting below from the 1700s shows a particularly beautiful outside Roman Natatio pool with a marvellous ceiling and arches open to the outside world. This is most likely a fantasy painting.
An outside Natatio pool of a Roman Baths
Charles-Louis Clerisseau, View of the interior of an antique Roman bath, 1770
Besides bathing and swimming, there were many other things to do: visit a food stall, go to a library, attend a lecture, meet friends or relatives, catch up with the latest news and gossip, attend a poetry reading or play, or just walk through the beautiful gardens. A large Roman bathing establishment was a spa and a place of leisure, entertainment, and culture.
Baths usually opened around lunchtime and received visitors around the Roman eighth daylight hour (hora octava), which is 1:30 pm for us in summer and 12:45 pm in winter. The strange time difference is because Romans did not divide the day into 24 equal units of time as we do. Instead, their units of time fluctuated with the season. They divided the daylight part of a day into 12 units and then did the same to the night part of the day.
Now, as you know, the daylight part of the day is much longer in summer and much shorter in winter. And vice versa for the dark portion of a day. Thus, each of those 12 daylight hours in summer was much longer than the 12 dark hours. The only part of the world where Roman hours would always be of equal length would be near the equator, where there is no seasonal variation of daylight versus night hours.
The Roman concept of time and hours is surprising and baffling to us in the 21st century. You can see the Roman eighth hour (VIII) changing in the video below (bottom "Day" half).
Play video above to see Roman day and night hours fluctuating according to the seasons
Although Imperial baths were open for only 5 or 6 hours in the winter and 9 to 10 hours in the summer, privately-owned baths were a different matter. They could be in operation for much of the day, perhaps opening at 7 am and closing at 11 pm, for example. On the other hand, bathhouses that were open 24 hours a day were probably few in number and perhaps non-existent.
What is important to remember is that baths, especially the large imperial baths, needed time to clean, organize, and get ready for the day ahead. Pools had to be drained, cleaned, and refilled. I also assume the building had to be swept and cleaned; wood for heating water, and other supplies had to be restocked and made ready. Doing all that took much preparation and time each day.
So what time did most Romans prefer to bathe? Most Romans arrived at the baths an hour or two after lunch. People would rise early and work five or six hours until noon. Then it was off to lunch. Afterwards, it was time for a nap, and then off to the baths for several hours to exercise, relax, bathe, socialize, go to the library, Etc. The only people who arrived at the Baths early n the morning would be the ill and disabled, for whom the baths were reserved during that part of the day.
The quote below, from a book by Harold Whetstone Johnston, regarding the daily lives of average Romans, explains the part of the day when most Romans arrived for their daily bathing routine. Note: He mentions "The eighth hour" which is 2 pm for us in the 21st century.
The bath was regularly taken between the meridiatio (mid-day nap) and cena (supper) the hour varying, therefore, within narrow limits in different seasons and for different classes.
In general it may be said to have been taken about the eighth hour, and at this hour all the conductores (bath managers) were bound by their contracts to have the baths open and all things in readiness.
Harold Whetstone Johnston - The Private Life of the Romans
Mr. Whetstone goes on to mention that there was a contingent of bathers who preferred to start bathing before lunch. Presumably, these "pre-lunch" bathers bought their mid-day meal on the premises. Many bathhouses, especially the large Thermae baths, had food vendors.
The Romans would probably find our modern way of life harsh and stressful. After all, they worked only from morning until noon - five or six hours a day. And their hours were flexible, unlike our fixed hours. Apart from the difference in hours, the concept of people always bathing alone also would be strange to the Romans. For them, bathing was a time to meet others, conduct business, and share the latest news or gossip.
Compared to ours, the Roman way of life was more relaxed and pleasant in certain ways - at least for the non-slaves. For those wondering: Yes, enslaved people were allowed to use private and public baths - but their workday was undoubtedly longer and harsher. Roman society was a blend of both pleasant and brutal aspects.
Many websites say Roman baths were free to enter - but that is incorrect. On special occasions, or when a wealthy politician paid a large sum to a bathhouse to gain popularity, the entry fee was waived for the day or several days. Nevertheless, the cost of entry was kept very low so that even a poor person could afford to bathe every day.
When an Emperor built a large Thermae bathing complex, it was built with the intention that all Romans - rich and poor alike - would have easy access. Therefore, to make it accessible to all, the entry cost was set at the lowest coin denomination of 1 Quadrans, which is like 1 cent today. For hundreds of years, the Quadrans was the lowest coin denomination in the Roman empire. This changed to the Denarius and then the Nummus coins in the Fourth Century and beyond as the empire crumbled and the currency was debased.
Roman Quadrans coin showing both faces
All Romans having access to bathing facilities became an integral aspect of Roman hygiene, socializing, and relaxation. By building vast Thermae baths with a small entry fee, Roman emperors provided an essential public service that conferred many benefits to the general population.
In contrast, the smaller, privately-owned Balneae baths were run to make a profit - the Roman government did not subsidize them. As a result, these establishments had to raise sufficient funds through entrance fees from the public. These fees were then used to pay for wood (to heat water), for non-slave salaries, and for all the other expenses associated with maintaining a bathhouse.
Nevertheless, even the privately-owned baths charged nominal fees. They had to compete, after all, with the state-sponsored Thermae. Of course, private bathhouses that catered to a wealthier clientele charged higher fees.
The highly romanticized Victorian-era painting below shows Roman ladies lounging beside a pool inside the vast and luxurious Baths of Caracalla. These ladies are obviously not bathing, judging by their attire. In the background, the marble splendour and beautiful architecture convey a feeling of luxury and relaxation. It also gives a sense of very active bathers playing and soaking in the water. However, patrons of a large Roman bathing establishment spent much of their time outside the pools doing other things.
Artist recreation of a day at the Baths of Caracalla
Lawrence Alma-Todema "Thermae-Antoninianae"
"The Baths of Caracalla" - 1899
An Imperial Roman bath Thermae was much more than just a series of bathing pools of varying water temperatures. These huge bathing facilities also provided saunas, libraries, hair salons, lecture rooms, gymnasiums, and music pavilions. Furthermore, the whole main bathing structure was surrounded by gardens and rich landscaping made of trees, pools, fountains, and statues.
There were also rooms for poetry readings, areas for merchants, and areas for purchasing and eating food. The food stalls and shops, such as for purchasing perfumed oil, were located along the outer perimeter walls facing the main entrances. Imperial Baths, in typical Roman Fashion, had two libraries, one for Latin and one for Greek language documents.
Some of the larger baths even had a theatre, like the one within the large exedra of the Baths of Diocletian. Even temples to Roman gods could be found. Recently, an underground temple to the god Mithras was discovered in the Baths of Caracalla. The many features of a large Roman bathing establishment are explained in better detail in my other two Roman Baths pages that look at the two largest Thermae in the whole Roman empire - the Baths of Caracalla and the Baths of Diocletian.Nearly all baths - even the smaller ones - had a gymnasium area ("Palaestra") for exercising and building up a sweat before bathing. The section below looks at this aspect.
Apart from typical exercises performed in a Roman Baths' Palestrae areas such as light weight lifting, stretching, lifting a large medicine ball, Etc., there were other more structured sports-like activities. And, just like today, these organized sports involved using one or more balls of various sizes. Three of those games that were popular and often played by Romans in the Palaestra, were Harpustum, Trigon and Datatim Ludere.
Harpustum was a ball game that was much like football. You would run while holding a small, hard ball while opponents tried to stop you. The game was quite rigorous and violent, often causing players to fall hard to the ground.
Ancient Romans playing Trigon - Image of Baths of Titus wall painting
Trigon, also known as Pila Trigonalis, was a form of multi-player juggling. Three people, called Trigonali, stood at three points of a triangle on the ground. They then threw balls to each other with their right hand while catching the circulating balls with their left hand. Other people - called the Pilecripi - kept score and retrieved the fallen balls. You can imagine the frenzied ball action, almost like a form of "juggling for three." This game must have required a great deal of concentration and expertise. How entertaining and fun it must have been to watch experts of the game playing this sport.
Datatim Ludere was one of the simplest Roman ball games. It involved two players throwing a ball back and forth to each other, the same as we all do today. The point of these various games was to build up a sweat and have fun interacting with other people.
Subiaco, Italy - the water source for the Baths of Diocletian and Caracalla
An Imperial bathhouse required enormous amounts of water, especially if all the pools had their water changed daily for sanitation purposes. It has been estimated that the Baths of Caracalla consumed over 1/20th of the entire Roman water supply*. Also, its enormous water reservoirs could hold 80,000 cubic metres (17 Million Gallons) of water. The actual source of the water was a group of springs in present-day Subiaco town area (seen above) in the Appenine mountains. These springs are located on the right bank of the upper Aniene river. In Roman times, this river was known as the Anio river, and it fed other Roman aqueducts, such as the Anio Vetus and the Anio Novus.* Bathing in the Roman World, F. Yegul, Cambridge Univ. Press, Page 116.
Roman aqueducts were excellent at transporting vast amounts of water over long distances. In the image below, a damaged aqueduct on the right reveals three separate water channels inside its structure above the arches. That is a lot of water being transported. And the aqueduct on the left side supports at least two water channels.
The Roman aqueducts with supporting arches portrayed below, are called "Arcades". They are a type of aqueduct defined as a water bridge suspended above arches. These were very expensive to build and took much time. Arches were used instead of walls so people and animals could pass beneath the aqueduct. Roman water engineers used an instrument called a Chorobates to plot the long and slight horizontal slope required to transport water.
Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus aqueducts intersecting beside the Via Latina road in the 4th Century AD
The location of this intersection is shown in the map below
The drawing above provides a dramatic view of the old Via Latina road south-east of Rome. This wide road stretches onwards through the arched gateway formed by the Aqua Claudia aqueduct as it intersects with the damaged Aqua Anio Novus. This location is 10 km (6 miles) from the outskirts of Rome, seen in the distance.
You can see precisely where the aqueduct intersection shown above is located on a map below (large red dot). You will see how the two aqueducts cross over each other right near the Via Latina road heading towards Rome. You can also see 10 of the aqueducts (colour-coded) that supplied Rome with water from the surrounding countryside, rivers, lakes, and mountains. Of most interest, of course, is the Aqua Marcia (purple) that supplied water to the great Thermae baths of Rome. On the map, it is located just above the intersection red dot.
Aqueducts supplying Rome with abundant water in 4th Century AD
Based on an original image by Cassius Ahenobarbus - CC BY-SA 3.0 - 2013
Every part of an aqueduct had to be carefully planned so that, no matter the distance, gravity moved the water gradually from point A to point B. Just imagine the amount of work and planning required to move a great volume of water 100 km (60 miles), for example. If you got the angle wrong, the water either stopped moving or would move too fast and overflow. And it was not easy to "correct" what you already constructed at great cost, labour, and time. You can imagine how the Emperor might be upset.
The Baths of Caracalla required so much water that a new aqueduct had to be built in 212 AD. It was called the Aqua Antoniniana, all within the city of Rome. Because of ongoing repairs, the Aqua Antoniniana was still functioning in the 10th Century. It branched off the main Aqua Marcia aqueduct shown in the photo below. The Aqua Marcia was the 2nd most important aqueduct that serviced Rome; its water capacity was over 45 Million litres (10 million gallons) per day** .** Deane Blackman, The Volume of Water delivered by the Four Great Aqueducts of Rome, 2013, Cambridge University Press
The Aqua Marcia - 1 of 11 aqueducts that supplied water to Rome
The Aqua Marcia aqueduct, pictured above, carried spring water from a source 40 km away (24 miles) from Rome. However, because the aqueduct had to meander about in order to maintain a correct angle for sustained water movement, the actual length of the aqueduct was over 90 km (57 miles). Unlike the Aqua Marcia, only one arch remains of the Aqua Antoniniana, as shown in the photo below. This arch is known as the Arch of Drusus, which experts say is probably not what the Romans called it. It predated the aqueduct that ran across its top and may have been the Arch of Trajan in Rome.
Aqua Antoniniana - it brought water to the Baths of Caracalla
Contrary to what many people think, 90% of the time, the water in a Roman aqueduct travelled along a channel in the ground. Tall, arched structures carrying water along the top were built only when absolutely necessary due to the enormous building expense. This expensive form of an aqueduct was called an "arcade," and it was built to last. For example, even today, the Acqua Felice aqueduct built in 1586 still uses parts of the ancient 2,150-year-old Aqua Marcia to carry water to Rome. The Romans were masters of hydraulic engineering, and their technical skill in building aqueducts should be considered an eighth wonder of the ancient world.
In his quote below, Pliny the Elder, First Century Roman author and philosopher, thought very highly of his civilization's civil engineering accomplishments regarding water provision to their cities.
If we only take into consideration the abundant supply of water to the public, for baths, ponds, canals, household purposes, gardens, places in the suburbs, and country houses; and then reflect upon the distances that are traversed, the (aqueduct) arches that have been constructed, the mountains that have been pierced, the valleys that have been levelled, we must of necessity admit that there is nothing to be found more worthy of our admiration throughout the whole universe.
Pliny, Natural Histories, 36 - Chap. 24
The still-standing aqueduct shown below, going through the city of Segovia in Spain, is a testimony to Roman civilization's extraordinary technical and architectural prowess. It supplied water to this city right up until the 1850s. Unfortunately, however, it was damaged in the early 11th Century by the Moors, and sections of this aqueduct were rebuilt in the 1500s.
Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain
Image licensed from Dreamstime.com
Archaeologists today estimate Emperor Trajan built it in the year 112 AD. It stands almost 30 metres (100 feet) high, and it transported water from nearby hills. Near a top arch (third from the right), there used to be a statue of Hercules in the box-like niche. When I visited this city, my father and I climbed up a nearby hillside on the right, and we looked right down into the top of the aqueduct. If you go to Spain, you should see this marvellous and well-preserved Roman aqueduct. It is stunning.
After travelling through the Roman countryside and reaching Rome, the water then had to travel through the city core - not an easy task. As a result, an elevated and arched "Arcade" type of aqueduct had to be used.
As shown in the photo below, this particular aqueduct had to be built quite high along certain stretches, using multi-tiered arches that spanned streets and along buildings. This photo is based on an actual scale model of ancient Rome. It took Italo Gismondi 38 years to make the model in the 1930s. It is called the "Plastico di Roma Imperiale"
Arcus Neroniani aqueduct in central Rome
Photo of "Plastico di Roma Imperiale"
Italo Gismondo - 1930s
The photo above shows the Arcus Neroniani aqueduct coursing through central Rome in the early 200s AD. Just imagine the time and expense required to build the elevated aqueduct infrastructure required to move water through the heart of Rome.
The photo below shows a section of this same multi-tiered aqueduct still standing in the 21st century. Look at all that brickwork. Also, these ruins originally were much higher because two additional tiers of arches existed above what you see today. At some time in the past, they were somehow knocked down by earthquakes, barbarians, pillaging, or weather - who knows? So much can happen in 20 centuries - we are fortunate that anything remains of this aqueduct.
Arcus Neroniani Aqueduct in 2018, Rome
Image licensed from Dreamstime.com
After arriving at the Baths of Caracalla complex, the water was stored in a vast reservoir made up of 32 cisterns built in a 2-storey structure located south of the baths. The cisterns were filled overnight and then used to refill all the pools in the morning.
The alternating images below show a map diagram and then a photo showing what remains of the cisterns today. The map diagram shows details of the 32 cisterns (blue) within a gray area that represents what is shown in the photo.
Gray Area in Diagram is area shown in the Google Earth Photo
Fletcher, B. "Plan of the Baths of Caracalla." Ancient History Encyclopedia
There is confusion about how many cisterns made up the water reservoir for the Baths of Caracalla. Wikipedia says there were only 18, but that is incorrect. There were 32, as stated in the quote below. Also, after examining photos of the cistern ruins, I can see that there were 16 cisterns going across. If each cistern was then divided into 2 chambers, that indeed could total 32.
The Aqua Antoniniana ended in the large cisterns of Caracalla's Baths. These remain on the south side of the baths (below Via Baccelli), buttressed against the hill on which the aqueduct arrived. The water was stored here for distribution from 32 chambers of approximately two stories each. Such a high capacity would have served the baths well should the water supply have been interrupted.
Evan James Dembskey, "The Aqueducts of Ancient Rome" - 2009 - p. 113
Without a doubt, the Romans built an enormous amount of water storage for the Baths of Caracalla - and for a good reason. This vast bathing facility required a tremendous amount of water every day. For example, just one pool, the Olympic-sized Natatio outside swimming pool, would have required many thousands of litres (gallons) each time it was refilled.
And then, when all the other pools are taken into consideration, it becomes clear that the water demands of this facility were indeed steep. 80,000 cubic metres of water (21 Million US Gallons) were required by this bathhouse daily, delivered by its dedicated Acqua Antoniniana aqueduct at 70 litres per second (18 Gallons). And that amount of water was stored in this bathhouse's cisterns. Furthermore, when you think how the larger Baths of Diocletian, also in Rome, required even more water - you can see that this city's eleven aqueducts were quite essential.
In 1548 AD, a large bell was found in the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian by Fulvio Orsini. It is assumed that this bell was rung to let patrons know the baths were ready to open or close and perhaps also that the hot water had reached the perfect temperature.
To the ancient Romans, a bell was an Aes or Tintinnabulum, and a baths bell was an Aes Thermarum ("Warm Baths Bell"). The bell found in the Baths of Diocletian had the inscription FIRMI BALNEATORIS engraved upon its surface; unfortunately, this bell no longer exists. It seems that after the death of Mr. Orsini, who found the bell, in the year 1600, the bell was either lost, sold, or melted down.
Ancient Roman Bronze Bell from 1st Century AD
Image courtesy Met Museum, New York, OA Public Domain
Above is a photo of an actual ancient Roman Bell, which is probably very similar to one found in the Baths of Diocletian.
Getting a large Thermae ready to receive thousands of bathers every day was a big job. Furnaces had to be fed tons of wood to heat much water to the correct temperatures required by the Tepidarium and the hotter Caldarium pools. Wet and dry saunas had to be working and heated to the right temperature.
The building had to be tidy, and the floors swept; pools had to be drained, cleaned, and refilled. Attendants and masseurs had to be in position and ready with towels, oils for the skin, Etc. Every detail, every day, had to be ready for the proper functioning of a large Roman bathhouse when the doors opened to the public.
When the water was at the right temperature and everything else was ready, a bell was rung to alert the waiting patrons outside. As Martial, the Roman poet, wrote in the First Century in an epigram about the baths:
Redde pilam: sonat aes thermarum. Ludere pergis?
Virgine vis sola lotus abire domum.
Pass the ball? The bath bell is sounding.
Leave the girl alone and go bathe.
- Martial, Apophoreta, CXLIII
I think Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis) is saying a man is playing some kind of ball game with a girl when a bell is heard, letting the patrons know the baths are ready. Perhaps he is playing outside the baths. More likely, he is already inside the Palestra exercise courtyard, and now it is time to bathe because the water in the warm Tepidarium and hot Caldarium is at the perfect temperature.
A gong was found in the Stabian bath complex gymnasium area (Palaestra) in Pompeii. I have found a photo of a gong from Pompeii, dated from the First Century, which I show below. This gong is currently on display in the Naples Archaeological Museum". However, I am not 100% certain this is the actual gong found in the baths. It is interesting to see that the device used to strike the gong still exists - I am not sure what the actual size is.
Ancient Roman gong, Pompeii, 1st Century AD
Image courtesy of Carlo Raso - Public Domain
That a bell or gong was rung in the baths to announce it was opening is a fact because great Roman orator, philosopher and statesman Cicero wrote about it:
The gong that announces the opening of the public baths each day is a sweeter sound than the voices of philosophers in their school.- Marcus Tullius Cicero
Perhaps the Romans also rang a large bell or gong, for example, to notify people when the Colosseum was opening or closing. Perhaps a bell was rung to notify visitors that it was time to vacate the forums of Rome and their respective temples, libraries and museums. Maybe temples to the various Roman gods also rang bells to summon adherents or simply to celebrate certain religious events. If one could travel back in time, you would likely find that ancient Rome was a place where the air was laden with the sounds of bells.
We know that by the end of the Fourth Century, ringing bells in a church was begun by Paulinus of Nola, a practice that Pope Sabinianus later approved. It is reasonable to surmise this practice of ringing bells was not unique or original - it was another expression of an ancient practice in Roman civilization.
Because the Romans invested heavily in public baths, public toilets, sewage systems, and a vast system of aqueducts that carried clean drinking water to their cities, one would expect most Romans were free from lice, fleas, and internal parasites such as worms. However, based on recent scientific studies, this was not the case. In fact, wherever Roman civilization spread, it worsened the parasite problem - and the question is why?
Roman public toilet in Lepsis Magna
Consider how a large Roman baths would receive thousands of people daily. Now consider also that chlorine, other disinfectants, and water filtration did not exist in Roman civilization - nor did any awareness of microbes and how disease spreads.
Also, there was often no constant circulation of fresh water into pools whilst contaminated water was drained away - this was especially true for pools containing water heated by burning expensive wood.
Pools filled with colder water that did not require expensive heating - such as the Frigidarium and Natatio - more likely had fresh water constantly entering the pool while older water was drained away. This kind of constant water renewal was probably more likely in large Imperial Baths such as the Baths of Caracalla or Baths of Diocletian simply because they received vast amounts of water daily from their dedicated aqueducts.
Anyone who owns a large swimming pool today knows it requires a lot of maintenance and chemicals to keep it clean and safe. The photo below shows what happens if one does not keep up with pool maintenance. Things start growing on the pool surfaces, and the water can turn greenish and potentially dangerous.
A brave fellow.
Now imagine the water quality of the Baths of Diocletian's outside Natatio swimming pool after several thousand people swam in it before you - a pool with no chlorine, no filtration. That would not be a welcome experience for the faint-hearted.
The water quality was probably much worse in the Balneae - the smaller and privately-owned bathhouses - where the water in a pool was sometimes changed only every few days by slaves using bowls - a slow and labour-intensive task.
The Romans knew about soap, which they called ( "Sopa" in Latin). But they did not use it for bathing - they used it to wash clothes instead. If the Romans did not use soap for cleaning their skin, what did they use?
Well, people covered their bodies with olive oil, rubbed it in, and then used a long metal tool called a Strigil to scrape the sweat and dirt-encrusted oil off their bodies and onto the floor, walls, or into the water, which could lead to a pool with scum floating all over.
The quote below by Emperor Marcus Aurelius sums up his personal opinion about oily skin and the public bathing experience in Rome:
"What is bathing when you think about it — oil, sweat, filth, greasy water, everything loathsome."
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.24
And the following quote, by Aulus Cornelius Celsus, a Roman who wrote a medical encyclopedia, cautions people with wounds not to bathe - and remember that everyone, except for the very rich, had to use public baths if they wanted to bathe.
Bathing, while the wound is not yet clean, is one of the worst things to do; for this makes the wound both wet and dirty, and then there is a tendency for gangrene to occur.
- Aulus Cornelius Celsus, Book 5, Chap. 26
Rather than cleansing the wound, Roman bath water could cause serious infection and gangrene because it was contaminated with bacteria and fungi.
Interestingly, the Roman bath in Bath, England, has banned swimming in the pool since 1978. People risk contracting meningitis from a dangerous amoeba that may be present in the water. In fact, a girl who swam in that ancient Roman pool, died in 1978. Of course, there was no chlorine or other disinfectant was being used in the pool. The following link to a newspaper article talks about another bather who risked his life swimming in that same pool.
Uncholorinated water from a pond showing many things.
Image courtesy of Dave Thomas - Creative Commons
It has been found that, wherever Roman civilization expanded, rates of parasites - lice, fleas, and intestinal worms - actually increased - which is somewhat surprising and disappointing. The barbarian hordes were probably less infested than their Roman foes.
This finding is based on the work of palaeopathologists who examined numerous Roman sites, looking at fossilized feces, combs to remove lice, and Roman remains. The quote below from an expert on ancient diseases at Cambridge University summarizes the reality of hygiene problems in ancient Roman society:
The Romans are famous for their interest in and dramatic improvements in sanitation, with an emphasis on regular bathing, clean drinking water, public toilets and systematic removal of human waste from towns and cities.
Since we believe all these things improve human health, you would expect to find the evidence for this – but the evidence is at best equivocal, and in some cases worse than in the pre-Roman period.
Piers Mitchell - Cambridge University Department of Archaelogy and Anthropology
Both the warm and hot bathing pools of a Roman bathhouse (Tepidarium and Caldarium) required water heated in boilers by burning tons of wood. Thus, this heated water was a resource that would have to be conserved. Imagine how you use your own bathtub full of hot water at home. Do you keep the drain plugged after filling it, or do you keep your bathtub unplugged while fresh hot water flows in continuously while bathing? Of course you would not do that as it would be very expensive and foolish.
The reality, almost certainly, is that the Romans also kept the drains of warm and hot water pools "plugged" most of the day to cut down on the expense of heating water. And thus, the combination of crowds, warm and stagnant water, micro-organisms, and no disinfectants certainly had the potential to create a perfect storm of infection in ancient times. Add to the mixture the accumulation of oil, hair, and skin debris from the bathers, and you end up with quite a brew.
People using Roman bath of Aquae Flavianae (Firt Century AD) in Khenchela, Algeria
Image courtesy of Abdallah Mosbah Educational Use
As regards the pools of colder water in the Frigidarium and Natatio, I am guessing the water quality was safer. This is because water that did not have to be heated could fill the colder pools constantly while any older, contaminated water was steadily drained away throughout the day.
I wonder how the pools were cleaned after they were emptied of water - if, indeed, the pools always were actually cleaned prior to being refilled with fresh water.
Did they perhaps use vinegar to remove stains and slimy growths along the surfaces? We know the Romans used vinegar as a disinfectant because they used it to disinfect the toilet sponge they used to wipe their bottoms in public latrines. After using the aforementioned stick, they placed it in a bowl of water and vinegar, waiting for the next person to use it. The Romans did not use toilet tissue.
And so it is possible that, after draining the pools of water, slaves would then use sponges or rags and vinegar and water to wipe the pool surfaces - but that is just a guess. It could very well be that the Romans used a simple broom and fresh water to clean the emptied bathing pools before refilling them. Unfortunately, I could not find any information on how the pools of Roman baths were sanitized - this is not really surprising since the last Roman baths closed almost 1,500 years ago, and it is doubtful whether written information about how ancient Roman bathing pools were cleaned has survived the many centuries.
There is a line of thought that the water quality in Roman Bathhouses was better than one would imagine because of the procedure Romans used when bathing. It is possible that, just like the Greeks, the Romans first showered in some fashion (poured buckets of water over themselves) before beginning the bathing process, thus eliminating part of the dirt and other impurities from their skin.
Afterwards, they rubbed oil into their skin and scraped it off, which removed even more dirt and contaminants from their skin.
If the bather then used a sauna to build up a cleansing sweat before proceeding into the various pools ... then perhaps the overall water quality in Roman baths was not quite as horrible as one might think - or was it?
A disturbing reality is that the sick and infected still went to the baths every morning despite illness or infirmity. In fact, Emperor Marcus Aurelius stipulated that a bathhouse's early morning hours were reserved for sick and disabled people.
The problem, of course, is that people who are quite ill can potentially infect the water with bacteria and whatever else is discharged from sores, wounds (and other orifices) or simply from coughing and spitting. Furthermore, if the water in a pool was changed before the ill entered, then that meant everyone else entering the pools afterwards ... were entering a potential hazard zone. The imagination bristles and one can appreciate the use and necessity of chlorine in pools today. Of course, the other thing we possess today that the Romans did not is scientific knowledge of how illness spreads through viruses, bacteria and parasites.
Roman Baths, especially the huge Imperial Thermae, were actually quite noisy. We know this because of a stoic Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger (5 BC - 65 AD). He wrote a series of very candid letters, which have survived, to his friend Lucillius the Younger.
In one of those letters, he writes about his experience living above a Roman bathhouse where he was subjected daily to people jumping and splashing in the water, salespeople loudly hawking services and wares, masseurs slapping flesh, and people screaming while a hair-plucker tweezes out body hair, Etc.
Well, one can imagine the noise he and others endured in a Roman baths. Seneca likely lived above a privately-owned Balneae bath - he died long before any of the huge Imperial Baths were built. I seriously doubt those massive state-owned baths contained apartments for the general public, anyhow. For your amusement and enlightenment about another aspect of Roman Baths, here is part of the letter Seneca wrote:
I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing!
When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones.
Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional (sports commentator) comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch.
Add to this the arresting of an occasional roisterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing.
Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, – for purposes of advertisement, – continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead.
Then the cake seller with his varied cries, the sausage man, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.
Seneca the Younger (4 BC - 65 AD) Letters, LVI
I wonder why Seneca endured this noise torture - why didn't he move out? Perhaps financial circumstances (lack of money) forced him to stay in those lodgings. Or maybe he enjoyed the quick convenience of being able to go for his daily bath just below his apartment - who really knows?
The question of whether or not men and women bathed together in public bathhouses is complicated to answer simply because Roman history is so very long. Roman culture and attitudes changed continuously during its 2,000-year history (509 BC to 1453 AD).
Given Roman history's great length, a reasonable answer to the question is this:
When the first Roman bathhouses were built, mixed bathing (male and females bathing together) did not happen. Nevertheless, as time went on, mixed bathing ("Balnea Mixta" in Latin) began to happen and eventually became somewhat prevalent. It all depended on the era of Roman history, the type and size of the baths, the kind of clientele they were serving, the location, and the local custom.
The prevalence of mixed bathing depended on whom the Roman Emperor was because, from time to time, decrees were issued to prohibit mixed bathing - with mixed results. Moreover, when mixed bathing was prohibited, it was first achieved by building bathhouses with separate areas. However, in later centuries, separation of the sexes in bathhouses was achieved by simply having separate hours: women bathed in the morning, after which men had the baths all to themselves for the rest of the day.
Mixta Thermarum In Calidum Aestatis Diem
- "Mixed Bathing on a Hot Summer's Day" -
Men & Women in the Natatio pool Baths of Diocletian 325 AD
Roman cities had no public bathhouses during the first three centuries of the early Roman Republic (500 BC - 200 BC approx). Instead, Romans bathed at home, usually just once a week, because only the wealthy had plumbing, and it required much work to fill and then empty a tub. However, they washed their hands, arms, legs and face daily. Those who were very poor would bathe in rivers or streams.
When Romans bathed at home, there were some societal prohibitions. For example, it was taboo for men to bathe with their sons if they had reached the age of puberty; also, it was considered indecent for a father-in-law to bathe with his son-in-law. Because the early Romans were quite strict about nudity, the concept of men and women bathing together publicly would have been prohibited if public bathhouses had existed in the early Roman Republic era.
By the Second Century BC, the first public bathhouses were built, and Romans started bathing communally. Public bathhouses were frequented mainly by the lower classes because wealthy Romans typically had the luxury of private bathing facilities in their homes. However, it was not uncommon for Roman Emperors, such as Augustus, to bathe in public baths, as did Emperor Hadrian and Emperor Severus Alexander. Their reasons for doing so were probably symbolic - to show they were one with the people.
However, these early public bathhouses had separate facilities for men and women, meaning there were also separate entrances, hallways, and rooms that housed the various pools and saunas. Furthermore, if a bathhouse had enough space to house a Palaestra exercise area or a Natatio swimming pool (or both), these additional areas were typically for the use of men only.
Roman women & slaves in the Women's Frigidarium area
"Frigidarium" by Lawrence Alma-Todema (1890)
So what did these segregated baths look like, and how were they different from the later non-segregated baths? First, I will show a segregated bathhouse built in the Second Century BC, and later I will look at a typical non-segregated bathhouse built in the First Century AD.
Roman Matron (centre) entering Roman baths with her female slaves
Roman Mosaic - 320 AD - Villa Romana - Sicily
Below is a diagram showing a segregated bathhouse built in 120 BC in the city of Pompeii that was famously entombed by a volcano in 79 AD, thus preserving many structures over the centuries. Below is a floor plan showing the women's areas in beige, and the men's areas in blue. Arrows indicate entrance areas.
Separate bathing facilities in Stabian baths, Pompeii
The floor plan of the Stabian Baths above shows that each sex has a separate Caldarium (hot room), Tepidarium (warm room), and Apodyterium (changing room). Notice how the furnaces used to heat water are located conveniently between the men's and women's Caldarium rooms. What seems missing is a women's Frigidarium. The photos below compare the men's changing room (left) with the women's (right). You can see how both had rectangular wall niches for storing their clothes and belongings. I think the men's Apodyterium was more luxurious than its counterpart; notice the marble tile floor and the decorated ceiling arches, for example.
Men's (left) and Women's (right) Apodyterium - Stabian Baths
Images by Damian Entwhistle, & U. of Rochester Travel Club
As for the other areas of the baths, women almost certainly did not have access to the Palaestra gymnasium courtyard or the Natatio swimming pool because ancient Roman men typically swam and exercised in the nude (or they were scantily dressed).
Thus, for reasons of modesty, Roman women did not have equal access to all facilities within a segregated bath. After using their own entrance, the female bathers headed to the changing room and then the baths, without having to enter parts of the facility where they might be exposed to nude Roman men.
There are two other examples of segregated Roman bathhouses: in the "Forum Baths of Pompeii", and the "Forum Baths of Herculaneum" located in a nearby city. And, just like the Stabian Baths in Pompeii, these two bathhouses also have separate rooms and entrances for each sex. This shows us that in the First Century AD, baths were generally segregated in Roman society.
Palaestra of the Stabian Baths looking towards an entrance
Images courtesy of Roger Ulrich - CC BY-NC-2.0
As the First Century AD approached, segregation of the sexes in bathhouses changed with the construction of large Thermae public baths. Except for the changing rooms (Apodyteriums), these new and large baths now had only one Caldarium, one Tepidarium and one Frigidarium area for both sexes. Furthermore, women also had equal access to the other facilities such as the Palaestra gymnasium, the Natatio swimming pool, the libraries, and lecture rooms, Etc.
The first large Thermae was built in the year 25 BC. This was the Baths of Agrippa in Rome, as shown in the image below, dated 128 AD. This bathhouse was located very close to the Pantheon in the Campus Martius area of Rome. The Baths of Agrippa were followed, in the next 150 years, by the construction of the Baths of Nero (62 AD), the Baths of Titus (81 AD), and the Baths of Trajan (112 AD).
Baths of Agrippa in 128 AD
Image from Plastico di Roma Imperiale
As seen above, the Baths of Agrippa were located very close to the Pantheon. One of the main features of this Thermae bathhouse was its central, round rotunda, looking much like the Pantheon. And the only part of these baths that survived into the 21st century is the rotunda's left side, shown in the photo below.
Baths of Agrippa remains in 2022
Courtesy of Google Earth (modified by me)
Please click this link for a street view of these ruins in 2022. Much of the baths still stood as late as the 16th Century. However, like many ancient Roman ruins, the baths was mined for resources to build basilicas and other structures during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The street in Rome where the ruins are located is Via dell'Arco della Ciambella, which means "Street of the Arch of the Donut" in English - an interesting name, I must say.
Throughout the First Century and into the next, the popularity of public bathing grew significantly, and more Thermae baths were built right up to the Fourth Century. However, these facilities remained unisex in construction - women and men shared all areas (except the changing rooms). In fact, large Roman bathhouses, filled with other amenities such as libraries, shops, lecture halls, stages, hairdressers, Etc. - became an essential part of Roman culture.
Earlier, I showed the floor plan of a segregated bath house in Pompeii. I will now examine the Capito Baths, built around 50 AD in the ruined city of Miletus in Asia Minor during the Roman Empire (present-day Turkey). This is a medium-sized bathhouse that does not have separate pools or saunas for women. You will see how there are no duplicate rooms, apart from the changing rooms.
Floor plan of the Capito Baths showing non-segregated facilities
On the far left of the diagram, you can see the main entrance used by men and women that led into a large Palaestra. This exercise courtyard has a uniquely shaped Natatio swimming pool. Patrons of the Baths then passed into a common room, and men and women had their own changing room (Apodyterium).
After changing clothes, they could proceed through the various pools, saunas, and other amenities according to their personal preferences.
Ruins of the Roman baths of Capito in Miletus
Image licensed from Dreamstime.com
Capito Baths Laconicum (Left) and Natatio or Caldarium (Right)
Image courtesy of Jordan Pickett - CC BY-NC 2.0
The floorplan of the Capito Baths shows us that it did not have separate or duplicate facilities - but does that automatically mean that mixed bathing - men and women bathing together at the same time in the same pool - happened there?
Well, it could, but not necessarily. Despite not having separate facilities for men and women, this bathhouse still could have been segregated simply by having separate hours for men and women - which was very common and happened in many bathhouses and large Thermae baths.
For example, when one looks at the vast Baths of Caracalla or Diocletian, there are no separate pools or sauna areas for men and women - neither are there any signs or inscriptions on the walls of these baths saying "Men Only" and "Women Only."
Nevertheless, it is known that there was a period when women bathed in the morning and men had the afternoon and evening to themselves in those large baths. Therefore, segregating the sexes through different hours was the most logical and inexpensive way to segregate the sexes - far less expensive than building separate saunas and pools.
Whether or not specific bathhouses were segregated was probably subject to change depending on the whims of the Emperors. If an Emperor decided that "mixed bathing" was decadent and indecent, then a "decree" would be issued, and then policies would change for a while.
As Roman civilization became more powerful and affluent, their culture changed - Romans became less shy about things such as nudity and sexual matters. For example, most - if not all - public latrines were shared by both sexes - this seems to indicate a society with relaxed inhibitions.
Add to the changing Roman morality the new bathhouses built without separate pools and saunas, and you have a recipe for "mixed bathing" to become a reality in daily Roman life. Indeed, this was a significant change from Roman morals during the early Roman Republic. Nevertheless, societies do change, as seen in the Western World in the last fifty years.
For example, in Europe, you can find nude beaches in many countries, but try finding one in the 1800s or early 1900s - attitudes change over time. I would say that Rome experienced the same kind of change - perhaps also kindled by some of the outlandish lifestyles of notorious Emperors such as Caligula and Nero.
By the First Century AD, men and women were all bathing together in many Roman bathhouses. Below, I will provide quotes by some of the most famous ancient Roman writers (thank you to Roy B. Ward for brilliant guidance on this subject). The firt quote is by Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 AD), commenting on mixed bathing in a Thermae during the First Century
If only Fabricus could see these displays of luxury ... and women bathing with men.
- Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories, 36
Many other writers of the time also make it very clear that men and women bathed together. Another Roman writer, Martial, in Book XI, writing about the Roman lady Caelia wrote:
Your slave goes into the baths with you, Caelia,
... to what purpose, pray, since he is not a singer
to the lyre or flute? ...
Then why do you bathe in public?
Are we all eunuchs in your eyes?
Martial, Book XI, "To Caelia"
And, finally, the poet Ovid (43 BC - 18 AD), in his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), wrote:
What is the use of guarding women ... when, although the girl's guardian keeps her clothes in safety outside the baths, hidden lovers lurk safely within ?
- Ovid - Ars Amatoria Book 3
The last quote shows that a girl could enter a Roman bathhouse that men are also using and be with them in a common area - indicating no separation of the sexes there in addition to certain adventurous activities. So, in my opinion, mixed bathing certainly happened, but the next question is: was mixed bathing the norm or was it rare?
After the First Century AD, how prevalent was mixed bathing in all Roman bathhouses? One way to answer that is to compare mixed bathing in Roman baths to nude public beaches in the 21st century. Not all countries allow nude beaches - it depends on their location. And not all people practice being nude in public - it depends on one's values and choices. The same can be said of Roman baths - some establishments allowed it; others did not. Some Romans enjoyed mixed bathing; others did not. It also depended on Roman government policy, which kept changing.
What is certain is that mixed bathing became so prevalent that Emperor Hadrian issued a decree prohibiting "co-ed" bathing in the early 100s AD. Later in that century, it was prohibited again by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Finally, in the early Third Century, mixed bathing was prohibited yet again by Emperor Severus Alexander. Apparently, these decrees did not actually stop mixed bathing. I am guessing the decrees worked for a while, and both sexes dutifully went to the baths during separate hours. However, after a few months or years, the rules gradually relaxed - or simply were not enforced - and mixed bathing resumed.
In writing about the effect of Hadrians' decree prohibiting mixed bathing, Hoffman wrote in the 1698 AD Lexicon Universale encyclopedia (written in Latin):
Lavacra pro sexibus separavit. Sed non obtinuit, aut non diu, lex ista: nam alioquin opus novâ lege non fuisset, cuius auctor Marcus, qui apud Capitolin.
He (Hadrian) separated the baths for the sexes. But this law did not succeed, or did not last long, for otherwise there would have been no need for a new law
- Hoffman, J., Lexicon Universle, 1698
As Hoffman indicates, because Hadrian's decree was ineffective, successive emperors had to issue new decrees - thus indicating that mixed bathing - or "Balnea Mixta" as the Romans called it - continued. When laws could not stop mixed bathing, some bathhouses resorted to using the Roman gods, as shown in this inscription found at a Roman bath in the Trastevere area of Rome, which proclaims: (thank you to Ian D. Rotherham for this observation):
By order of the almighty God Silvanus, women are prohibited from stepping into the swimming pool reserved for men.
Eventually, as Christianity became the dominant religion recognized officially in the Fourth Century, a different moral culture signalled the decline of traditional Roman bathing practices. Roman baths were perceived as corrupt, immoral, and decadent. Roman bathhouses in Rome closed in the Sixth Century when they were abandoned due to barbarian destruction of many aqueducts. A bathhouse without water has no function or purpose. I am sure the people of Rome, for a few years at least, hoped their baths would be restored. But after ten years or more without water, the people must have given up hope; and then these bathing palaces sat empty, quiet, and abandoned as they slowly crumbled into oblivion over the long centuries.
Nude bathing did happen in Roman baths - more so for men than women. Several ancient Roman authors write about male nudity in the baths. For example, Martial wrote that when a naked, well-endowed male was spotted in a bathhouse, the people started to applaud:
In whatever bath, Flaccus, you hear sounds resembling applause,
Know that there Maron's yard is to be found.
- Martial - Epigrams, IX, XXXIII
I leave it to you to discern the meaning of "Maron's yard." Nudity amongst only men, or amongst only women, was undoubtedly practiced in bathhouses with separate facilities for the sexes. However, I think nudity was always optional - it was not de rigeur or forced upon anyone.
For those places and times when Roman men and women were allowed to bathe together in bathhouses, there were times when both sexes bathed nude together. I remember reading a phrase written by Pliny where he comments about "women's pubic hair exposed to public view" in bathhouses. However, the main question is: how prevalent was the practice of men and women bathing nude together? Did they, perhaps, not wear a modest garment most of the time?
Roman Women Exercising in a Palaestra
Image (modified) courtesy of Christophe Pinard CC BY-SA 2.0
With over 170 bathhouses in Rome by the start of the First Century alone, there must have been bathhouses catering to different subsets of people and their preferences. For example, in all likelihood, there were bathhouses that, for all purposes, were brothels.
Alternatively, there were traditional, conservative bathhouses that prohibited nude bathing between the sexes and still practiced a form of segregation (different hours for men and women). Another possibility is the existence of privately-owned bathhouses where private parties were held, and who knows what happened during those events regarding nudity and sexual adventures.
The point is, just like in certain societies today, there was much variation in how men and women could interact in public - it was not black or white. Occasionally, the rules were tempered by Imperial decrees.
After studying various Roman mosaics and paintings of Roman women in baths, my impression is that they were modest - the painting shown above of Roman women exercising in a Bathhouse Palaestra shows them clothed - scantily - but still clothed. Of course, one can assume that after exercising, they may have stripped entirely and then started bathing in the presence of males.
However, as is often the case when contemplating rules or trends of human behaviour many centuries ago, it is perhaps best to err on the side of moderation and realize there were many variations of what happened.
In conclusion, Roman men and women did bathe together in the nude. The practice depended on the time in history, the place, and the people involved. Several Roman writers have made it evident that Romans, male and female, bathed together and sometimes they did so while nude.
In 1958, archeologists digging in Pompeii's ancient ruins got quite a surprise when they uncovered the Suburban Baths. This was a unisex bathhouse because it had only one Apodyterium (changing room) and only one of each kind of pool, sauna, Etc. The implication is that both men and women shared the same changing room; or, alternatively, they used the baths at different hours or days.
Whatever the case, the most surprising aspect of the Suburban Baths of Pompeii was a series of sexually-explicit paintings on the walls of the Apodyterium displaying a wide variety of "activities." The thing to keep in mind is that both men and women used that changing room and, of course, saw those erotic creations. These ancient images can be seen by clicking the link below with the caution that the image is for adults only. It was earlier thought the images were advertisements for a brothel above the baths, but it is now thought the images were an amusing way of reminding clients where they stored their clothes in the changing room.
Perhaps the City of Pompeii was more "adventurous" than other Roman cities. Perhaps this bathhouse was used by men only. Alternatively, this bathhouse perhaps catered to adults who enjoyed mixing a little erotica with bathing. In other words, the erotic drawings were there just for the amusement and titillation of the patrons - nothing more. Sexual symbols and images were common in Roman culture.
For example, also in the city of Pompeii, one finds phalluses drawn in wall frescoes, in bell chimes, and carved on city street walls. However, they were mostly just good luck charms, except for the wall phalluses which pointed potential clients towards nearby brothels. What is perhaps shocking to us was simply amusing or even charming to them. A 2,000-year-old cultural difference inhibits our ability to interpret Roman symbolism correctly.
In conclusion, these erotic paintings do indicate a sexual aspect to Roman bathhouses- but to what degree, precisely? We can only speculate on the full implications of erotic drawings in a Roman bathhouse changing room.
People bathing nude in the ruins of a Roman bath
Painting by Hubert-Robert - Public Domain
Notwithstanding the "X-Rated Apodyterium" discussed above, promiscuous sex in Roman baths was not common. If it had been, indeed all the great Roman writers such as Pliny the Elder (and Younger), Ovid, Livy, Juvenal, Martial, Etc., would have written about that. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, none of their writings that survived imply a pattern of promiscuity in private or state-owned Roman bathhouses.
Articles that portray Roman baths as places where people went to exercise, bathe. and have sex with each other as a matter of course are historically incorrect. Of course, there almost certainly were a small number of Roman bathhouses that were basically brothels; thus, sexual activity was the norm in those establishments only.
However, to assume that all Roman bathhouses - and even the state-owned Imperial Bath Thermae - were allowed to be "orgy palaces" is counterfactual. These bathing establishments were places where young and old went to bathe also. Moreover, the Romans did have a moral code demonstrated by the male-female segregated public bathhouses in earlier centuries as well as the Imperial Edicts against male-female bathing.
If certain Emperors had a problem with men and women bathing together, then imagine their reaction to high levels of public, promiscuous sex happening. Contrary to what some may perceive, the Romans were not a civilization of people having orgies at every opportunity - which is an unfair assessment of a long and complex history.
The following quote by Colin Ricketts makes some pertinent points about Roman morality:
The idea that Rome was an extremely promiscuous and licentious society is, in reality, if nothing else a massive over-simplification of a complex picture. It’s a simplification that has served erotic artists – often unable to portray their own times as genuinely sexual – well in every medium from oils to digital video.
There may be an element of religious propaganda to this image of Rome too. The Church took hold in the last centuries of the Empire. It was in the Church’s interests to portray the pre-Christian, pagan Roman world as one of out-of-control desires, orgies and endemic rape that they had brought under control.
The Romans did have an abiding set of moral guidelines called the mos maiorum (“the way of the elders”), an unwritten code of good conduct. This code did consider sexual excess outside the bounds of ideal behaviour defined by virtus, an ideal state of masculinity that included self-control. Women too were expected to be chaste (pudicitia).
- Colin Ricketts, Promiscuity in Antiquity: Sex in Ancient Rome, Jan/21
Just today, I read an article that describes a Roman bathhouse as a sexual pleasure palace. The writer uses a famous ancient Roman quote to prove that certain activities commonly took place in Roman bathhouses. The quote in question is:
Wine, baths, and sex make life worthwhile."
However, this old Roman quote does not definitively mean all those activities happened simultaneously in a Roman bathhouse. History and common sense tell us that after using a bathhouse, Romans went to a bar or home to drink wine, then back home or to a brothel for sex - though I will concede wine could be purchased in many baths. However, given the large size of some baths that accommodated thousands of people, the resultant huge number of wine cups surely meant drinking was isolated to specific areas in order not to create a nuisance hazard in and around the pools.
Below is part of the author's description of what goes on in a Roman bath - it is rather graphic (warning) and "Hollywood" in its descriptions. I must confess I laughed while reading it. Were they really philosophizing whilst those interesting activities were happening in the pool? Now, that must have been a fascinating discussion in front of all those peddlers at the pool's edge.
Men and women wrestle, writhe, fornicate and philosophise in the pool while, at the water's edge, a small army peddles sausages, oysters and roasted dormice.
Anyhow, read the article for yourself- it makes for entertaining reading. The author quotes a scholar who supports the view that all ancient Romans were licentious - an extreme point of view, in my opinion. To be fair to the author, some of the facts presented are correct, but his assumptions regarding general sexual behaviour in a Roman bathhouse are way over the top. I think the behaviour of notorious Roman Emperors such as Caligula and Nero - in addition to many fanciful Hollywood films - has greatly distorted some people's view of Roman sexual norms.
I am not saying that the Romans were all chaste and sexually inhibited - but neither were they all sexual maniacs without any kind of moral common sense. They had wives, husbands, and children to consider. They loved their family and friends and certainly many prized loyalty. The Romans were probably much more like us than unlike us in their needs and values, lifestyles and behaviours.
Perhaps, someday in the distant future, they will say that people in the 20th Century who went to "Drive-In" theatres engaged in sex in their cars. Certainly, some people did that; but to say that most people - or everyone - had sex in a Drive-In would be a distortion of the truth, to say the least.
People enjoying Szechenyi hot thermal baths today in Budapest
Image courtesy of Mitch Huang - CC BY-NC 2.0
To a Roman living in a crowded and noisy city like Rome, a bathhouse was an inviting oasis of relaxation and comfort. By this point, I am sure you can appreciate how the bathing culture of Roman civilization was an important part of the fabric of Roman society. For the average Roman citizen, going to a large Thermae bathing facility with many social and cultural amenities was as important for their social needs as it was for cleansing the body.
When an Emperor built a significant Roman bath, he made a positive statement about his duties as caretaker of the people. I would also add that it made a significant statement about Roman culture in general. The Romans certainly knew how to build great things for their people: forums, temples, huge baths, colosseums, theatres, aqueducts for plentiful fresh water, and sewers, Etc.
When looking through the lens of history, I try to look at the positives as well as the negatives. Roman civilization certainly had its excesses and faults. Nevertheless, many useful and beautiful things came to us from Roman culture, such as the very alphabet I am using to communicate with you. The Western World owes a huge debt to Roman civilization. May common sense and moderation prevail in our estimation of the Roman World.
And this ends my discussion of Roman bathing practices and realities. I invite you to read the Roman baths pages devoted to the Baths of Caracalla and the Baths of Diocletian. These pages look at the two largest baths in the whole Roman empire.
Agree or disagree with me? Do you have any interesting comments? Just click on my email address at top left of page and let me know.