The Bathhouses of Pompeii

A common feature of Roman cities and beyond, the earliest example of the Roman bath lies in Pompeii, which dates back to the 2nd century BCE. How much do you know of Pompeii’s bathhouses? 

Before the area’s destructive end, Pompeii was a flourishing city with certain habits, customs, and traditions. By discovering leftover artefacts and buildings of this ancient city, archaeologists have been able to shape the life of the city. Giving us a better understanding of the people who once lived in it. One of the main recurring structures discovered was the public bathhouses of Pompeii. As we understand baths and bathrooms today, a bathhouse was for bathing and relaxing. A place one could refresh and clean themselves up before or after a day of work. That’s why bathhouses generally opened around lunchtime until dusk, giving plenty of time for everyone to have a soak.

Who were the bathhouses for?

The Public bathhouses of Pompeii played a major part in the city’s culture and society. With only the wealthiest of families able to afford their own bathhouse, the Romans took a leaf out of the Greeks books and expanded their idea of public baths to incorporate a wide array of facilities. Even the smallest towns had baths, becoming a common feature throughout the Roman Empire especially. Considering the brutal society of that time which involved gladiator battles, slavery and a strong inequality between men and women, it is surprising that the Romans made the baths with all citizens in mind. Rich or poor could come and bathe themselves with either a small fee of two denarii or even for free, which was the case on public holidays. Of course, with the extravagant attitude of rich antiquity, it comes as no surprise that the richest citizens built their own bathrooms to accompany their lavish villas, as seen in the handful of private baths discovered in the city. However, with their only being a small few private baths it’s clear that the majority of citizens relied on and visited the public baths regardless of their status.

What was their purpose?

Unlike today, bathing was not seen as a private activity, but rather a social as well as practical one. Being such large complexes, the bathhouses included a wide diversity of rooms, offering different temperatures and facilities such as swimming pools, changing rooms, exercising rooms, hot rooms, cool rooms and even rooms where you could receive massages and other health treatments! This makes the bathhouses sound more like a gym and spa centre that we might have today, and the public baths functioned in a similar way, being a place where people could come to bathe and socialise. It was a community centre where people could work out, relax and meet other people. Of course, the main purpose of the baths was to get clean. This involved putting oil on the skin and then scraping it off with a metal scraper called a strigil before rinsing off in the water. The social side of it would come into play when friends chose to meet up at the baths to exchange gossip or play board games. For men, it was even somewhere where they could hold business meetings or discuss politics. It was no wonder the baths became so popular across the Roman world!

The Bathing Ritual

The bathing consisted of a series of differently heated rooms, a gym section, and an outside garden to enjoy. First visitors undressed in the changing rooms, known as the apodyterium, leaving their belongings behind as they went onwards into the baths. The first room was the cold room, also known as the frigidarium, here citizens plunged into cold water to refresh themselves before moving onto the tepidarium. This was a room with heated warm air that would prepare visitors for the shock of the hot room. The people’s body was covered with oils that were used instead of soap (which was extremely expensive then.) Next was the hot room, known as caldarium, where the visitors washed the oil off and bathed, before heading back to the cold room to finish off.

Bath engineering 

The baths weren’t always so well regulated or lavish. The first few public baths seemed to have lacked a high degree of planning and were often unsightly assemblages of diverse structures. However, by the 1st century they had undergone enough trial and error that they became beautifully symmetrical and harmonious structures, often set in gardens and parks. More sophisticated heating came into play by placing wood-fired furnaces under the floor to heat the water. Walls could also provide heating with the insertion of hollow rectangular tubes which carried hot air provided by the furnaces. In addition, special bricks trapped the hot air and increased insulation against heat loss. The use of glass windows from the 1st century onwards also permitted a better regulation of temperatures and allowed the sun to add its own heat to the room. These methods are not dissimilar to contemporary techniques that we use today, showing how advanced the Romans were for their time.

Where are these Bathhouses?

Archaeologists have uncovered multiple baths within this ancient city. Today, you can wander the different rooms and marvel at the crumbling walls and fading art that cover the area. The three biggest public baths to visit are the Stabian baths, the Forum baths, and the Central Baths. If you aren’t sick of the baths after those three, venture outside the city’s walls to see the privately owned baths that have exquisite frescoes.

We hope this article has persuaded you to visit the baths if you’re in Pompeii. They offer the earliest surviving examples of dome architecture which went onto influence other public buildings throughout Italy. Even now the Roman Baths continue to influence designers, as seen by the Chicago Railroad Station and the Pennsylvania Station in New York, both perfectly copied architecture of the Baths of Caracalla.

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