Although the Greeks had public bathhouses, the Romans made bathing into an elaborate ritual, designing the most luxurious private and public baths the world had ever seen. Only the wealthiest Roman households had private baths. Ordinary people settled for sponge baths at home or went to the public baths in their cities and paid a fee.
To the Romans, a bath had several stages. First, bathers cleaned themselves by rubbing their bodies with oil. They did not have soap. Then they soaked in a series of tubs or pools, moving from lukewarm to hot water. Often they exercised, received a massage, or spent time sitting in a steam room. Then they, or their slaves, scraped their bodies with curved metal or ivory tools called strigils that removed the oil and dirt from the skin. The final step in the bathing process was a dip in cool or even cold water.
Bathing was a social activity, and public bathhouses were important structures in the community. Most Roman men visited the baths in the afternoons. While soaking, they gossiped, met friends, or discussed politics. Men and women generally bathed separately, either at different times, in different buildings, or in separate facilities under the same roof. Sometimes men and women bathed together, although respectable Romans disapproved of this practice and several emperors banned it.
The oldest existing Roman public baths, built in the 100s B.C., are located in the city of Pompeii. Several Roman emperors built baths in and around Rome. As time passed, these imperial baths became larger and more elaborate. By the time the emperors Caracalla (a.d. 217) and Diocletian (a.d.305) ordered the construction of the baths that bore their names, bathhouses had become enormous, high-ceilinged marble halls. Decorated with statues, wall paintings, and multicolored mosaics*, the bathing chambers contained huge swimming pools. Hundreds or even thousands of people could bathe at one time, while slaves moved through underground passages, running errands and feeding the furnaces. These impressive bath buildings were the centers of large, walled pleasure grounds that included gardens, gymnasiums, halls for lectures and poetry readings, and libraries.
The ruins of bathing chambers in private houses can be found in Rome and throughout the territories that came under Roman influence.
* mosaic art form in which small pieces of stone or glass are set in cement; also refers to a picture made in this manner
Such private baths usually consisted of a small room for each stage of the bath—a cold room (frigidarium), a warm room (tepidarium), and a hot room (calidarium). In some houses, slaves heated water over wood or charcoal fires and carried it to the warm and hot bath rooms in basins. Other houses had more complex systems using a hypocaust, a space beneath the floor where steam or boiling water from furnaces circulated through pipes in the floors and walls to heat the warm and hot baths.
The ruins of the baths of Caracalla and Diocletian can still be seen in Rome, as well as the remains of many smaller and less splendid public baths built by the Romans throughout Europe and the Middle East. (See also Social Life, Roman; Aqueducts.)