On the Roman Baths:Did the Romans only use the baths to get clean or were there political and social motivations behind the number of romans regularly going to the baths?"

Essay by ItsrainingcookiesHigh School, 11th gradeA-, February 2004

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The idea of public baths was originally Greek, and the Romans picked up on the idea around the second century B.C.

The first palatial bath (Thermae) was built by Agrippa in the Campus Martius. Others were located near the pantheon in Rome, on the slopes of the Esquiline Hill, near the Colusseum, by Porta Capena and on the Quirinai Hill. These Thermae were not merely baths. Some contained art galleries and halls to hire or use freely to meet friends in, others had large palaestra's (exercise yards) within or nearby.

Before the great Thermae were built, smaller public baths called 'Balnea' were run by individuals trying to make a profit. These were plentiful in Augustus' time, there were about 170 in Rome, but by Pliny's era 'an infinite number' (1) and at the fall of the Empire, well over 900.

Of course, some Balinea had very bad reputations as brothels where men and women were allow to bathe together (2) but these were avoidable for any Roman who knew his city well.

One source (3) says,

'Socially the Baths were an important meeting and mixing place. Everyone had his favourite Baths just as every Englishman has his favourite public house'.

This comparison of the Baths and a modern pub leads to the question my coursework examines:

'Did the Romans only use the Baths to get clean or were there political and social motivations behind the number of Roman's regularly going to the Baths?'

It will do so first by examining the purpose of the baths for the Romans and their nature. Second, it will look at a case study on Aqua Sulis, Roman Baths in Bath, England and describe the nature of these baths in Roman times and the purposes for which they were used.

'As the Roman's Did' p ?

Emperor Hadrian passed a law forbidding this - source?

Life and Leisure? As the Roman's did.

Roman Baths: A way of keeping clean and or a means of political and social advancement?

Bathing was very important to most Romans as it was a chance to demonstrate, increase and remind people about their status and wealth. Only people who could afford to pay to enter the baths, or people that had a certain status (above a slave) were supposed to use the baths. Therefore, bathing was an easy way to show class distinction and status.

In Roman society, it was fashionable to be clean. However there were some dissenters. Seneca, wrote about bathing, 'It was a sign of weakness, and you should only wash once a week, like in the good old days' (ref?). However, he seems to be in the minority, and as I mentioned in my introduction, the number of public baths continued to increase.

I suggest that one reason why cleansing one self was important was because of the climate of Italy. The hot dry dusty conditions meant that to be clean before social interactions, bathing was necessary and thus became increasingly fashionable

The purposes of the baths evolved dramatically from simple, dingy rooms, (later called 'moth havens' by those who used the larger Thermae) whose purpose was primarily cleansing, to complex leisure centres with restaurants, taverns, libraries, art galleries and colonnaded areas whose purpose became increasingly social.. Therefore, the change in architecture reflected the growing change in the purposes and the increasing importance of the baths for social interaction.

An example of these changes can be seen when comparing Seneca the Younger's letters 86.1 4-6, 8, 11, 12; to Lucian's writing, 'The Baths' 5-8. Seneca describes Scipio Africanus bath area as, 'The tiny bath area was narrow and, in keeping with ancient custom, dingy; our ancestors thought a bath should not be hot unless also dark.' (appendix a). Whereas Lucien, a Greek author, describes a more modern bath complex built in second century AD, as highly luxurious, elegant and beautiful, which included many of the features described in the cleansing process below.(Appendix B).

The importance of the baths in Roman life is illustrated by the writings of many authors of great repute as can be seen above. In addition, Pliny, another famous Roman author, describes in his letter 3:14, an attempted murder in a bath house in Formiae. (appendix c) The mention of baths by Seneca and Pliny particularly, proves how important baths were in Roman culture, even if, in Seneca's case, it was only to complain about them!

Were the baths used for political purposes? I suggest that the baths could have been used for plotting purposes ie making secret alliances between senators. It was a good place for messages to be exchanged between people who didn't want to acknowledge certain contacts. However, the main political meeting place was the Forum.

Did the baths have any link with religion? Initially there was no link with religion but as the baths grew more popular, wealthy citizens would advance themselves politically and socially by building and dedicating a bath to a certain god and giving it to the people of the area. By dedicating the baths to certain deities it was believed the deity might bless the waters giving them healing properties. This was used to their advantage by the Romans in Aqua Sulis.

The nature of the Baths; the cleansing process

There have been many arguments amongst scholars about the order in which the Roman's used the various rooms within the Bath House. It is generally thought to have followed this pattern.

Apodyterium: the changing rooms. In here, the bathers would undress and set a slave to guard their clothes, which would be stored in a cubby hole similar to a locker.

Elaeothesium/Unctuarium: the oiling rooms. Here, the bathers would be anointed with oil before exercising.

Palaestra: the exercise yard. A place where the bathers indulged in sports like wrestling, ball playing, discus practise and weight lifting.

Caldarium: the hot room. Before entering here, the oils might be scraped off with a 'strigil', a scraping instrument shaped like a curved ruler. Once in the Caldarium the bather would be close to the main furnace, and the bather could sit and sweat, use a small tub of extremely hot water, and refresh himself from the heat by using the 'labrum' a fountain of cool water.

Tepidarium: the warming room. Cooler than the Caldarium, and without any pools, the bather could sit against heated walls and floors. Often this was the largest and most luxurious room, as the bather could be anointed with oils whilst relaxing.

Laconicum: the sauna room. An extremely hot room, with dry heat, where the bather would not wish to stay for too long for fear of overheating.

Frigidarium: the cold room. Here the bather could refresh himself from the heat by plunging into a pool of very cold water and having a swim.

After all these baths the bather could have another massage, or choose to use other facilities such as the library or eating places before going home.

The Roman Legacy: With what might we compare the Baths to today?

The evolution of public baths can be seen, I suggest, in todays, members only, sports complexes. Whilst the act of cleansing has mainly disappeared, since the Second World War most houses have domestic bathing facilities, the use of the sports complexes for social interaction, leisure and exercise remains. For example, most sports complexes have exercise swimming pools, Jacuzzi, providing the role of the caldarium, steam rooms can be loosely related to the tepidarium, saunas, etc. They also have eating places and lounges as did the later Roman baths.

I suggest that bathing is a central event in daily life now and then, both in terms of cleansing and socialising (in the manner of sports centres today) is largely due to the Romans. The Roman's also exercised in their baths, in the palaestra, exercise yard, similar to our gyms. One writer, Martial, mentions a man called Menogenes, who follows people around the baths, flattering them, until they ask him to dinner. The following quote is from Epigrams, no 12.82. It is set in the palaestra.

'He will grab the warm ball with either his left hand or his right hand so that he can add the balls he has caught to your score. He will pick up from the dust and hand back to you the flabby inflatable ball, even if he has already bathed and already put on his sandals. When you pick up your towel which is dirtier than a child's bib, he will exclaim that it is whiter than snow.'

Martial speaks of an inflatable ball most likely the bladder of an animal blown up, with which games of skill were played. Other games using small leather balls were popular in Rome and were considered a good way of remaining healthy - Caesar was said to be an excellent ball player.


'From the first century AD to the twentieth, people have been drawn to this place to seek comfort, cure and cleansing in the hot water that rises at its heart. What remains today is a remarkable sequence of ancient, medieval and later structures that give testimony to the continuous use of hot water here over nearly 2000 years'. (The Roman Baths, The Official Guide).

The Romans chose to build their baths on this site because of the continuous gush of hot mineral water which was released through the fault line which lays beneath Bath. The guide book writes, ' it allows a quarter of a million gallons of water a day to bubble free'. The Romans invaded Britian in AD43 and Aqua Sulis was built (The Roman part) between AD65/75.

The timeline below sets out important dates in Aqua Sulis's development that formed Bath into what we can see today.

AD43Roman's invade

AD65/75Baths and Temple built

1100s Kings Bath built (medieval)

Turks defeated the Romans - end of Roman Empire

1600Bladud statue and Balustrade added to Baths (It is said that the British King, Bladud was the first man to see Aqua Sulis as a sacred place).

1700sPump Room building began

1776Dedication altar found ('Deae Suli (p)ro salute et (i)noolumitate Aufidi Maximi c(enturionis) leg(ionis)VI Vic(tricis) M(arcus)Aufidis Lemnus Libertis v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)' note brackets indicate missing letters). Translated this means, ' To the goddess Sulis, for the welfare and safety of Aufidius Maximus, centurion of the sixth legion Victrix. Marcus Aufidius Lemmus, his freedman, willingly and deservedly fulfilling his vow.'

1790sA larger altar found

1800sPillars made to support a terrace.

However, this coursework is concerned with the importance of the baths to the Romans and this is what I will examine in the next few pages.

Why was Aqua Sulis important to the Romans? We have already discussed how the baths had become more than a place of cleansing: that they had become an important place of social interaction for gossip, relaxation and exercise. Barry Cunliffe suggests in The Offical Guide, that the decision by the Romans to turn what was considered to be a sacred site into a healing place could be seen to be a peace offering following the previous ten years of rebellion, (led by Queen Boudica,when thousands of Britains were killed) to which the Roman military responded with uncontrolled violence. As well as a peace offering a further purpose of these baths then was perhaps a way of exercising control over the native Britains by combining places of healing with Roman cultural activity..

I think that another reason why Aqua Sulis was important was as a morale booster to the Roman troops and administrators living in a cold and wet climate far from home.

Development of the Baths

Put in diagram of page 26 plus notes at the side.

This diagram showing the development of the baths can be related back to the facilities outlined on page of this coursework. Barry Cunliffe writes, 'You entered a massive hall with a dramatic view of the Sacred Spring through three openings in the north wall. From here you could take a normal bath, going first into the tepidarium and then into the caldarium before jumping into a cold plunge at the south end of the hall'. He then continues to explain subsequent improvements, which can be seen in the diagram.

The Great Bath

The picture below shows The Great Bath.


The Great Bath measures 22 metres by 8.8 metres and has a depth of 1.5 metres below ground level. It is a majestic, solid stone area, with an ambulatory (a covered walk around the outside of the building) (see appendix D). The ambulatory would originally have been floored with white limestone, about 20cm thick. Some of this remains, and with the pale steam that rises from the green pool, it is a calm yet mysterious air that pervades this bath.

The statues (you can only see one in the picture) that stand above the Great Bath are of Roman Emperors. Some are not definitely known, but Hadrian is there, with Octavian. The statues were built in the 1800s.

Originally, this bath was roofed over by a tall semi-circular roof. The roof is now gone but some supports are plainly visible and it is easy to imagine the bath filled with Romans, aloud chattering and the occasional slash breaking the now quiet air of age and peace.

Combining British and Roman deities: a compromise

Put in postcard.

The 'Gorgon's head' is a symbol of Minerva. This, the largest symbol in England (of Sulis Minerva), is carved into the temple pediment : the Temple is part of the Aqua Sulis complex. The carving also shows an owl - to the right of the head, bottom corner - and a helmet - left bottom corner - which are the standard symbols of Minerva throughout the Roman Empire.

Salinus in the 3rd century AD said:

' In Britain, are hot springs adorned with sumptuous splendour for the use of mortals. Minerva is the patron goddess of these..'

As the patron goddess of Bath, Sulis Minerva received sacrifices and was regularly prayed to by both the Roman and the British people - the Britains prayed to Sulis as a diety and the Roman's incorporated her into their goddess Minerva. Many people threw coins into the pools and made a wish (see 'Curses and Tributes'), a tradition still followed today.

A place of healing and a place of curses and tributes!

Today we might casually flip a coin into a well or pool, make a wish and go on our way. But for the Romans this was a far more serious event. When excavating the sacred pools at Bath, archeologists found many sheets of lead that appeared to have writing on them. It is believed that these were thrown into the waters, sometimes with a tribute, such as money, gemstones, or little things of value, in the hope that Sulis Minerva would make them come true.

An example of a curse:

'To Minerva, the goddess Sulis, I have given this thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood'.

Sometimes curses listed thieves and many listed suspects.

'May he who carried off Vilbia from me become as liquid as the water. May he who so obscenely devoured her become dumb..' then a list of eight names.

These cures had to be written in an official language - it is thought one would pay an expert to do this, as if the curse was wrongly worded, it might fail or backfire. One is particularly interesting.

'Whether pagan or Christian, whosoever, whether man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free, has stolen from me, Annianus in the morning six silver pieces from my purse, you, lady goddess, are to extract them from him...' it goes on but the most interesting part is the reference to Christianity. This clearly implies that in the fourth century, Christianity had firmly established itself, even in an ancient pagan place.

Note: all quotations were taken from wall plaques displayed in The Roman Baths, in Bath.

The tributes were heavy objects thrown into the waters that would sink to the bottom of the reservoir and be mixed around by the spring, but lighter tributes would float or be washed into the drain when the sluice was opened.

Richard Mann explored the drain in 1878 and found; a gold earring, a pin with a pearl attached, a bag of thirty-three gemstones, a ceremonial tin mask.

Major Davis excavated the spring and found; a large number of coins, several pewter vessels and a curse!

In 1979/80, the collapsed vault was removed and the following was discovered; between ten and twenty thousand coins, many silver and four were gold, handled cups, vessals of pewter, silver and bronze inscribed to Sulis Minerva; 90 pewter curses, an inlaid penannular brooch, a ritual silver rattle's head, floral bronze decorations, an amulet of breasts made from elephants ivory; a bronze washer from a model ballista (a catapult like gun).

From the number of tributes and curses, we know how powerful this deity was to her followers. For example, a gold coin was worth two month's salary for a high ranking official so to find four gold coins is amazing. Furthermore, these tributes and curses indicate how effectively the Romans managed to use the baths as part of the process of controlling and 'romanising' the local population.


The evidence within my coursework demonstrates and suggests that, while the initial purpose of Thermae and Balnea was for washing, the practical Romans realised how useful the baths were for discussion and meeting people, etc. As a result they expanded the design of the bathing complex to make it easier to do these things. This can be seen in the increasingly complex design of the baths over the years.

The importance of baths as a place of social interaction is shown by the authors (who were not all Roman, for example, Lucian was a Greek) Pliny and Seneca, who have written more than once about the baths (see appendices a, b and c, for examples).

In Roman culture, the rich were the fashionable. As soon as the rich began to like using the baths as a declaration of status and the chance to show off their wealth, the other classes decided it would be nice to be clean! To allow the population to be clean, the number of baths built was increased until they numbered over 900.

The evidence also suggest that the baths did not originally have a religious purpose, although the Romans, ever practical, incorporated their beliefs into newly conquered lands, for example, Britain, by building baths on former sacred sites then dedicating the baths to their own Roman goddess and the local deity (Sulis Minerva) allowing the natives and themselves to believe that the deity was the same but known by different names.

My coursework also leads me to believe that for the occupying Romans, Aquae Sulis was both a reminder of Rome, and a way of boosting their morale when far from home, and what they thought of as civilisation. They used the baths to get the 'uncivilised' Britons to pay tribute and worship and become civilised, ie become better acquainted with Roman customs.

I believe that the baths began as a method of cleaning your person, and gradually became great places of refinement and luxury, as the Romans recognised their potential as places for social interaction. The Romans were practical and clever, therefore it is not a surprise that the later buildings were majestic and beautiful, and contained extras such as libraries. This is just another example of their practicality.

I understand that the baths were used differently according to where they were situated. The evidence indicates that, as leisure centres are in today's society, the baths were a significant part of Roman society. It is, I suggest, true to say that as the baths evolved, so their purposes became more complex, moving from a simple purpose of cleansing to the more complex purposes of social and political interactions, and in the case of Aqua Sulis, a place of healing.