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date: 19 October 2018


Baths, one of the most characteristic and widely distributed types of Roman buildings, had their origins in the Greek world where public baths were common from at least the 4th cent. bce. Surviving 3rd-cent. Greek baths centre on a series of hip-baths arranged around the walls of one or more rooms, often circular (tholoi), with niches above the tubs, and were furnished with hot water which was poured over the seated bather. Baths of this type are found in southern Italy (e.g. Stabian baths, Pompeii, first phase) and Sicily, where, together with local traditions of therapeutic baths at volcanic springs and fumaroles, they were instrumental in the development of the purely Roman type. These replaced the individual tubs with communal pools, and often incorporated the dry sweating-rooms (laconica) and exercise grounds (palaestrae) of the Greek gymnasium in the same establishment (Stabian baths, later phases; Republican baths at Regio VIII, 5, Pompeii). The basic features of these early Roman baths were a changing-room (apodyterium), an unheated frigidarium with a cold-water basin, an indirectly heated warm room (tepidarium) sometimes containing a tepid pool, and a strongly heated room (caldarium) containing a hot plunge pool and a separate water-basin on a stand (labrum). The evolution of the hypocaust and wall-heating systems after c.100 bce, replacing the less efficient braziers, and the introduction of window-glass in the 1st cent. ce permitted the development of an elaborately graded system (Sen. Ep. 90. 25; Celsus, Med. 1. 4, 2. 17) often with the incorporation of several wet and dry sweating-rooms (sudatoria). With increasingly assured water supply to towns (see aqueducts), large cold and even heated swimming-pools (piscina, natatio) also became common adjuncts.

Public baths, often located near the forum, were a normal part of Roman towns in Italy by the 1st cent. bce, and seem to have existed at Rome even earlier. The baths in the Campus Martius donated to the Roman people by Agrippa c.20 bce set new standards of luxury and architectural elaboration, and heralded a new civic role for the baths in the towns of the empire. At Rome they were followed by the baths of Nero, Titus, and Trajan, the latter being the first of the truly monumental complexes set in a vast enclosure containing gardens, lecture-halls, libraries, and other cultural facilities, reflecting the influence of the Hellenistic gymnasium. The symmetrical plan of the bathing-block, perhaps originating with the baths of Nero, centred on a triple cross-vaulted frigidarium, and incorporating a large natatio and twin colonnaded palaestrae, sometimes interpreted as basilical halls, was highly influential both at Rome (baths of Caracalla and Diocletian) and in the provinces with such buildings as the Antonine baths at Carthage, the Barbara baths at Augusta Treverorum (Trier), and the Hadrianic baths at Lepcis Magna. Even when the architectural form was not imitated so closely, the influence of the ‘imperial’ type can be seen in the increased size and elaboration of many baths in the provinces from the late 1st cent. onwards, along with an increase in the amount of space devoted to non-bathing functions. Regional variations developed, central Italy and North Africa producing many buildings of highly complex curvilinear plan (e.g. at Hadrian's villa near Tibur and Thenae in Tunisia). Roman-style baths were widely adopted in the eastern provinces, forming a distinctive type in Asia Minor (e.g. at Ephesus and Miletus) where they were assimilated to the Hellenistic gymnasium.

Bathing occupied a central position in the social life of the day; by the 2nd cent., any community of any substance, civil and military, had at least one set of public baths, while private baths are common in country villas and in wealthier town houses. Larger towns often had one or more substantial buildings (thermae) which were show-pieces for the community as well as a number of smaller, privately owned balnea to serve everyday needs. See houses, italian; water.


I. Nielsen, Thermae et Balnea (1990).Find this resource:

F. K. Yegül, Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity (1992).Find this resource:

R. Rebuffat, in Les Thermes romains. Actes de la table ronde…Rome, 11–12 Nov. 1988 (1991), 1 ff.Find this resource:

J. DeLaine, in H.-J. Schalles and others (eds.), Die römische Stadt im 2. Jahrhundert n. Chr (1992), 257 ff.Find this resource:

G. G. Fagan, Bathing in Public in the Roman World (1999).Find this resource:

G. G. Fagan, American Journal of Archaeology (2001), 403 ff.Find this resource:

Y. Thébert, Thermes romains d'Afrique du nord (2003).Find this resource:

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