No nation, until modern times can bear comparison to the Ancient Romans in their obsessive love of bathing, which they indulged enthusiastically in all its forms. To the Romans the Thermae as they called the public baths were  facilities not only for maintaining cleanliness and hygene in a dirty world, but  Roman Baths were also an extremely popular combination of sports facility and social club. For many centuries The Roman Bath was an important social institution and was to be found in every city and town of the Roman Empire. For the Roman citizen, it was a happy place – a haven isolated  from the clamour of the city, where one could come to meet with friends, catch up with the gossip of the day or simply  just pass the time relaxing away from the winter  frost or summer heat.



A Roman Lady of Leisure

The Importance of the Roman Bath

An Urban Lifestyle: 

The citizens of Rome were the first really true urbanites. The rich had their villas and mansions, but  the bulk of the  middle and poorer classes  rented space in multi-story tenement blocks called insulae. These tawdry apartments were actually nothing more than places to sleep, to store belongings or to have sex. There was no real living space in the apartments for family life as such. In reality, the Romans  actually lived almost all of their  lives  entirely  in the streets and the streets certainly provided for them well.  Bread was handed out free of charge as a “dole” and other food and drink, which was almost never prepared at home, was available from local inns and taverns for just a few copper coins.  Rome was a bustling place – the  insulae apartment blocks all had street level frontages of shops and workshops and at every street corner you would find a brothel, a gambling den or possibly a temple that was dedicated to one or more of a bewildering variety of exotic deities.

The city fathers provided  excellent  facilities for public use. These included public toilets with running water, drinking fountains, troughs for washing laundry,  labour exchanges, games arenas, race courses, markets, public gardens, libraries and law courts.  Public holidays were frequent and entertainment (distraction) was always readily available. According to taste you could view gladiatorial combats,  chariot racing,  religious ceremonies or theatrical productions. Otherwise you could simply pass the time by listening to (and heckling)  one of the ubiquitous orators in the forum or admire the verbosity of a  pompous lawyer making a case for his client in one of the law courts.

Most aspects of life were catered for, however the crowning achievement of the Roman civic authorities must surely lie in the scale and opulence of the  magnificent Roman Baths ( Thermae) that they commissioned on behalf of the citizens of Rome. None of the other facilities of the city did so much for maintaining the social cohesion of the masses and for building up civic pride.  The games and chariot racing could sometimes inflame passions to the extent that sections of the populace would riot against the authorities, but it is difficult to get angry and aggressive, when you are naked in your bath.  The egalitarian nature of the Roman Baths gave even the common man a taste of gracious living in elegant surroundings and put out an easily understood  message about sharing in the fruits of Roman  “civilization”. Thus the provision of  these impressive structures was a deliberate public relations ploy for the Emperor and his administration and it gave  practical demonstration of the tangible benefits of the Pax Romanum. The very size of the Thermae complexes was a propaganda ploy – a means to impress all comers with a tangible sense of the emperor’s limitless power, beneficience  and overiding authority.

The construction of these projects was often done on such a lavish scale that the new Roman Baths required the building of their own  supplementary water supply. Fortunately, as they entered the Imperial era, the Romans lived in a city richly endowed with abundant sources of water. This was because in previous centuries, skilful engineers and far sighted administrators had provided the city with an elaborate system of aqueducts. These  Roman aqueducts were an engineering and architectural triumph – an impressive system of conduits that brought large quantities of excellent water right into heart of the Imperial City. Most originated from sources many kilometers away in the Alban Hills beyond Tivoli. When the emperor commissioned an additional water supply, specifically for the baths, there would be spin offs for the city as a whole,  as there would usually be  at least some excess capacity that could be put to general usage and moreover the constantly running outflow from the Thermae was always available  for flushing sewers and watering gardens.

Aqua Claudia – Bringing Clean Water to Rome


Chedworth Villa – Luxury in a Cold Land

Conquered Britons Embrace Roman Culture : 

The Roman conquest of Britain was initiated by the Emperor Claudius in AD 43  and after the trauma of Boudicca’s revolt in AD 61 the exhausted country finally settled down to a long period of peace and good administration (at least in the south). This time of peace and modest prosperity lasted until around AD 410 when the last legions were withdrawn on the emperor’s orders in a futile attempt to defend the indefensible. By now the tide of history had truly turned against Rome and the Western Empire rapidly crumbled and finally collapsed under the weight of successive barbarian attacks. Left undefended,  things went from bad to worse for the abandoned native population of Britain as land-hungry Saxons, Angles and Jutes (ancestors of the modern English) steadily began to infiltrate from Europe. In spite of some opposition, these warlike nations seized most of the country from the native Britons, who were gradually pushed towards the west. In fact, little is really known of the centuries of “dark ages ” that followed the departure of Rome.

What we do know, from archaeological evidence, is that the invaders brought a reversion to a more basic, far less civilised, way of life and there was little room left for gracious living and the gentle arts. This was sad, for during the preceding long period of peaceful Roman occupation, by the time of  the final departure of the legions, most of the native Britons had adopted Roman ways and a rich hybrid Romano-briton culture had evolved amongst a population who spoke Latin, celebrated Roman religious festivals  and paid willing homage to their distant emperor.

Roman Mozaic Depicting the Passage of the Seasons – Chedworth

Villas in Britain:

After the Roman conquest, towns, laid out in formal Roman style, soon replaced tribal settlements and thousands of prosperous family estates  or villas came to be established throughout the British countryside. The villa itself was more than just a building – it was the hub of an  essentially Mediterranean style of agricultural enterprise  and consisted of  a self-sufficient farming community, centered around a homestead or grand house belonging to a single family. The landlord owned all the surrounding land, in stark contrast to  the old British tribal system of shared land tenure, where land was always held in common. The inevitably result was that considerable wealth accumulated in the hands of this new Romano-Briton gentry, who now had the resources and leisure to enjoy the good things of life such as regular bathing, exotic foods and imported wines and equally importantly, it also gave them the means to embellish their residences with porticos, statues and intricate mosaic floors, in order to better reflect their elevated status.

Geometric Pattern - Private Bathroom  Britain
Geometric Pattern Mosaic Floor – Private Bathroom, Chedworth Villa

Chedworth  – An Opulent Country Estate in a Remote Part of the Empire:

Chedworth Villa is a good example of  a  prosperous Romano – Briton farm. The Villa was located  in the Cotswold hills overlooking the river Coln. It had  good farming land and was blessed with a permanent spring that gave ample water –  enough for normal domestic use and also for supporting not one, but two substantial bath house suites. The homestead had more than 5o rooms and must originally have been a very fine building indeed – with mosaic floors in every room, underfloor central heating and a toilet block complete with running water to flush it. The architecture of the building and the artwork of the mosaics was very professionally executed and although local materials were used, one can only guess that such skills had to be brought in at great cost, from far afield – possibly from the continent or even from Rome itself. The family that owned the estate must have been very wealthy indeed!  Their house was obviously  built to impress and entertain and it is not difficult to surmise that the owner must have held a position of considerable influence in the area.

Plunge Pool in Chedworth Bath Rooms
Plunge Pool in Chedworth Bath House


Meaning “fire below”, hypocaust was the term given to the very sophisticated system of central heating invented by the Romans. It was used primarily in public baths (thermae), but was also installed in many private villas to heat all of the living spaces. Hot air was led from a central furnace and induced to flow through spaces or ducts beneath raised floor slabs in order to warm the rooms above. To provide  spaces below the floors, the concrete or stone floor slabs were usually set up on banks of  stub collums called pilae. Where additional heat was required,  such as in Chedworth villa’s bathrooms, heat was also pushed up through  flues built into the walls.

These stub columns allowed the passage of hot air under a raised floor slab
Stub columns (pilae) allowed heated air to flow under the floor
Hypocaust Furnace at Chedworth Villa
Hypocaust System – the Furnace at Chedworth Villa

Rabbits Locate a Lost Roman Villa: 

After the farm’s  abandonment in the late fourth century, the forest reclaimed the land and the ruins of Chedworth Villa  became buried beneath a cover of soil and rotting leaves. This natural process had the beneficial effect of protecting the precious mosaic work from further damage from the elements, particularly from frost damage. For long centuries,  the remains of the abandoned villa slumbered beneath the forest floor, forgotten and hidden away totally from human knowledge. But over the course of years, burrowing rabbits brought up numbers of loosened tesserae (mosaic blocks) to the surface and these traces were eventually noticed by local hunters in 1864, who realised their significance. This good fortune led to the restoration of the villa, initially undertaken by the local squire and then subsequently taken up by volunteer groups. The villa was eventually handed over to the National Trust for safekeeping and is permanently on view to the public today. Well worth a visit, Chedworth Villa is located in Gloucestershire, a short distance north-west of Fossebridge on the Cirencester- Northleach road (A429). Further details are available from the National Trust.

The Mozaic Floor of Chedworth Villa's Spacious Dining Hall
Floor of the spacious dining hall at Chedworth villa


The Baths at Bath – Goddess of the Hot Spring

The Goddess of the Spa: 

The Ancient Britains believed that a Goddess created and inhabited  the hot spring found at the city of Bath in the South West of Britain. When the conquering Romans arrived in the first century AD they associated the local deity with the Roman goddess Minerva and so established a temple in her honour. Beside the temple they built the huge bathing facility that was to give the city its modern name. The hot water bathing pool was surrounded by several suites of steam rooms, cold plunge pools and saunas, with adjacent massage rooms and exercise areas. Everything possible was laid on to bring comfort and relaxation to Roman soldiers and officials who found themselves far from their sunny homeland and now forced to endure the rigours of an often cold and damp climate. In time, this benefit was shared by many generations of  native Romano-Britons, who enthusiastically embraced the benefits of living a civilized life under a stable administration –  willing subjects to a far flung empire.


Roman Spa at Bath – Warmth and luxury in a cold and damp land

Rome in Victorian Britain: 

The Romans had been gone from British shores for many years, when the upper classes of the Regency period, rediscovered the joys of cleanliness and communal bathing at the beginning of the 19th century. The hot spring at Bath became a magnet for the rich and the town grew in stature as it reinvented itself as a fashionable health Spa and leisure center for those who could afford the cost of travel by coach. It continued to be very popular throughout the Victorian era and the original Roman bath house building was tastefully restored and somewhat modernised to suit the needs of the day.

April to May 137

Restored Roman bath complex in the City of Bath


Caracalla’s Baths in Rome – A Political Statement

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This Emperor built on a huge scale

The Huge Scale of  Caracalla’s Baths in Rome:

At the beginning of the third century, the despotic Emperor Caracalla built the most impressive of all the baths of Rome. His vast Thermae included huge halls, swimming pools, exercise areas,  hot and cold rooms, spacious gardens and  a well equipped library. Today, even after nearly two millenia of neglect, vandalism and outright pillaging,  the ruins are still massively impressive and since Mussolini’s day have been used for hosting regular nocturnal operatic concerts and other events. Sadly only traces of the many acres of the original mosaic floors and wall panelling have survived and all of the statuary and marble cladding has been stolen. However there are enough remaining fragments  to give a strong indication of  the high standard of the mosaic and other art work that once embellished the complex.


Caracalla: Emperor AD 206 – 211

Caracalla Used Up Vast Resources to Build His Project:

Emperor Caracalla reigned for only six years , from AD 211 – 217. Of murderous disposition and paranoid, he tried to maintain a waning  popularity with his subjects, by constructing this massive public bath complex (thermae) as a lavish public facility to be used at no charge by all free citizens of Rome. His proposed thermae complex was so large that it would require the building of its own aqueduct water supply. The baths themselves, symbolic of the emperors power and authority, had to be truly magnificent. They were to be clad with elegant marble and surrounded by numerous courtyards of impressive mosaic paving. The  main hall  was to have a domed roof larger than that of St Peter’s in the Vatican and it was the largest  the world had seen until modern times. The mind boggles at the resources of men and materials that Caracalla must have been prepared to allocate to this prestigious project – but at what cost?

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Dolphins were a common decorative theme in Roman baths.

Superb Organisation:

Considering the scale of the undertaking, one cannot  avoid a sense of  wonder at the  massive number of skilled manhours that must have been put into creating this huge facility, together with its water supply. There would have been an absolute army of builders, artists, craftsmen, architects, quarrymen and engineers involved in the project. Moreover the logistics of supplying and handling  the tons and tons of building materials, such as quarried stone, bricks and concrete materials, without the benefit of modern machinery and trucking, was in itself a truly formidable task.  Considering the short period of construction, the organizational ability of the emperor’s project managers can only have been superb.

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Imagine acres and acres of such Mosaic pavements

Did Caracalla invent “Quantitative Easing”? 

Caracalla was desperate to stay in favour with the fickle populace of Rome and hoped the baths would provide a distraction to them and impress everyone with the depth and power of his authority. At the same time, he also found it expedient to try to curry favour with the troops by making huge cash donations to secure their loyalty. However all his extravagance could be ill afforded by Rome, which was facing various crises both internally and on the borders. He eventually had to face up to the reality that he did not have unlimited funds and so he tried to overcome this obstacle to his ambition by debasing the silver coinage by adulterating the coins with base metals – the result was a coinage that could not be trusted and spiralling inflation as prices shot up uncontrollably.  Consider, this is exactly what the US administration is doing today as they spend furiously on public works while failing to tackle a runaway military budget and growing national deficit – all of this funded by simply printing money,  thus debasing the value of the dollar and destroying faith in the “greenback”. Why should it work now – it didn’t work for Caracalla – he was assasinated by the troops anyway! Is there a lesson in this for us ?


Caracalla’s Thermae from the gardens


Ostia – The Baths of an Ancient Sea Port

Ostia was the port City (entrepot) for the ancient city of Rome. It was founded in the fourth century BC and was situated where the river Tiber enters the Mediterannean, about 25km east of Rome. In ancient times there were extensive harbour works and warehouses, allowing large ocean going vessels to discharge their cargo for trans shipment to the capital on river craft and waggons. At least two public baths (thermae) were provided for the citizens of this prosperous harbour town and there still exist substantial well-preserved remains, including extensive very attractive mosaic floors.

Ostia Antica as it is called today can be reached  by  rapid suburban rail connections in about 30 minutes from Termini Station in Central Rome. Take the Metro line B to Pyramide station and then change at the adjacent Stazione Porta San Paolo onto the Ostia Lido  line. Get off at Stazione Ostia Antica. You can travel all the way using the standard city BIT tickets (which is very cost effective – in 2008 it was only one Euro for a one way to Ostia)


Floor mosaics from the public baths at Ostia


Wealthy Merchants of a Prosperous Seaport:

Many of the merchants of Ostia, who held large warehouse facilities beside the Tiber, were fabulously wealthy -although their families may well have come from very humble origins. Merchants were often freedmen (ex slaves), whose business acumen had managed to secure their own freedom, as a just reward from  grateful masters, or patrons, for whom they had made large fortunes, using their skill as traders. Typically the public baths (or thermae) were the places to meet with other merchants in a congenial and relaxing atmosphere – a suitable place to initiate merchandising deals and to firm up arrangements for transporting cargoes with sea captains. The baths were open to all classes of free citizens and were essential for establishing social relationships for the purposes of facilitating trade and for acquiring all manner of services  – they were probably also the ideal place to advance  family connections through  advantageous offers of  of their daughters hand in marriage to the sons of other prosperous merchant families.


A Wealthy Merchant’s Tombstone from Ostia



Latin Terms for Baths, Bathing and Bathrooms


A bath house, containing a suite of various kinds of bath. It could be either public or private. it was also known in some eras as a balneum.


The changing room was provided with benches for undressing and racks for hanging up garments and usually had a slave in attendance to assist with disrobing. At the public Thermae, unless seperate facilities were provided, as they usually were in the larger cities, ladies were allocated seperate bathing times to the men.


A cool bathroom adjacent to the apodyteria. It contained  one or more  cold plunge pools, known variously as a loutron or piscina.


A  mildly heated warm room, where the bather sat and rested to adjust body heat before entering or leaving the really hot rooms.


A  hot bath room, heated by the underfloor ducts of a hypocaust and from flues set into the walls, which brought heated air from a furnace . It  contained a heated pool called alveus or calida piscina and also contained a large basin of cold water known as a labrum.


An  extremely hot and humid sweat room, very like a modern Turkish bath. Laconicum: An extremely hot and dry sweat room, said to have originated from Sparta, that we would  recognise today as a sauna. Natatio: A swimming pool, usually open air.


The underfloor central heating system, that distributed hot air from the furnace to various hot rooms These rooms were set on raised floors, with ducts below and often had flues within the walls.  Palaestra: An excercise yard attached to the baths that was used for ball games, wrestling and weight lifting. Unctorium: A seperate room for applying and scraping off cleansing olive oil. A curved implement called a strigil was used to remove the excess oil and sweat.