Roman Baths and Bathing

Bathing features quite a bit in the Falco novels, most notably The Body in the Bath House (2001). But what exactly were Roman baths like, and how did the Romans use them? Most importantly, did they have a soap-on-a-rope and a rubber ducky?

The Bathing Routine

Most thermae (Roman bath houses) have a similar layout (see Fig. 1) and the process of bathing follows a set routine. The Romans did not use soap to get clean (it was the Germanic tribes who used soap!), but oils which they rubbed on and then scraped off, taking the layers of dirt and sweat with them. Yuk!

[Fig. 1] This bath house is based on one found at Welwyn (Hertfordshire, UK) built in the third century AD and occupied for 150 years.

Key to Bath House Plan:

  1. Frigidarium (cold room).
  2. Tepidarium (warm room).
  3. Caldarium (hot room).
  4. Praefurnium (Furnace room).
  1. Cold plunge bath.
  2. Hot steam bath.
  3. Hot water tank.

Frigidarium (Cold Room)

The first room entered is the frigidarium, or cold room, referring to the cold plunge bath housed here. We are not going to use the cold bath yet, in this room you are just going to put on your wooden sandals. Wooden sandals? Yes, you have to wear wooden sandals on your feet for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Tepidarium (Warm Room)

The tepidarium (warm room) is pleasant dry heat. There are no baths here, so you can undress and store your clothes without fear of them getting damp. In this room you might sit and start to sweat, maybe do some exercises to help it along, then you would cover your body with oil, ready for the next room..

Caldarium (Hot Room)

The caldarium (hot room) can get to temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) and is very humid thanks to a tank over the furnace as well as the hot plunge bath. The walls and floor are hot too, which is why you need the wooden sandals on your feet! There is a labrum (fountain of cold water) to refresh yourself with. In this room you really work up a sweat and then get scraped clean with a strigil (scraper, see Fig. 2) before washing off in the hot bath.

Frigidarium Revisited

Back to the frigidarium now to take a cool refreshing plunge in the cold bath to get rid of the hot sweaty oils. You can then get dressed again and leave your wooden sandals for the next bather!

Wander around a Roman bath house with a
multimedia bath house tour (0.89 MB)

Requires the Macromedia Flash plugin

[Fig. 2] A strigil(scraper) used to scrape off sweat and oil.

Larger Bath Houses

In larger bath houses there would be additional rooms to the three basic ones. There might be an apodyterium (changing room, with niches for your clothing), a palestra (large central courtyard used as an exercise yard) or even a laconicum (dry heat room, like a sauna)

At public baths you might find all manor of diversions from street entertainers, food stalls, gardens and fabulous decor! For example, at the Baths of Caracalla, built in AD 217 (see Fig. 3), up to sixteen hundred (1600) people could use the facilities at one time. These facilities included, enormous caldarium, tepidarium, frigidarium and natatio (outdoor pool), changing rooms, gymnasia with mosaic floors throughout, Greek and Latin libraries, a stadium and gardens. There were even conference and meeting rooms available for businessmen! Bathing was not just a function of cleanliness to the Romans, it was a social entertainment and a way to “network” with business associates – much like a modern leisure centre.

[Fig. 3] Simplified floor plan of the Baths of Caracalla (completed in AD 217), in Rome. This bath house was in use for 300 years until the invading Goths destroyed the plumbing.

If you think the Baths of Caracalla are big, that’s nothing compared to the Baths of Diocletian (also in Rome), which could accommodate twice the number of people at one time!

Key to Baths of Caracalla:

  1. Original front entrance
  2. Changing rooms
  3. Gymnasia
  4. Natatio (outdoor pool)
  5. Frigidarium (cold room)
  6. Tepidarium (warm room)
  7. Caldarium (hot room)
  8. Conference rooms
  9. Greek and Latin libraries
  10. Stadium

Further Reading

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides: Rome Dorling Kindersley Ltd. London (2002)

Gabucci, Ada. [Trans. Sadleir, Richard] Guide to Ancient Rome Electra (2000)

McManus, Barbara F. Roman Baths and Bathing The Virtual Roma Project (1999)
http://www.vroma.org/~bmcmanus/baths.html (retrieved: 2nd Feb 2002)

Rook, Tony Welwyn Roman Baths: A Guide Tony Rook Publication (1996)