Banyas, saunas, sweat lodges, hammams… all around the world, people strip off to enjoy a communal bathing experience. While some are disgusted by the idea of getting naked in public, some people are unfazed and enjoy the healthful benefits of a social soak. So where did the tradition come from?
Almost every ancient civilization, from the Indus Valley to the Ottomans, had some form of public bathing culture. But of all of them, the Romans are probably best known for it. The Roman public bathhouses were a popular place among almost all social classes. They were a place to pamper yourself with perfumed oils, gossip about your neighbours, work out in the exercise yard, play a game of dice, or worship one of the Roman gods or goddesses.
Thermae were large imperial bath complexes, whereas balneae were small bath complexes.
Though it was Greece that introduced bathing in bath complexes in the 6 century BC, the Romans turned this hygienic and efficient bathing practice into an art, decking out bathing complexes into grand social ‘hotspots’.
Technology Used in Roman Empire Baths
Romans had developed aqueduct systems for providing water in the baths. Contrary to popular belief, Romans gave priority to water for public bath use rather than private baths. In arid or barren areas, they built baths fed by a trickle of water from reservoirs or cisterns. In areas with plentiful water (and sometimes hot springs), they built huge complexes with displays of cascades and fountains using aqueduct systems.
Roman aqueducts were huge. They had extensive aboveground channels made of stone, volcanic cement and brick for transferring fresh water to baths and major supply areas. These were the same systems that helped to flush out wastewater. Roman engineers constructed intelligent water passage systems through ridges, bridges, and valleys.
The ‘Wealthy’ Hypocaust Systems
Today, the saunas in luxury spas are similar to the steamy furnace-heated hypocaust systems in the homes of wealthy Romans in the past. The ingenious construction of pillars, or pile, raising the floor for the hot air to circulate beneath, allowed a near-similar central heating system. Quite a major feat it was by the Roman engineers, especially since the materials available to them are not what they are today!
Unique Rooms in the Roman Baths
The large imperial bath complexes had a variety of rooms for various applications. A visit to the baths would normally go like this:
Apodyterium – Starting in the bather’s changing area, a personal attendant would take care of the visitor’s clothes.
Tepidarium – The visitor would then join other bathers in this warm room to sit, relax, talk, and discuss in a warm bath.
Caldarium – Once he is warmed up, he would move into a sauna-like room with a hot pool for a steamy soak.
Palaestra – Men would sometimes participate in running, weightlifting, and other games in this large gym-styled area.
Frigidarium – What’s an amazing way to end your bathing routine? Take a cold, refreshing, and energizing bath after a whole set of fitness activities and warm baths.