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ROMAN BATHS

Frigidarium of the Baths of the  Forum, 120 b.C. approx.
Frigidarium of the Baths of the Forum, 120 b.C. approx.

Beginning in the second century B.C., when they were small, strictly practical wash houses, and reserved for men only, public baths grew tremendously in size, in magnificence and in their amenities during the Empire. Merely to hint at their splendour fails to do justice to the impression they must have made upon all who saw them. The great majority of Romans, escaping from their small hovels or mean apartments to spend an hour or two or the whole day at one of the thermae, could not fail to be struck by the grandeur and beauty of these vast, richly decorated in marble and gold palaces provided for their enjoyment. For the Baths were no longer simply buildings where anyone could, by paying one quadrans (the smallest Roman coin), have a bath; rather they were enormous recreation centres, fully equipped with gymnasia, gardens, libraries and reading rooms in addition to the baths themselves.
The energy and resources devoted to their construction and adornment have no parallel in the public buildings of modern times in whose rigorously controlled and mean construction avoidable expense is carefully spared. Magnificence, beauty and comfort were then the standards, not money budgets.
During the Empire the Baths were open to men, women and children alike, and even the very modest charge of one quadrans was sometimes remitted by the generosity of the Emperor or of a rich man, who might make himself responsible for the entire cost of the baths for anything from a day to a year. One set of rooms was provided for men and another for women, although there was also some mixed bathing in the days of Nero, greatly to the scandal of the sterner Romans. A succession of orders against such licence by the Emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Alexander Severus is the best evidence that it was difficult or impossible to restrain. Romans went to the Baths to meet others, to stroll about and talk, some to play ball and other games, some to take yet more violent exercise such as wrestling or to watch others at it, and of course to get cool in summer and warm in winter. There were cold baths in the frigidarium, a warm room or the tepidarium and a heated chamber, the caIidarium, where there were warm baths and hot air to induce perspiration as in our modern Turkish bath. An even hotter room, the laconicum, was used mainly by invalids. The heat was provided by a fierce fire under the floors stoked by slaves with great quantities of wood. Bathers could enjoy any one or any of these in turn and in any order.
Part of the treatment was to remove bodily impurities thrown off by perspiration by being scraped down with a metal, bone or wooden for the Romans lacked soap; 'scrape yourself with the curved blade, advised Martial, the fuller will not so often wear out your towels.
The bathers either brought slaves with them to carry their towels, to scrape, and to rub them down, or they hired such services at the Baths where there were also masseurs, anointers, depilators and perfumers. The poor, who could afford none of these attentions, rubbed and scraped themselves by hand or against a wall. It is important to say that the Baths also became social centres. They were notorious for the noise coming from them, for Romans liked to sing in their baths, to whistle, to talk and shout at their friends and acquaintances. After reclaiming their tunics and togas from the cloakroom attendant, if they had not been stolen or replaced by shoddy worn out clothes by some smart thief, as they sometimes were, they could lounge, talk and stroll, read or eat before they all went their ways: the rich in a closed litter and the poor on foot in the sun, rain or snow.
At first the Baths closed at sunset, but, from the multitude of lamps discovered in the Baths at Pompeii, it seems that bathing was extended into the night in the first century , although it is possible that the lamps were required merely to light otherwise dark corridors and enclosed rooms even in day-time. The Baths were set in gardens. Like most of the cultural interests in the life of the Romans, their love of gardens had been inspired by Greek examples. The Greeks in turn seem to have got the idea after Alexander the Greatís soldiers had seen the royal and princely gardens of Persia and the East. It was the Greeks who put gardens near or around their shrines, temples, porticoes, promenades and theatres, and the Romans copied them. It was something very new when outside the first permanent theatre in Rome, built by Pompey around 60 b.C., a grove or strip of trees was added. Greeks cities also had their public gardens. All these pleasant Greek practices were copied by the Romans so that during the Empire a number of public parks were created before the large thermae had been thought of Julius Caesar bequeathed his gardens across the Tiber to the Roman people. When his successor Augustus died, a park was provided around his great artificial lake he had created to stage the murderous naval battles (Naumachia), devised to vary the scenes into the night in the first century , although it is possible that the lamps were required merely to light otherwise dark corridors and enclosed rooms even in day-time. The Baths were set in gardens. Like most of the cultural interests in the life of the Romans, their love of gardens had been inspired by Greek examples. The Greeks in turn seem to have got the idea after Alexander the Greatís soldiers had seen the royal and princely gardens of Persia and the East. It was the Greeks who put gardens near or around their shrines, temples, porticoes, promenades and theatres, and the Romans copied them. It was something very new when outside the first permanent theatre in Rome, built by Pompey around 60 b.C., a grove or strip of trees was added. Greeks cities also had their public gardens. All these pleasant Greek practices were copied by the Romans so that during the Empire a number of public parks were created before the large thermae had been thought of Julius Caesar bequeathed his gardens across the Tiber to the Roman people. When his successor Augustus died, a park was provided around his great artificial lake he had created to stage the murderous naval battles (Naumachia), devised to vary the scenes of slaughter in which his subjects revelled. The older, purely Roman interest in a sacred grove of a few trees was enlarged and perpetuated in this way. The dark, black shade and coolness under thickly covered trees and bushes was especially valued for its sharp contrast with the glare and heat of a sunny Italian day.