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The bath house – a hive of Roman social activity

Illustrates a Roman Bathhouse, explaining their role in the community
This is the changing room of the bathhouse. But it’s not just a place you take off your clothes and hang them up. We know from a contemporary Roman document from a senator called Seneca that bathhouse changing rooms were a hive of activity. It was a social space. We know the soldiers were exercising here. They were getting massages and rubdowns here. There were people selling meat pies and other foods. They were gambling here– often get statues of Fortuna in the bathhouse. They’d be just chatting about the general day and things like that, socialising, basically just working up a sweat exercising before they went into the bathhouse proper. So that’s the main things that were going on here. It’s a big space.
A lot more activities than just hanging up your clothes. So we’ll move on into the bathhouse proper.
Now the bathhouse has three warm rooms. The warm room is where you warm yourself up. You get acclimatised to the heat. But of course, the main important room where the actual cleaning– bathing– goes on is, of course, the hot room. Now the hot room is more like a steam room– what you more think of as a Turkish bath. And to achieve the steam effect, here we would have a large basin that’s pouring out hot water– already hot– onto a very hot floor. I’m standing under the floor here. So once it hits the hot floor, it instantly turns to steam, and generates the steam that circulates throughout the hot room.
Now across over here, we have some interesting things we can see here to do with the heating. Now one of the main things you need to keep the hot room hot is that you have to have the walls hot as well. And you do this by having the walls jacketed with either tiles or spaces and plaster over the top around the whole of the walls itself– also up to the ceiling, so the walls and ceiling are all filled with air behind them– hot air– keeping the whole thing very, very hot. Now this doesn’t survive archaeologically. It’s all worn away, dissolved over time. The tiles have sort of fell off and been removed during the excavation.
But we can tell where these tiles were, because we have this nice little feature here where we have this red Roman cement– waterproof cement here– and it ends on this nice straight line on the gap between this and the wall. This gap here is where the wall jacketing the tiles– the hollow tiles would have been around here. Now having left the hot room, we come through here to the cold room. I’m standing at above-floor level. Now the purpose of the cold room is so that once you’ve gotten hot and sweaty, and you’ve scraped off the sweat with a thing called the strigil, which is basically just a copper rod, you need to close your pores.
So you come in here where there would once be a large basin, a bit like a big bird bath of cold water where you could splash yourself down. And that would close your pores. If you wanted a full-body immersion, there was the full-plunge tank just there, and you could cool yourself off there. So this style of bathing, we don’t pick it up again for another 1300 years, when it’s reintroduced as Turkish baths in the Victorian period.
One can learn a lot about identity in a bath house.
Here we discuss what Roman baths would have looked like by combining a visit to the well-preserved baths of Chesters (Cilurnum) fort with views of Tyne & Wear Museum’s impressive full-size visualisation at Wallsend (Segedunum).
Bathing was not simply associated with certain notions of hygiene in Roman society, notions which were themselves culturally distinctive and played a role in distinguishing ‘Romans’ from others, it was also a social phenomenon. Where one bathed, with whom one bathed, when one bathed, all these elements underscored a person’s identity in Roman society.
Baths were so important that they appear at every major installation on the British frontier. The commanding officer would have had his own bath house in the praetorium, but other bathers would have used the communal baths, which was normally situated beyond the fort walls. Baths were therefore a communal space for the military community, not simply for soldiers, but also for many civilians associated with them. This much is suggested by evidence from other military baths that takes the form of entrance tokens, finds which indicate that even those who were not self-evidently soldiers could gain access to the facility.
There were no separate baths for women, and it is likely that separate bathing times were set aside for them. Roman law makers repeatedly – and perhaps therefore sometimes unsuccessfully – insisted that men and women could not bathe together in communal facilities.
And what about the slaves..? Well we don’t know for sure whether or not the slaves of the frontiers got to use the baths, one suspects that some of the more privileged ones did, but we do know that some of least privileged ones quite literally spent much of their lives there – in the dirty and life-shortening labour of cleaning out and fuelling the all-important hypocausts that kept heat pumping through these sophisticated buildings.
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