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.