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Baths and Bathing in Antiquity

Baths and Bathing in Antiquity

Nowadays, baths are an integral part of any apartment and house, at least in the overwhelming majority of world countries with a few exceptions where access to water is highly limited and people can hardly get enough water to drink, not speaking about daily bathing. Hence, bathing is a common daily routine for individuals, which they perform primarily for hygienic purposes in the privacy of their personal bathrooms. Indeed, there are some bathing establishments like saunas that people usually attend in groups for recreation and leisure, as well as for socialization, yet such visits can hardly be considered as a norm for everyone and occur occasionally. However, in the past, bathing occupied a completely different place in various societies and performed highly important functions that varied across the ancient world. In fact, Yegul (2010, p. 1) supports an idea that “The way in which a civilization integrates bathing into its daily life, as well as the type of bathing it prefers, yields an insight into the inner nature of that period….” It is especially so when considering the issue of bathing in the ancient world, where it transcended the common functions of necessity and hygiene and was treated as a socially significant ritual, cultural habit, and a means of spiritual purification and regeneration.

Bathing cultures differed depending on the country, but they were always more than mere washing of a body in the ancient world. Although bathing is known to be important in Ancient Egypt and some other civilizations preceding the rise of Greece, the Greeks are considered to add technological sophistication and architectural prominence to their baths. Besides, baths acquired more prominent social functions in Greece than anywhere in the world before that. However, the afore-mentioned idea is at least accepted among scholars, but it is impossible to know for sure which functions baths performed in other earlier civilizations because of the scarcity of evidence. Irrespective of the prominence of Greek baths, the Roman baths were the ones that attract the most attention because of various technologies, their architectural outlie, and a multitude of functions they performed. Gradually, Roman bathing practices were adopted by other regions along with the spread of the influence of the Roman Empire and remained significant there long after the decline of the Romans. Hence, the Near East and the Byzantium Empire are known to borrow a lot from the Romans and reinterpret the borrowed practices in new ways to conform to their needs and reality. Nonetheless, among all baths and bathing practices known in the antiquity, the Roman ones may be considered as the most evolved respective practices due to their technological sophistication, unique architectural elements, and social significance.

A Brief Overview of Baths and Bathing in Ancient Greece

Although it is claimed that bathing in closed spaces was quite widespread long before the Ancient Greek period, in particular, in Egypt and the Middle East, historical study of baths usually starts with Ancient Greece as one of the earliest most influential bathing cultures that significantly impacted Roman baths and subsequently Byzantine and Ottoman baths. Greeks started developing communal bathing and building bath houses during the classical period and then mastered this art during the Hellenistic period, which is why bathing before these two periods had been largely a personal and private matter and did not involve the use of some unique technologies. The key characteristic feature of ancient Greek baths consisted in the absence of some splendor and luxury that later became associated with Roman baths. In turn, Greeks regarded their bath houses as an integral part of their urban culture, yet they did not overestimate their importance and values of utilitarianism regarding architectural choices. Greeks had primarily two types of bath houses, including gymnasium baths and balaneia, which were public baths. A third type that can be distinguished included sanctuary baths by temples, but they had limited access and performed ritualistic purposes, which meant that the general public could not attend them.

Gymnasium baths were located inside gymnasiums, a typical example of which is shown in Fig. 1. Gymnasiums were built for male citizens willing to do different physical exercises and socialize, as well as attend libraries and some public lectures held in these institutions. Therefore, baths there performed mainly utilitarian functions and with the subsequent decline of emphasis on the athletic purpose of gymnasiums, these types of baths merged with public baths (Yegul, 1992). The only outstanding element that differentiated gymnasium baths from public baths was a loutron, i.e. a washing room with cold water that was considered to be “morally superior” to hot baths (Yegul, 1992, p. 17). Loutron emerged at about late 5th century BC and was situated in a corner of palaestra, as well as being intended exclusively for the use by athletes and visitors of a gymnasium. However, bathing in gymnasiums was associated with cleaning of the body and spirit more than with other functions performed by public baths.

Thus, the second type of Greek baths that gained prominence in the ancient world and became extremely popular with citizens included public baths or balaneia that appeared in the 5th century BC and were architecturally marked with “simplicity and functionalism” (Yegul, 1992, p. 24). Balaneia as shown in Fig. 2 were of either rectangular or irregularly shaped with a round tholos bath inside covered by a roof and lighted with some lamps (Gill, 2011, p. 211). Along the perimeter of the bath, there were several tubs with no walls between them intended for a visitor to sit down and have water poured on him/her. In the 4th century BC, double tholos balaneia (shown in Fig. 3) appeared that consisted of two tholoi with circular walls and separate entrances, but they performed the same function as single tholos baths (Gill, 2011, p. 211). Some Greek baths were heated with the help of a simple holocaust system, but not the entire floor space was heated, while others used steam from hot water or braziers. The area around tholos were used as undressing rooms, entrances, service rooms, and from other purposes. Besides, Greek baths were peculiar in terms of having individual tubs or “hip baths” located in the tholos room along the wall (as shown in Fig. 2) (Yegul, 1992, p. 24). These hip baths were carved or built into the walls and allowed some privacy to bathers outside of a common round central bath.

Early Greek public baths were usually located outside the city, and there was a bath at each entrance, which was, for example, evident on Athens, Eretria, Piraeus, and other large Greek urban centers (Gill, 2011, p. 2009). The location of these public baths was important as it allowed them performing certain functions, including discursive functions. In addition to being places where people could wash, bath houses enabled both newcomers to cities and local citizens to communicate, share and discuss the news, hence performing an essential social function. Balaneia were an integral part of the Greek society, and their structure envisioned easy access of bathers to each other and communication between them. At the same time, Greeks were conscious of the need to have some privacy, which was granted by hip baths along the walls. It is supposed that Greek baths were gendered so that males and females bathed separately and could not intermingle, which also emphasizes the patriarchic nature of the Greek society in general. Despite the afore-mentioned, communal baths performed a social function, however, attitudes towards them differed. For instance, Aristophanes seemed to have a low opinion of the youth spending their time in conversations in bath houses and considered them too decadent (Gill, 2011, p. 210). Nonetheless, Greek baths were mostly not luxurious and did not contain any opulent decorations as opposed to Roman baths. During the Hellenistic period, there were few balaneia constructed, while sweat baths increased in popularity (Gill, 2011, p. 212). Since people could not stay in sweat baths for a long time, Greek baths played a more utilitarian function that before. In turn, Roman baths were steadily gaining popularity and became the dominant type of ancient bath houses.

Baths and Bathing in the Roman Empire as the Most Evolved Respective Practices

Roman baths and bathing practices were the most evolved and sophisticated among respective practices in the ancient world. In addition to being the most influential, they gradually spread far beyond the borders of the Roman Empire and lied at the roots of Ottoman hammams. Besides the obvious reason of supporting cleanliness and promoting health, Roman baths performed significant social functions and, in the latter respect, were even more important than Greek baths.

Before describing a typical architecture and purposes of Roman baths, it seems reasonable to provide a brief overview between two common bath houses spread across the Roman Empire, including balnea and thermae. Scholars lack sufficient evidence to draw a clear line between these two types of Roman bath houses, while literary sources rarely give an insight into how to differentiate them. A common assumption has been made by Yegul (1992, p. 43) that balnea and thermae differ in terms of scale and ownership with balnea, being a small privately owned bath, and thermae, being a very large public complex with opulent and luxurious decorations. In turn, another prominent researcher of Roman baths, Nielsen (1999, p. 35), differentiates between the two types with account for their functions as balnea supposedly were used exclusively for bathing, while thermae allowed their visitors to engage in sport activities in a room resembling palaestra of Greek baths. Finally, Fagan (2002, p. 14) uses Martial’s poems to distinguish functions and purposes of these two types of bathing institutions. He also mentions that a possible difference could relate to the fact that balnea were unheated and thermae were heated, but this hypothesis lacks sufficient evidence. Based on some analyzed poems of Martial, Fagan (2002, p. 16) comes to a conclusion that thermae were marked by “luxury of environment, especially as manifested in elaborate decoration,” while balnea were humbler in their decorations. Thus, the size was not a decisive factor as small bathing establishments with lavish decorations could be termed thermae, while large, but simple and undecorated bathing complexes, could be balmea. Besides, some bathing complexes were deemed fashionable, while other were not fashionable, depending on the clientele frequenting these bath houses (Fagan, 2002, p. 19). Fashionableness of these establishments was not a constant phenomenon even though most thermae remained frequently visited by many people thanks to their size and luxury.

As shown in Fig. 4, all Roman baths had a similar typical structure consisting of a system of variously heated rooms and bathing pools. According to Fagan (2001, p. 403), Roman baths could be distinguished from Greek and all other baths based on two features. Firstly, any Roman bath had a set of rooms with different heat gradations that were located in a peculiar sesquence: frigidarium, tepidarium, and caldarium (Fagan, 2001, p. 403). Caldarium is the central part of a bath house and literally means a hot room that is then followed by an intermediate room, called tepidarium, and then, a cold room called frigidarium. Different service spaces and dressing rooms were located between functional parts of the complex. The first room that a bather would enter was a changing room, also called apodyterium and then, the bather was supposed to go from one room to another without skipping any step in the sequence, while Greek baths allowed their visitors to freely choose a room that they wanted to attend. Romans believed that the above sequence of rooms produced the most beneficial impact on individuals as they cleaned themselves and got accustomed to heat.

Secondly, any Roman bath had communal heated pools, called alvei or solia, where bathers spend time all together socializing and communicating, and where virtually no privacy was allowed contrary to Greek baths with their separate hip baths (Fagan, 2001, p. 404). All other elements present in most thermae known to the contemmporary archeological community were not obligatory and could vary depending on architect’s plan or available budget. Some of these possible elements include palaestrae meant for physical exercises, laconica or suddatoria used as sweat baths, natationes intended as open-air pools, and sphaeristeria or ball courts (Fagan, 2001, p. 404). Another typical feature of Roman baths consists in the technology used to heat the rooms. This heating technology is called suspensura, which was a more sophisticated version of hypocaust, under which the entire floor of the bathing complex was raised on pillars and walls were hollowed. As a result, all rooms consisted of surfaces that radiated heat of different gradations depending on the purpose of the room.

The exact origin of Roman baths, their peculiar structure, and technologies, underlying their construction, remains unknown and is widely speculated by different researchers. Although partial Greek influence was undeniably apparent in early Roman baths, it is not sufficient to explain the elaborate structure of bath complexes and technologies used for heating and cooling different sections of the bath house. Therefore, it seems plausible that Romans combined traditions and technologies borrowed from different countries and imported by merchants and travelers. According to Fagan’s (2001, p. 423) theory, Roman baths, as they are known today and shown in Fig. 4, emerged in Campania that provided the best circumstances for their finalization. Campania seems to be the most probable place as there “was a wealthy and vibrant place, standing at cultural crossroads not only of Italy but of the wider Mediterranean, displaying signs of architectural innovation, and boasting the local natural conditions to stimulate the move toward the development of the Roman-style bath” (Fagan, 2001, p. 423). A need to replicate natural communal pools found in caverns with hot springs could have really been a sufficient incentive for Romans in order to develop technologies necessary for building Roman baths in artificial conditions.

Irrespective of the origin of the Roman style of bathing, it was an undisputable fact that bathing was of immense significance for people, and bath houses of all sizes and styles performed vital social functions in addition to their basic function of allowing people to maintain hygiene and wash themselves. It should also be noted that contrary to Greek baths, Roman baths were visited by both sexes and intermingling of both sexes was a common phenomenon. However, based on available primary evidence, Fagan (2002, p. 29) concludes that “whether one bathed in mixed baths or not was a matter of choice: the city (and empire) contained establishments to suit every taste.” Besides, while the Greeks communicated and exchanged news in bath complexes, Romans, especially the rich and the elite, spend their afternoons in baths before going to dinner (Fagan, 2002, p. 22). In fact, dinner invitations were regularly received and accepted in bath houses, while hosts of dinner parties waited for their guests in nearby houses.

Another interesting point concerning Roman baths was an assumption that they were used for entertainment purposes and, in particular, for finding sexual pleasures. The latter option could be realized in two ways: either men brought their intimate partners with themselves or paid to prostitutes milling around bath complexes (Fagan, 2002, p. 28). This hypothesis is supported by various inscriptions with sexual implications found during archeological excavations of Roman bath houses. It was also quite common for people to have snacks and drink wine while being in the bath complex, but this fact varied depending on the group of individuals and their wealth. Roman baths drew hundreds of people who went to these complexes not to merely clean their bodies, but rather to socialize with their peers, establish connections, find new friends, talk about business, solve diplomatic questions, and entertain. The multitude of social and cultural functions performed by Roman baths means that these establishments were a vital and integral part of the Roman society during all periods of its history.

A Brief Overview of Baths and Bathing in the Near East and the Byzantine Empire

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Constantinople became the capital of the East Roman Empire that was later called the Byzantine Empire. Although not much is known about the tradition of public bathing across the entire empire, it is known that Constantinople had a huge number of thermae and other kinds of smaller public baths, for instance, there were 8 thermae and 153 smaller bath houses in the city at the beginning of the 5th century (Yegul, 1992, p. 324). Moreover, it is known that these known thermae were extremely opulent in terms of their decorations and had many statues, thus following traditions of Roman baths. Hence, these Roman-like baths became later the basis for hammams.

The above described Greek and Roman bathing traditions had a profound impact not only on their immediate neighbors, but also on the Near East even though Arabic countries adopted these traditions a bit later than the central parts of the empire. Nowadays, the study of these ancient baths in Syria, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan is on the rise, and the researchers have found 35 Greek private baths, 118 Roman baths, and 17 baths of the Umayyad period (Fournet, 2012, p. 330). Fig. 5 shows the architectural and structural development of Roman-like baths in the Near East from the 1st century AD to the 6th century. As evident from Fig. 5, simple small public baths gradually either grew into or were substituted with large thermae-like bathing complexes that complied with Roman traditions in this respect. Hence, even though baths were introduced in this region a bit later than in central regions near large urban centers, they quickly became popular and remained there for centuries, as well as appearing in almost all Arabian and Syrian towns over half a century (Fournet, 2012, p. 331). Besides, archeological excavations show evidences that these baths were built upon Roman architectural models and exploited Western heating techniques.

 
 

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