Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.04.15

Stephan Busch, Versus balnearum: die antike Dichtung über Bäder und Baden im römischen Reich.   Stuttgart and Leipzig:  Teubner, 1999.  Pp. xiv, 616.  ISBN 3-519-07256-4.  

Reviewed by Stefanie A. H. Kennell, Memorial University of Newfoundland (
Word count: 3207 words

Ubiquitous and often impressive features of the Empire's built landscape, Roman baths have become increasingly prominent in the bibliographic landscape, from I. Nielsen's Thermae et Balnea (Aarhus, 1990) and F. Yegül's Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity (New York & Boston, 1992) to J. de Laine's The Baths of Caracalla (Portsmouth RI, 1997) and G. G. Fagan's Bathing in Public in the Roman World (Ann Arbor, 1999). Weighing in at 1165 grams (2.6 lbs. for the metrically impaired), this hefty volume thus finds itself in good company. Beginning as a 1996 Cologne dissertation and subsequently expanded, Busch's book wants to examine Greek and Roman poetry on baths and bathing in the Roman Empire from two complementary viewpoints, the literary-philological and the antiquarian-archaeological (5-6). To his credit, B. does canvass a great quantity of verse transmitted both epigraphically and in manuscript sources, composed by a wide variety of authors ranging from Martial, Statius, and the Empress Eudokia to the Late Antique anonymi of the Greek and Latin Anthologies. B. repeatedly demonstrates his technical competence in the context of individual poems, with analyses of philological and epigraphical details and elucidations of references to sundry Realien of the Imperial period.

A thousand tiny points of detail, however, do not make for easy reading, and even on a purely visual level, difficulties arise. The principles of typographical hierarchy are less than transparent: some small-font sections are philological, others prosopographical, and bibliographical entries are devoid of italics. The title itself raises questions. The Latin formulation Versus Balnearum, which seems to be B.'s own invention, suggests an ancient generic terminus technicus, but what does it mean, anyway? "Verses of baths"? Versus balnearii would be more idiomatic. Faulty spelling and capitalization are already evident in the list of abbreviations that precedes the text ("Planuedea", Huelsen/ Hülsen, "pont" for Pont). Other typographical Versehen appear throughout, e.g. "distinca" (45), "Vorl äufer" (100), moniemta (108n22), the diverting "Estherausgeber" (134, 559), "antiquitiy" (148), Cconsul (187), "Greenwod" (494n75).

More serious, what B. seems to promise in his three-page table of contents and twenty-seven pages of introduction is a comprehensive four-part thematic discussion of poetry about baths. In the Introduction (15-16), he states that his subdivisions "verfolgen nicht das Ziel einer strengen Systematisierung," but are arranged rather "nach wechselnden, teilweise auch ungleichwertigen Gesichtspunkten," grouping epigrams related by content and typology in order to facilitate comparison of themes and motifs: "die Überschriften dienen nicht der Klassifikation, sondern der Übersichtlichkeit." On the same page, he also affirms that extended general reflections on the nature of Roman bathing (Bäderwesen) and its literary expression must be based on the conscientious interpretation of individual poems. Quite so, but to what extent is this laudable espousal of clarity and thoroughness realized? The subject of the title is virtually identical with the first section, "Epigramme auf Bäder(n)," amounting to a book in itself, awesomely subdivided into more than fifty sections, subsections, and sub-subsections. The remaining three sections (life in the baths, including building technology; bathing; miscellaneous) incorporate additional fragments of poetry, Martial most of all, as well as sundry prose, decked out with appropriately authoritative references (Friedländer et al.). Among the 27 potentially intriguing topics through which B. weaves his way are the atmosphere and amenities/vexations of the baths, hours of operation, social life, food services, public recitations, establishment of baths, water temperature, nudity, sexual behaviors (various), physical culture, that oh-so traditional obsession, immorality, Christian moderation (on 11, B. said he would include Christian epigrams "soweit sie sich auf 'normale' Bäder beziehen"), health, and riddles.

B. obviously did a lot of research, and he is determined that his readers appreciate that fact. But he too often loses his way, and we with him. Rather than the book on bath poetry we are led to expect, its subject a literary subgenre inspired by a popular yet intimate feature of the Roman material and intellectual environment, we encounter a series of expeditions to practically every aspect of the ancient world that chances to be connected to the poems B. has chosen to survey. Most of the 500-odd pages between the introduction and the three textual appendices and nine separate indices (but, alas, no cumulative bibliography) that round off the volume are engrossed with ill-digested chunks of poetry and their exposition. This concatenation of texts and commentaries might be justified had B. meant to produce a comprehensive annotated corpus of poetry pertaining to baths and bathing, but this is no corpus, nor are B.'s principles of selection and organization strongly evident. The poems treated (Register 1: 591-95) are listed alphabetically by first lines rather than by author/source, location, or chronological period. Some texts are printed in full, others only excerpted, and still others mentioned only in passing. For example (I admit a special interest), Claudian's 100-verse celebration of the waters of Aponus (CM 26) never receives B.'s undivided attention, "seiner Länge wegen" (346n4; cf. 96, 263), whereas Martial's and Statius' epigrams on the bath of Claudius Etruscus, the texts on which Section I.A.1. focuses (36-57), are split between that location (38-39: the 24-line Mart. 6.42) and Appendix 1 (582-85: 65 lines of Statius, with facing translation). Appendix 2 (586-87: Ep. 86.1-13) prints a curiously large excerpt from Seneca on bathing, a text B. has already cited and discussed extensively (41-59 passim). Wasn't this book supposed to be about bath poetry? Is chronology relevant? Some sections are clearly early to late (153-85, discussed below); others are definitely not (117-130, "Das sorgenvertreibende Bad," with poems from the fifth/sixth, later fourth, fourth/fifth, fifth/seventh, end of the third, and sixth centuries).

Given the book's length, indices need no apology. B.'s plurality of headings, however, betrays an inability to make real distinctions. Consider the idiosyncrasies built into his categories: (1) epigrams treated, (2) passages cited, (3) personal names, (4) gods and mythological figures, (5) geographical names subdivided by region, (6) names of baths and hot springs, (7) res balneariae, (8) literary and epigraphical style, (9) matters of intellectual and cultural history. The note prefacing the index for Category 7 (610), meant to explain B.'s choice of "Hauptstichworten," merely recites the headings we can easily see on the page, which are given in an order known only to B.; neither keywords nor subentries are alphabetical. Other oddities: the single entry for "Kaiser(-kult)" is in (4) rather than (9), while Aponus is not in (4) or (5), but (6); nowhere to be found is the goddess Fortuna, patron of bath-builders and users.

Since a really gründlich review runs the risk of being as long as its subject, I give a sample of B.'s work in Section I, "Epigrams on Baths." Do his headings and subheadings really serve the cause of clarity (Übersichtlichkeit), as the introduction leads us to expect, and do his poem-by-poem interpretations really contribute to a coherent and informative overview of the subject? Under "Epigramme über Errichtung, Renovierung und Unterhalt von Bädern," we find "Die griechischen Bau- und Ehreninschriften (3.-6. Jh.)," containing, inter alia, "Bäder und Charis" (131-52) and "Die Renovierungsinschriften der Faustina-Thermen in Milet" (153-85). Although the first subheading claims "Charis" as its theme, the Charites (Graces) also appear under Section 1.C.1, "Das Bad und sein Wasser," in "Bad der Götter - Venus, Chariten und andere" (282-89), and in several epigrams in Section 1.C.2, "Götter in den Bädern" (303-306). This plurality of labels and locations suggests a want of organization rather than manifest clarity.

The texts included in this section begin (131-132) with the presentation, translation and discussion of a one-line epigram (IGUR 203 = IG 14.1034), labelled "Inscription from a bath or nymphaeum from Rome" and tentatively dated to the second or third century. B. expends three-and-a-half lines of text and nine tiny lines of a footnote (132n83) on a labored explanation of why the dedicants' names, "Memphis" and "Gelasis" on the stone, should be understood to be "Memphius" and "Gelasius." This orthography is such a commonplace of Hellenistic Greek as to be utterly banal and, at most, warrants only a reference to the relevant pages of F. T. Gignac, A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Roman and Byzantine Periods (Milan, 1976), a work absent from the Abkürzungsverzeichnis. B. then undercuts his very inclusion of this poem by stating that, because of the murky circumstances of its discovery in 1715, the hexameter could have accompanied either a nymphaeum or a private "Bath of the Graces." Why has B. not followed the verse's semantic clue -- the word loutron? He did, after all, introduce this section by citing Louis Robert (Hellenica 4, 78-82) as an authority for the association of baths and the Graces. M. Robert indeed mentioned this epigram; he also stated, "χάρις s'associe normalement avec λουτρόν."

The next epigraphical poem also comes from Rome (SEG 35 [1985], 1055), four pairs of elegiacs plus a prose coda that unite baths, the senator Lampadius who was praefectus urbis Romae in 365, waters, nymphs, and the rhetor Eudemos of Laodicea (133-46). Luigi Moretti, the inscription's first editor, understood Χάριτες in v. 4 (the only line that justifies the poem's presence here) as a proper name indicating images of the Graces were among the things the viewer beholds, so that the line says "waters of the Nymphs, baths, halls, Graces." B. prints the word as an anodyne, ungainly lower-case abstraction (χάρις has already occurred in v. 3) which he translates absolutely as "-- Lieblichkeiten" (133). Instead of explaining his editorial decision immediately, he presents two paragraphs of disquisition on the poem's metrics, orthography, and syntax to show off his scansion and parsing. V. 4 is oddly punctuated, and the diacriticals of the Greek are less than blameless; while pointing out ̓Ρωμέων, he also prints Λαδικεὺς for Λαοδικεὺς. B. then identifies Eudemos and Lampadius (134-36), discursively hunting cognomina and communing with Libanius. PLRE, which would have saved everyone bother, is not cited until 135n91; the rest of the literature for Lampadius antedates Moretti's 1984/85 publication of the stone. A few paragraphs are bestowed on vv. 1-4, which actually pertain to the literary and architectural features of the baths. Only here (137 and n98) does he refer to his treatment of Χάριτες, stating that water source (spring or nymphaeum), bath facility, and additional buildings form "ein Ensemble wie die drei Chariten"; this view receives support only from mention of an epigram (Anth. Gr. 9.680) B. will not discuss for another 170 pages. Finally, we have a rambling interpretation (137-46) of the characterization of Lampadius in vv. 5-8, crammed with historical details of the man's career and personality (other inscriptions, a chunk of Ammianus). It includes an energetic attempt (140-41) to argue that the Homeric flavor of v. 8, ἀνθ' ἐκατομβοίων ͅ τὴν θέμιν ἠρέσατο, conveys the meaning "anstelle unermesslicher Güter die Rechtsprechung vorgezogen" (though B. is powerless to suggest exactly why), plus a mini-essay critiquing the poem's metrical shortcomings (147). While the last two paragraphs do admittedly return to the subject of Lampadius' official responsibilities relating to the construction and/or renovation of baths, B.'s conclusion bears neither on the specific theme "Baths and Charis" nor on his general aim of analyzing the intersection of Roman bathing and literary expression.

The three remaining epigrams in this section are also late antique, from baths in Cilicia and northern Syria (Serdjilla; Androna). A four-line pavement inscription in iambics from Anemurium informs the beholder that the edifice's charis is great, that a general named Mouseos, endowed by Nature with illustrious merits, is responsible for everything, and that Envy is to stand aside from the excellence of this mosaic; the bath itself is not mentioned. Here is a trope beloved of epideictic discourse, as applicable to people, houses, and gardens as to a bath, but the juxtaposition of grandeur/charm and smallness/bath is the subject of Section I.C.3. Whither clarity? While B. devotes one paragraph to the bath as literary object and another to identifying Mouseos and his building activity, he spends most space making metrical animadversions (n.133 is 16 lines long!) and literary echoes, relying on James Russell's 1987 editio princeps (TAM Ergänzungsband 13) and Katherine Dunbabin's "Baiarum Grata Voluptas" (PBSR 64 [1989]: 7-46) without advancing the discussion much. Of the Syrian epigrams (149-52), the first one (hexameters interrupted by a dating formula in prose, from another mosaic pavement) states that Iulianos and his wife Domna built the bath but the whole village possesses its charis, while the second (on a doorjamb) tells us that Thomas "gave this bath again for the charis of all," as a memorial for himself, and, in prose, that its name is "Health," which comes from Christ. Here, B. interleaves interesting primary texts with observations which show a certain naivete about the interaction between generic literary forms and traditional social practices. For instance, he states that the first poem does not mention Iulianos' Christianity, which is signified instead by crosses incised on the doorjamb, whereas the wish to expel envy is "heidnisch-aberglaübisch," and that χάρις is a characteristic of the village (i.e., the bath's charm) and the favor granted to its citizens. On the other hand, in the case of the openly Christian Thomas epigram, nothing seems to explain the "again" -- αὖ, hinting at renovation -- but B. tells us that the prose allusion recalls both the baptismal waters of the Jordan and the frequent non-Christian association of Hygieia / Salus with baths. So? Although we are at the end of the section, the paragraph on Thomas' finances and further activities draws no threads together and sums up no findings.

Instead, what follows is the discussion of eight epigrams connected with "at least two renovations" (153) of the second-century Baths of Faustina in Miletus. B. calls the first four poems (154-69: Ins. von Milet 339A-D) a set dating from the late third century because they all mention the Asiarch Makarios who helped defend the city against the Gothic attack of 263 and they were inscribed together on the wall of the archway between the entrance hall and the "Musensaal." He does this despite the fact that the middle two verses of the third epigram (Ins. von Milet 339C) also refer to Tatianos, the man commemorated in the fifth poem under discussion (169-78: Ins. von Milet 340, from a badly weathered column in the main hall), whom Charlotte Roueché identified as the governor of Caria in 362-364 (Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity [London, 1989], 40-42) and all five epigrams show identical letter forms. B. does use the relevant passage of Roueché to explicate the word δικασπόλος in that third epigram (161), but its implications for the dating of the re-inscription of the whole suite pass unremarked until the fifth epigram is analyzed. For this second, fuller testament to Tatianos, B. adopts Roueché's dating and Peek's readings (SEG 15, 686) with much small-print technical exposition (170-74) to arrive at a reasonable understanding of Tatianos' activity as the baths' second renovator. He then (175) argues against Roueché for asserting that 339C "insgesamt ein Erzeugnis des Tatianos ist," so as to explain his earlier observation that the Tatianos intrusion in 339C, which is two lines longer than its four-line companions, was "eine sekundäre Zutat" (162). What Roueché actually says is, "either Tatianus inserted his text in the Macarius sequence, or all four were re-inscribed at a later date," but the only "text" she cites is the couplet already mentioned, used simply as evidence for Tatianos' existence and activities as an Imperial official of the later fourth century, unadorned by speculations about the compositional circumstances and literary qualities of the poem as a whole.

The notion suggested by the title of this section (the renovation of a bath) proves elusive, however, for the elements of each poem B. strives most zealously to interpret frequently lie far beyond the bath-hall's arcuate horizons. For instance, given a phrase like τὸ δὲ κῦδο[ς ἐ]ν ἀ[στοῖσιν μέγ' ἀέξων?] / ἀντ' Ἀσιαρχίης λουτρὸν ἔτευ[ξε νέον] (339A, vv. 3-4), he would rather expound at length (157-60) on the significance of the Asiarchy, the changing form of the provincial koinon, and the religious and financial role of Makarios' wife Eucharia, whose "kindnesses" [ἀγανοφρόσυναις] 339B commemorates, than give his readers a few succinct, up-to-date footnotes (S.R.F. Price, Rituals and Power [Cambridge, 1984]; R. van Bremen, The Limits of Participation [Amsterdam, 1996], 115-125) about the summa honoraria, the Imperial cult, and Diocletianic provincial reorganization and, most important, come to grips with the relationship of renovation to renown as manifest in the work of Makarios and his charming wife. The third renovation of the Baths of Faustina is represented by three epigrams, also from the bath's main hall (Ins. von Milet 341-43), in the form of two wall inscriptions and one statue base commemorating a fifth- or sixth-century benefactor named Hesychios who had enjoyed the Emperor's friendship. The translations and discussions of the topical material B. gives are competent (178-85); he notes that these poems have motifs and language in common with the Makarios epigrams, which hardly comes as a surprise, considering the likely effects of location, occasion, and genre on their composition. Again, we have no summing-up and little has ultimately been added to the literature B. himself cites, despite the panoramic view we have had of his thought processes.

What, finally, of the big picture? Early on (5), B. states that the literary phenomenon of verse about baths blossomed at the same time as the popularity of facilities for public bathing in the Roman world. The conclusion reprises this remarkably innocuous insight (576). Basic questions seldom arise, though the poetic representation of baths and bathing in the Roman Empire should provoke a lot of questions. We know that Roman-style baths flourished in both East and West. Exploring the interrelationship of this one aspect of Empire-wide material culture (baths/bathing) with linguistic practice as represented by one literary subgenre (the epigram) in two languages (Greek and Latin) was B.'s mission. In accepting it, he would have done well to ask whether some sort of linguistic and conceptual koine existed throughout the Empire, or if different ways of talking about baths obtained in Greek as opposed to Latin, then to work out what they were. Ideally, the minutiae of his interpretations of individual poems should provide the building material for an overarching vision of his chosen subject, but all we actually get is a meagre seven pages of "Übergreifende Beobachtungen" (370-76), containing only 8 comment-intensive footnotes which could easily have been integrated into the body of the text. These "observations" commence by totting up poems and lines, classifying them by language and metre, and stating the obvious. Hundreds of pages' worth of detailed analysis produces the unremarkable conclusion, "dass kein Vers dem anderen gleicht" in matters of styling and topoi, but the influence of common models, images, and antitheses is evident all across the "Bandbreite" (372-73). When required to generalize, B. finds that the Latin epigrams habitually allude to Baiae and dwell on the splendor of edifices whereas Greek verses often feature Nymphs and Graces, and that the epigrams as a whole show remarkable consistency of poetic technique despite the differences in how they were composed and transmitted. Had B.'s advisers and the publisher nurtured these critical reflections into a properly documented conclusion, it would have made a fitting end to the book promised by the title. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

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