BMCR 1999.10.35

Bathing in Public in the Roman World

, Bathing in public in the Roman world. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. xiii, 437 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780472108190 $57.50.

This book is really two resources in one. The first part (pp.1-222) is a stimulating, readable and scholarly account of Roman public bathing as a historical, social, and cultural phenomenon rather than as an architectural or technological one. The focus is on the bather, not the baths. F. reconstructs what a trip to the Roman baths was like. He explores when and why the baths became popular at Rome, who built and maintained the bathing establishments, what the physical environment was like, and what the social components of the bathing experience and the sociological functions of the baths were in the Roman Empire’s rigidly hierarchical social order. The second part of the book (pp. 223-371) is a wide-ranging collection of inscriptions that throw light of the bathing culture in Latin and Greek with some translations and with abundant commentary. The epigraphic sample is organized into four categories: constructional benefactions, nonconstructional benefactions, nonbenefactory texts, and Greek texts.

The Introduction to the first part of the book makes some interesting comments comparing Roman public bathing with modern Finnish, Islamic (“a direct descendant of the once ubiquitous Roman balneum” p.3), and Japanese public bathing. F. acknowledges the impossibility of reviewing every aspect of Roman public bathing in a study of this kind and prefers to ask several broad sociohistorical questions pertaining to the bath’s operations. F. places emphasis on public baths that served the urban communities of the Roman Empire. He reiterates Ramsey MacMullen’s frustration that no ancient writer provides a detailed account of life at the baths and that most who mention the baths do so allusively and thus give us glimmers or glimpses. One vivid illustration of the limitations of our knowledge is that it is not clear at what stage of the bathing ritual the “main wash” actually took place. He points out that there are prodigious quantities of archaeological, epigraphic, as well as literary material pertaining to Roman baths and it would take “several lifetimes to sift through and master it all” (p.8), so F. makes no claim to comprehensiveness in citing it.

Chapter 1 is entitled “A Visit to the Baths with Martial”. The distinctions between thermae and balnea are discussed. He draws on passages from Martial to explain how some baths were considered fashionable and others unfashionable. One of the salient social functions of the baths is that they act as meeting places for dinner guests. Martial’s amusing account (12.82) of the sycophant Menogenes (who attaches himself leechlike to a bather and torments him with inane praise until the bather offers a reluctant invitation to dinner) is given in Latin and helpfully translated in English prose with adaptations to bring out nuances that F. wishes to highlight. F. states that Martial and other sources saw nudity as the norm in baths though the word nudus does not imply absolute nakedness but can also refer to situations where people were stripped of their usual clothing or scantily dressed (p.25). On the question of male/female mixed bathing and the scholarly disagreements on it he draws this balanced conclusion: “The final verdict on this knotty question must be that whether one bathed in mixed baths or not was a matter of choice: the city (and empire) contained establishments to suit every taste, and depending on the source one reads, the habit will appear unremarkable or objectionable, hence the overall contradictory nature of the evidence” (p.29). There is a discussion of irritating bathers and violence, eating, drinking, sex, and thieves in the baths, and oversights in Martial in treating these topics.

Chapter 2 is on the growth of the bathing habit. Interestingly F. points out that Cicero is the most prolific of our Republican sources and cites examples of bathing as a casual, unremarkable backdrop to events in Cicero’s speeches, e. g., in Pro Caelio 61-67. F. states that the written evidence, when viewed cumulatively, suggests a steady growth in the popularity of baths in the first century BC, followed by a sharper increase in the bathing habit in the early imperial period (p.54). The archaeological evidence on the growth of the bathing habit centers on the public baths of Pompeii and the aqueducts and water supply in Rome.

Chapter 3 is entitled “Accounting for the Popularity of Public Baths”. There is very little direct evidence as to why public bathing became such a core social institution among the Romans. F. discusses some of the factors that contributed to the popularity of baths. Romans liked bathing. The communal life in Roman towns fostered public bathing; private living quarters of the humble lacked amenities such as baths. Increasing luxury and ostentation provided a suitable backdrop to the growth of bathing. Rising population in Rome contributed to a greater demand for public amenities such as baths. The arrival at Rome of larger numbers of people from regions where public bathing had long been practiced was another factor. Improvements in building technology also benefited the spread of public baths. Romans believed that bathing was good for them.

The association of healthfulness and baths is discussed in Chapter 4 “Baths and Roman Medicine”. References in both medical and non-medical writers as well as bath decorations attest to the association of bathing with health. There is even the possibility that doctors worked at the baths, but F. is properly cautious in assessing the data on this question. There is a long discussion of Asclepiades of Bithynia (a Greek physician who lived at Rome in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC and whose works are now lost) and the growth of the bathing habit at Rome. Asclepiades certainly recommended bathing for health reasons. However F. cautions that his influence not be overstated on the basis of available evidence. Asclepiades, a clever man, may have identified “the nascent Roman penchant for baths and amplified it with a medical imprimatur” (p.102).

Chapters 5 and 6 deal with bath benefactors at Rome, in Italy, and the provinces. The questions addressed are who built Roman baths and why. F. states that republican authorities are not attested in any sources as providing public baths in Rome. Emperors were major builders of baths. (p.105) The Thermae of Agrippa are the first instance whereby responsibility for building baths at Rome can be said unequivocally to fall with the ambit of the state, Agrippa’s will transferred the ownership of the baths to the populus, a transfer that F. calls (perhaps incorrectly) “nationalization.” In discussion of bath benefactors in Italy and the provinces, F. uses inscriptions as the chief medium of investigation. He points out that while the abundant physical remains of the empire’s baths have been subject to close scrutiny, the inscriptions accompanying them have not been (p.128). Interestingly, F. notes that central authorities (emperors or their officials) tended to restore, extend, and adorn baths rather than build them in the first place. Very few inscriptions give clues as to why baths were built, restored, or adorned. F. states that it is possible that this silence is purposeful, that benefactors wanted to portray their actions more as a result of spontaneous, unsought generosity rather than as reactions to pressing demands (p.165). Desire to enhance the dignitas of the community, rivalry between neighboring towns and among leading families within towns, and the demands of local politics are discussed as motivations for why local authorities did as they did. The motivation of private benefactors remains obscure.

Chapter 7 is a discussion of “The Physical Environment: Splendor and Squalor.” Visiting the baths could be a pleasurable experience. F. cites literary and epigraphic evidence that focuses on their splendor and magnificence. He also discusses the less salubrious side of the baths, e.g., deterioration, smallness, lack of cleanliness, lack of hygiene in the solia, the operation of the furnaces, filth from strigiling. He states that the Roman threshold for what constituted acceptable hygienic conditions undoubtedly fell well below the modern (p.188).

The final chapter is entitled “The Bathers”. The baths included everyone — emperors, senators, equites, the elite, plebs, commoners, and others of low station, including slaves as attendants and customers. F. discusses social mixing at the baths and the extent to which they were social levelers. Before beginning the Conclusion of the first part of the book, F. provides 24 pages of photographs of bath sites, inscriptions, and maps.

Among the interesting comments in the Conclusion is that the demography of bath benefactors greatly reinforces the picture of a remote central administration overseeing an empire comprised of largely self-sufficient communities (p. 221). He also makes suggestions on future directions which scholarship on baths should take, e.g., systematic correlation of known baths with surviving inscriptions, including a detailed study of how the latter relate to the physical remains (p.221).

F. provides an Introduction to the second major part of the book, viz., the Epigraphic Sample, in which he explains the organization of the inscriptions and the criteria for selection. He wants only inscriptions that are sufficiently well preserved to allow the nature of the benefaction and the identity of the benefactor to be deduced. He justifies inclusion of a selection of Greek inscriptions in terms of comparison with Latin texts and the additional information on Roman baths that they provide.

F.’s decision not to translate all 339 entries seems regrettable since some of the non-translated entries are tricky, e.g., #3, #50, #138, as are all of the untranslated Greek texts. He says that he does not wish to seem “unnecessarily pedantic” since so many inscriptions are formulaic and say the same thing in slightly variant language (p.230). He does translate earlier samples to provide exemplars of how such inscriptions are to be understood. Inscriptions that are “especially informative” are also translated or paraphrased.

We are fortunate to have such a wide-ranging collection of inscriptions on bathing in public available in one convenient place and with F.’s helpful and copious commentary. This Epigraphic Sample will be a gold mine for scholars wishing to do further work on the subject and for readers wanting to know what the ancients themselves had to say about their baths. It is well organized and well selected. The Appendices include discussion of the spread of public bathing in the Italian peninsula, the distribution of nonimperial baths in Rome, a glossary of parts of baths mentioned in the epigraphic sample, a 17 page bibliography, maps, indices (for names, places, topics, and ancient sources) and a concordance of inscriptions.

Throughout the book there is balanced treatment of controversial matters, excellent notes that summarize previous scholarship, readable text, a tendency to ask basic questions not previously addressed and to correct old, oft-repeated errors. In short, F.’s book is likely to be a standard work for many years to come.