BMCR 2021.06.36

Public baths and bathing habits in late antiquity

, Public baths and bathing habits in late antiquity: a study of the evidence from Italy, North Africa and Palestine A.D. 285-700. Late antique archaeology (supplementary series), volume 6. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. xxiii, 503. ISBN 9789004418721 €199,00.

Bathing was one of the quintessentially Roman activities, and Maréchal’s volume provides a new overview the current state of research on this activity in Late Antiquity. This volume, a revision of the author’s 2016 PhD thesis, presents a well-organized body of data of the literary, legal, documentary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence for Late Antique baths and bathing. The study is at once more ambitious and less ambitious than its title suggests. On the one hand, its archaeological coverage is limited to a selection of the bathhouses which have been found in only the regions of Italy, North Africa, Cyrenaica, Egypt, and Palestine. Despite the selectiveness of the archaeological data, however, Maréchal’s analysis contextualizes this archaeological evidence within a wider perspective of Mediterranean bathing cultural history. This book will be a welcome reference resource to scholars interested in the intersection between society and the urban built environment in the Late Antique Roman world.

The volume is richly illustrated, with over 200 figures, images, maps, and diagrams, including reproductions of printed survey plans as well as the author’s own maps and photographs. In many ways the core of the book is the Gazetteer, which takes up more than a third of the total page count. It contains the description of some three hundred baths from these five regions which were in use at some point during the Late Antique centuries. Of these over a hundred are ‘catalogued,’ that is the description is accompanied by its plans and sometimes other imagery such as photographs. The author did not merely collect and reproduce, but harmonized plans drawn from hundreds of reports to present a coherent corpus, standardizing scale bars and symbolic language (the keys for which are on xxii-xxiii). The Gazetteer amounts to a select and consistently formatted reference database which supports clear comparisons of the variety of bathhouses used by people living in these regions in Late Antiquity. It effectively underpins the analysis elsewhere.

The rest of the book is divided into a succinct introduction, four narrative chapters, a brief epilogue and conclusion, and three relatively short appendices comprising tables of inscriptions, papyri, and archaeological sites. Chapter 1 provides a narrative background of the history of Roman baths and bathing as well as its technical aspects, particularly concerning heating, water management, and decorations. It also provides a brief overview of the history of research into baths and bathing in Late Antiquity specifically.

Chapter 2 is a catalogue of written source materials concerning baths and bathing, starting with surviving literature but also including law codes, epigraphy, and papyri documents. Particular attention is paid to Late Antique medical texts, and the author makes a convincing case that these paint a picture of continuity of social attitudes about bathing and hygiene over these centuries. Maréchal organizes the list of authors and literary sources first by century and then by language. Notably, he includes Syriac sources alongside Latin and Greek with a welcome thoroughness. For critical passages in Latin, both the original text and an English translation are provided, with the result that Maréchal identifies and explains difference in Latin terminology over time and according to differing contexts. However, this is less consistently done for Greek or Syriac texts, where generally only English translations are provided.

Chapter 3 explores the archaeological evidence for how bathhouses fit into Roman urban environments. It does so by examining eight case studies: Rome and Ostia in Italy; Cuicul, Thamagadi, Carthage, and Sufetula in North Africa; Ptolemais in Cyrenaica; and Scythopolis in Palestine. Each city is discussed with a consistent format: a concise account of the settlement’s earlier history; an account of the newly built baths that date from Late Antiquity; a list of existing baths which were still used in Late Antiquity; and a narrative summary of the Late Antique urban context. The choice of cities to feature as case studies covers quite a variety of settlement size, with the result that there is a big difference in the amount of space required to cover each one—Rome and Ostia alone fill up nearly half of the pages of this chapter. The case studies are heavily intertextual with the Gazetteer, and the reader is regularly directed to check the catalogue at the end of the book to follow the argument of the text. The chapter ends with a brief overview of the architecture of early hammams, demonstrating that they bear an evolutionary relationship to Roman baths of Late Antiquity.

Chapter 4 summarizes the book’s findings, making the case that we should see Late Antique baths as one phase in a long and continuous history of Mediterranean bathing, starting with Hellenistic baths and continuing through today’s hammams. Maréchal identifies several changes in form and structure of newly-built bathhouses in the Late Antique centuries and explains them in the context of both a continuous urban fabric—most Roman cities already had monumental bath houses by AD 300—and subtle changes in social preferences supporting the demand for more intimate spaces. The interpretation draws on the book’s attentiveness to the quite significant difference in patterns in different regions in each century, and offers a careful and nuanced response to narratives exclusively emphasizing urban decline in Late Antiquity.

There is a large amount of raw data contained in this volume, and choices and compromises were made to handle it. The narration is strong and readable, for example in Chapters 1 and 4, but is clearly subordinate to the volume’s schematic plan for organizing its large quantity of data. For Chapters 2 and 3 it can be a challenge for a reader to see the big picture among all the specifics. For example, the map sequence of Ostia in Chapter 3 presents changes in the urban fabric over time through sequence of thirteen maps spread out over 28 pages of narration. However, to fully follow the text a reader must constantly turn to the Gazetteer, where descriptions, plans and photographs of some of Ostia’s bathhouses cover another nine pages. This need for constant reference to the catalogue in the Gazetteer is mildly distracting with a physical book, but it is potentially a significant drawback for readers accessing a digital edition.

The volume is of course not comprehensive, nor does it claim to be. Attention to the relationship between Late Antique Roman bathhouses and early Islamic hammams is appropriate given the volume’s geographical focus. However, the presence of this discussion highlights the fact that only passing attention is given to later bathing culture in the rest of the Mediterranean world. This is unfortunate, especially given the prominence of Italy in the archaeological survey in the volume, as much of southern Italy remained politically and culturally closely tied to the rest of the reduced medieval Roman (‘Byzantine’) Empire through the eleventh century.[1] In addition, while the writing and analysis is largely consistent across the volume, there are occasional signs that this material was assembled and analyzed over a long period of time. For example, a passage on page 63 discussing Malalas—challenging the authenticity of the chronicler’s ‘Roman’ identity with scare-quotes—stands out from the rest of the volume in which Maréchal consistently and correctly emphasizes the continuity of Roman social and cultural history and identities.

This is a work of reference which interested academics will find to be a welcome resource for understanding Late Antique built environments. Maréchal pays strict attention to space and time and casts a very wide net for the types of data catalogued in this volume. The eight urban case studies in particular offer a comprehensive view of Late Antique cities as spaces that constantly changed alongside the needs of their residents. Maréchal keeps his readers cognizant that this study covers well-trodden ground—indeed the introduction even opens with the question ‘Why Baths Again?’—but the study’s strengths lie in the meticulous manner in which the data has been collected. By assembling data from hundreds of archaeological reports, standardizing representations of their plans, supplementing them with maps and colour photographs, and summarizing their findings in English, this volume significantly increases accessibility for non-specialist scholars to all manner of evidence for one of the most defining features of life in Late Antique cities.


[1] Annick Peters-Custot, “Between Rome and Constantinople: The Romanness of Byzantine Southern Italy,” in Transformations of Romanness: Early Medieval Regions and Identities, ed. Walter Pohl et al., Millennium-Studien Zu Kultur Und Geschichte Des Ersten Jahrtausends n. Chr. 71 (Berlin; Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2018), 231–40.