BMCR 2022.10.22

Bathhouses in Iudaea, Syria-Palaestina and Provincia Arabia from Herod the Great to the Umayyads

, Bathhouses in Iudaea, Syria-Palaestina and Provincia Arabia from Herod the Great to the Umayyads. Oxford: Oxbow, 2021. Pp. 176. ISBN 9781789256574. $60.00.


In the last decade, a number of important studies on Roman baths were published, and especially on the baths of the eastern part of the Empire. The book under review analyses the development of bathhouses in the Near East, focusing on the architectural history of the buildings (building, rebuilding or disuse of rooms), their technical installations (hypocaust, water installations) and the various embellishments (marble incrustations, mosaics, wall painting) of the architecture. The book contains the analysis of a corpus of 181 baths and bathhouses mainly made available in an online catalogue at the OCHRE Data Service of the University of Chicago.

As the study gives only a short summary of the culture of Roman bathing and the bathhouses that developed for it, it is best suited for scholars and advanced students working in this field.

The short introduction (pp. XVI-XVIII) gives the reasons for the chronological and geographical frame chosen. Because the political borders of the region (large tracts of the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel) moved several times during the Roman period (and later), the geographical definition of the study area is of crucial importance. The period under research runs from the reign of Herod the Great (37 BC) to the Umayyad dynasty (AD 750), because the Umayyad hammams were strongly influenced by their Byzantine precursors.

The first chapter gives a short introduction to bathing in the Roman manner, its origin, development, buildings, and installations, ably summarizing the current scholarship on these subjects. Chapter 2 builds on the online catalogue, in which each record provides the available information on the bath building, including prior publications, GIS plans, and photos taken by the author. The book adds short descriptions of the architecture of the better preserved baths to this online catalogue (citing the relevant literature). In order to gain all of the information about the bathhouses, the online catalogue thus has to be read in conjunction with the book. While printing lengthy catalogues with many figures makes books expensive, this solution is clunky and makes reading chapter 2 with its many short bathhouse descriptions quite repetitive. The chapter is structured into six geographic regions (introduced by maps): the Mediterranean coast, Galilee, the Decapolis, Provincia Arabia and the Nabatean kingdom, Judea and Samaria and the Negev and Wadi Araba. These regions differ from each other in their settlement structure and development during the study period and the division of the study region into these smaller regions is very useful for the analysis in the following chapter.

The third chapter is the longest and looks at the various aspects of the bathhouses, such as their chronology, their layouts and their technical installations. It is hampered by the fact that many of the bathhouses are not fully excavated or published. In her analysis, Kowaleska builds on and expands Fournet’s typology[1], which splits bathhouses into groups (small, medium, and large) according to overall size and the size of the heated rooms. The vast majority of bathhouses in the study region belong to the group of small bathhouses, which are small in both overall size and the size of their heated rooms. An interesting subgroup of this, which is specific to the study region, is formed by bathhouses that have an unusually large unheated area, which sometimes is partly open (such as a courtyard with a colonnade).

In addition to chronology and layout, the settings of the bathhouses (city, town, village, villa, military fort/fortress or road station) and the ethnicity and religion of their presumed users are discussed. Here, the author tries to ascertain how many bathhouses can safely be assumed to have been public and how many were (semi)private. She concludes that only 15 baths can be assumed to have been (semi)private and these mainly belong to Byzantine rural villas. As to the ethnicity and religion of their presumed users, Kowalewska concludes that most baths were used by ‘a mix of the wide variety of ethnicities and religions’ present in the region (p. 79). Most of the aspects discussed in this chapter are set out in tables, which is very useful for keeping an overview.

The chapter continues with an analysis of the different elements of the bathhouses, such as the various rooms and pools, the hypocausts, and the supply, heating and drainage of the water, addressing the evidence for both the common and the specific elements of the respective bathhouses. An example of the latter is the evidence for boilers: while each bathhouse must have had at least one boiler to produce hot water, these were made of metal, a material that could easily be recycled. Consequently, finds of boilers are extremely rare in the whole of the Roman Empire. An example of a common element in the study region is that most heated pools were built above the floor, while most cold pools were built below floor level. However, while Kowalewska’s claim that cold pools are commonly situated in this way may be true for bathhouses in the Roman East, it is not true for bathhouses in the Roman West, where both the hot and cold pools can sit above floor level, while swimming pools are commonly situated at least partly below the floor level.[2]

The building techniques and material as well as the various decorations (marble facings, mosaics, stucco, wall paintings, and statues) are also discussed in this chapter. Among the decorations, the figural ones are of specific interest in this region, because of the Jewish prohibition of depicting the human form. The author gives an overview of the statues excavated in the bathhouses: they represent several Graeco-Roman gods or (mythological) animals and imperial or local officials/elite. She also presents a very useful table of what was found where. Most of the gods represented are quite common in bathhouses all over the Roman world and are interpreted by the author as being either connected to health (Asklepios/Hygieia/Herakles) or the positive aspects of nature (Aphrodite/Dionysos/nymph). She interprets the statues of prominent citizens and imperial officials as connected to the civic competitiveness typical of Roman cities and points out that these only occur in bathhouses in the larger cities. While probably accurate, these interpretations do not do justice to the specific situation in Palestine, where the Jewish prohibition of figural representation played an important role in the discussion about Roman bathhouses, both in antiquity and modern times. Although it is understandable that the author did not want to discuss the evidence and its consequences at length in a work dedicated to a different subject, it would have been possible to at least cite the relevant literature here, some of which she mentions in the introduction (p. 12).

The most interesting fact about the building techniques and materials is that the general prevalence of stone as a building material in the East is visible in the study region as well. Bricks, ‘mostly’ used (together with cement) in the West according to the author (p. 8), are rarer in the East.[3] The only elements that are generally made from ceramic building material in Palestine (as elsewhere) are bathhouse-specific, such as the elements for the pillars of the hypocaust and the wall tubuli. Regional developments in the technical aspects can also be seen in the fact that some bathhouses have tubuli made on a potter’s wheel rather than constructed from flat slabs and that others had no wall tubuli at all, just air vents (p. 124).

The author is to be commended for also including the portable finds excavated from the bathhouses’ time of use in her study. She is right to be suspicious of the finds of strigils and oil containers, which—while obviously used in bathhouses—are unlikely to have been lost during the time of use of the bathhouse as they usually do not fit into the drains, which are the only closed contexts in bathhouses that are datable to their time of use.[4]

In the last chapter, Kowaleska summarizes the results of her study. She then tries to address the question of what distinguishes the bathhouses of the Roman period from Byzantine bathhouses, noting that the changes are gradual and reflect a change of population size rather than a fundamental change in bathing habits, the main ‘technical’ differences between the two periods being a tendency towards both curvilinear architecture and individual hot pools in the Byzantine period.

A comparison with the occurrence of Roman theatres and amphitheatres in the study region helps to tease out whether the introduction and development of bathhouses differs from other buildings serving ‘Roman’ amusements. Kowaleska concludes that bathhouses, theatres and amphitheatres appear in the study region as part of the Roman cultural package, but their trajectories differ: bathhouses remained in use and were newly built long into the Byzantine period, while theatres ceased to be built in the Byzantine period, and amphitheatres were already rare in the Roman period.

This part is followed by a closer look at the regional developments, using the six regions already defined in chapter 2 and (rightly) treating the palace baths of Herod and the Umayyads separately. These regional summaries, while excellent in both intent and result, would have been better placed in chapter 2, after each of the descriptive sections on the bathhouses, a fact that is also reflected in the constant references to the tables and figures of chapter 2. Nonetheless, they are very useful to clarify the differences between the six regions, which are very important—the Roman Near East is often seen as a single region, but actually is composed of various smaller areas that feature vastly differing landscapes, histories, and peoples.

The text would have greatly benefited from having been read and corrected by an editor whose first language is English. This might have saved it from a number of mistakes that make reading less pleasant (but do not hinder the understanding of the text) and would perhaps also have served to bring more coherence to the arrangement of the various sections as mentioned above. The figures and plans in the book are printed clearly, but most of the visual information is stored in the online catalogue.

All in all this is a sound study applying the results of the latest scholarship on Roman bathhouses to a particular region and considering all of the obvious questions on the basis of a substantial collection of buildings. The online catalogue especially will become an invaluable help to further scholarship on the subject and showcases the extremely high density of bathhouses in the study region, which is remarkable in itself.



[1] Th. Fournet (2012), “The ancient baths of southern Syria in their Near Eastern context. Introduction to the Balnéorient project.” In: SPA. SANITAS PER AQUAM. Proceedings of the International Frontinus-Symposium on the Technical and Cultural History of Ancient Baths, Aachen, March 18-22, 2009 (Ralf Kreiner und Wolfram Letzner eds.)

[2] There are exceptions to this, as some piscinae were built into frigidaria below floor level (for instance in Pannonia and Noricum).

[3] However, the ubiquity of bricks used in walls in the West is slightly overstated by the author, who may have had the great imperial thermae in mind when she wrote this. Smaller bathhouses in the West often use only small quantities of bricks in walls, with mortar-rubble walls of local materials being much more common.

[4] As all floors in the public rooms of bathhouses were covered in hard materials (flagstones or mosaics) and were regularly cleaned, the drains, in which items lost in the pool could end up, are the only closed contexts in bathhouses that are datable to the period of use, see S. Hoss, ‘Small Finds in Roman Thermae: An Introduction’, and A. Whitmore, ‘Artefact assemblages from Roman Baths: expected, typical and rare finds’, both in: Binsfeld, A., Pösche, H., Hoss S. (2018): Thermae in context, the Roman baths in town and in life. Actes du colloque de Dalheim Luxembourg de 22 au 24 février 2013, Archaeologia mosellana 10, 47-56 and 57-77 respectively.