What have the Romans ever done for us?

London F47

Just before Christmas, the Classics and History departments arranged our now traditional GCSE trip to Bath to visit the Roman baths complex and museum. In history, we had spent some time analysing different types of evidence; categorising it as primary or secondary and evaluating what the strengths and weaknesses of each type of evidence might be. We also considered the provenance of the evidence and how this might affect its reliability - an increasingly important skill in our world of fake news and social media. In Classical Civilisation  we had also considered how we know what we know about ancient Greek and Roman culture. What types of evidence have survived? Why? What types of evidence have not survived? Why? What have the Romans ever done for us?

With all these questions in mind, we set off from Paddington on a beautiful but very cold day to visit the baths built by the Romans in the first century AD and see what we could learn about Romans, baths and other things.

The Romans conquered Britain under the emperor Claudius in AD 43, who actually went with the army into Britain and events were stage managed so that it looked as if he were responsible for the victory. Not bad for a lame and stuttering 53 year old academic who had never been to war in his life! Claudius was so proud of his success that he named his son Britannicus. And thus began the process of the Romanisation of Britain.

The Romans who were posted to Britain as soldiers or administrators on the staff of the governors were not particularly complimentary about Britain. The weather was universally deplored. (Some things never change.) They looked down on the British as uncouth savages and complained that they would not even make good slaves as they were recalcitrant and unattractive. A letter from a Batavian found at Vindolanda scornfully describes the British as ‘Britunculi’ a diminutive that translates as ‘wretched little Britons.’

The Romans brought their technology, culture and language with them and building the magnificent complex at Bath was part of this attempt to recreate the amenities of life in Italy in Roman Britain. They built over the naturally occurring hot spring called ‘Aquae Sulis’ and used their astonishingly sophisticated engineering to build the complex with its hot and cold rooms, hypocausts and systems for controlling the flow of the water.

The baths were a very important feature of Roman social life and a visit to the Baths was an essential part of daily life. Few people in Roman towns had running water in their houses, and so bathing at home would have been almost impossible. In the cold climate of Britain having a hot bath would have been a very welcome experience. However, a visit to the Baths would not merely have been a practical necessity, but also a social occasion, which could easily take a couple of hours out of every afternoon. Most men would visit the Baths in the afternoon, when they were in most need of getting clean. Entry was not free, but was very cheap.

Women did visit the baths, but there were strict rules about their visits. When space allowed, they would be given a separate area in the Baths, to keep them away from men. This was particularly important as the Romans bathed completely naked.

After paying the entry admission, the bather would go to the apodyterium. This was the changing room. Here the bather would get undressed and place his clothes in niches on the wall for storage whilst he went and bathed. Reasonably well off bathers would be accompanied by one or more slaves to assist them in bathing by carrying towels and oils, as well as carrying out more personal activities such as massage oil and even hair removal oil.

The bather would probably pay a fee to a slave here for the slave to stand guard over his clothes, as theft seems to have been a common problem. Rich bathers would have a slave however whose job it was to stand in the changing room to guard clothes.

After he left here, the bather would next move to the tepidarium, or the warm room. Here the bather would perspire gently whilst sitting in pleasant temperatures, which were created by heated floors and walls (see the later section on hypocausts), although there was no bath in this room. The function of this room was to prepare the body for the hotter temperatures to come in the next room.

The next room a bather would visit was the caldarium, or hot room. The floor of this room got so hot, that bathers would have to wear sandals on their feet to stop them getting burned and the room would always be steamy. This room was always the room next to the furnace to create maximum heat, with the warm room and cold room being progressively further away.

It was in this room that the bather would often be cleaned (although this process could often happen in the changing room). In the caldarium there were several marble benches, on which the bather would lie after his bath. A masseur, who was either a personal slave or a slave employed by the Baths, would rub olive oil (the Romans did not have soap) into the skin and scrape it off with a blunt metal scraper called a strigil. This would remove the dirt, sweat and impurities from the skin, and was a vital part of the whole bathing process. Whilst in this room, as in many parts of the baths, bathers could buy a snack from the various food-sellers who touted for business there. After visiting the caldarium, the bather would usually next go to the frigidarium, or cold room. In this room was a cold plunge pool, in which the bather would sit briefly. This had the effect of closing up the pores and stopping the bather sweat after the heat of the previous room.

The baths were noisy, busy, lively places. I will let Seneca have the last word on what the baths were like: 

Imagine all these kinds of voices... While the sporting types take exercise with dumb-bells, either working hard or pretending to do so, I hear groans; every time they release the breath they have been holding, I hear hissing and jarring respiration. When I meet some idle fellow content with a cheap massage, I hear the smack of a hand on the shoulders, and, according to if it is open or closed when it strikes, it gives a different sound. If a ball-player appears on the scene and begins to count the scores, I’m finished! Suppose there is also some brawler, and a thief caught in the act, and a man who likes the sound of his own voice while taking his bath. Then there are the bathers who leap into the pool, making a mighty splash. But all these people at least have a natural voice. Just imagine the shrill and strident cries of the attendants who pluck the hair from the bathers’ bodies, who never cease their noise except when they are plucking the hair from somebody’s armpits and making another scream instead of themselves. Then there are various cries of the pastry cooks, the sausage-sellers, and all the sellers from the cook-shops, who advertise their products with a sing-song all their own.



Seneca Letter 56

Eileen Ryan