Roman Baths

Taking a regular hot bath was an important activity for Romans. Most of them would go to the public baths (thermae) on their way home from work. By the fourth century AD there were over a thousand public baths in Rome. Some of these were so large they could accommodate 3,000 bathers at a time.

Prices were kept very cheap (a quarter of an ass for a man and half an ass for a woman) so that all Romans could afford to go. However, few used soap, as one bar imported from Gaul cost about a third of a week's wage.

The baths were heated by a furnace. The hot air created by the furnace was passed through a space under the floor called a hypocaust. When the hypocaust was full, the hot air went up clay pipes behind the walls. In this way, the furnace could heat the rooms as well as the water.

This system of central heating, based on ideas that had come from India, had been developed by a Roman called Sergius Orata sometime in the 1st century BC. This system was also used to heat private houses. This was useful in those parts of the Roman Empire, such as Britain, that suffered from cold weather in the winter.

Taking a bath in the thermae was a long and complicated operation. After undressing in the changing rooms you entered a warm room (tepidarium) so as to gradually get used to the heat.

The next room was hotter (sudatorium) and made you perspire. As you would usually spend some time in this room it was common to make arrangements to meet your friends here. After having the perspiration scraped off by a slave using a strigilis you would be massaged with perfumed oil.

There was a choice of rooms after the sudatorium. Some chose to jump into a cold bath (frigidarium) while others preferred a hot bath (calidarium). There were also several other rooms (palaestras) where you could play sports, read books, talk with friends or have a drink of hot or cold wine.

For a long time men and women went to the baths together. However, Emperor Hadrian thought this was immoral and passed a law against it. Women now had to take baths in the morning while men had to wait until the afternoon and evening.

Primary Sources

(1) Seneca, Moral Epistles (c. AD 60)

It is stated by those who have reported to us the old-time ways of Rome that the Romans washed only their arms and legs daily and bathed all over only once a week... They did not bathe in filtered water and after heavy rains it was almost muddy!

(2) An unidentified Greek writer describing the baths in Rome (c. AD 50)

On the left are the lounging rooms... Next rooms to undress in, on each side, with a large hall between them, in which are three swimming pools of cold water; it is finished in Laconian marble, and has two statues of white marble in the ancient style, one of Hygeia the other of Asciepius. On leaving this hall, you come into another which is slightly warmed... Then near this is another hall, the most beautiful in the world, in which one can stand or sit with comfort... Next comes the hot corridor, faced with Numidian marble. The hall beyond it is very fine, full of abundant light and aglow with colour like that of purple hangings. It contains three hot tubs... Should I go on to tell you of the exercising floor? It is beautiful with two devices for telling time, a water clock that makes a bellowing sound and a sundial.

(3) Vitruvius, On Architecture (c. AD 10)

Three bronze tanks are to be placed above the furnace: one for the hot bath, a second for the tepid bath, a third for the cold bath. They are to be so arranged that the hot water which flows from the tepid bath into the hot bath, may be replaced by a like amount of water flowing down from the cold into the tepid bath.


1. Select information from this unit to show that people in the early days of the Roman Empire had different attitudes towards bathing than those held by Romans living in the 1st century AD.

2. Give as many reasons as you can why Romans went to the public baths.

3. What kind of evidence would historians want to look at to discover if the description of the public baths in source 2 was an accurate one?