Taking a Bath in Roman England

Taking a Bath in Roman England - A Piece of History in Itself

Bath in England has the best preserved religious spa from the ancient world. Let's find out how taking a bath at this ancient site compares to bathing today.
Ancient Roman Bath
By Earl Hunsinger

Imagine going to town to take a bath. For centuries, that was a common practice for many people. This took many forms, from a simple basin of water placed near a place used for exercise to an elaborate facility complete with carved stone fountains and pools deep enough for total immersion. The customs involved also varied over the centuries, from a simple and practical way of cleansing the body to ritualized, religious, or social customs taking all day. In some places, a strict segregation of the sexes was enforced.

In addition to bathing in water, some public bath houses included steam baths and saunas. In some eras bathing was encouraged and people washed daily. At other times and in other cultures, bathing was connected with sin, or frowned upon for other reasons, and so was less frequent. Public bathing seems to have begun in Greece sometime in the sixth century B.C.E. The Romans later adopted the practice, building bath houses all over their widespread empire. One of the most famous of these Roman bath houses can be found in what is now Great Britain, in the city of Bath.

The Roman baths in Bath, England have been called the best preserved religious spa from the ancient world. The baths found here are built around a natural hot spring that the Romans believed was sacred. It's easy to see why the ancients were impressed by this site. For at least the last couple of thousand years, water has been rising from the ground here at the rate of about 240,000 gallons per day. This water is approximately 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 Celsius), just the right temperature for a bath. To catch the sacred water, the Romans first drove oak piles into the mud for a foundation. Roman engineers then built a stone tank around the spring and lined it with lead. Eventually they constructed a building around it. This building had a barrel vaulted roof and was decorated with stone columns and statues. This was the Temple of Sulis Minerva. The Romans would come here and throw offerings into the water for this goddess. Although eventually the roof collapsed, perhaps in the sixth or seventh century, the oak piles providing a stable foundation for the reservoir.

The hot water from the sacred spring made possible the bath complex here. This is much bigger than would have been needed by the local people, but there is evidence that it was popular with pilgrims from all parts of the Roman empire. It was also different in another way: it used a tremendous amount of hot water. Normally, hot water was expensive to produce. In a typical Roman bath, a person would move through a series of heated rooms that would get progressively hotter. Rather than using soap, the Romans rubbed olive oil on their skin. When a good sweat was worked up, a tool called a strigil was used to scrape the oil, sweat, and dirt off the body. This "bath" would usually end with a plunge into a pool of cold water.

In other places, the bathing sequence might also include a dip into a small pool of heated water. Just as with other Roman baths, archaeologists have found evidence of progressively hotter rooms at this facility. Series of these can be found on both the east and west sides of the complex, perhaps enabling both men and women to use the baths at the same time. However, in addition to these traditional bathing facilities, the ready source of free hot water allowed the Romans to create a large heated swimming pool, today known as the Great Bath, this was lined with 45 thick sheets of lead and was made 1.6 meters deep. This large pool would have allowed bathers to relax and possibly even enjoy drinks or snacks. An enormous barrel-vaulted ceiling once rose forty meters above the water. For some in the Roman empire, this might have been the largest building they had ever entered.

One of the most fascinating things about the facility here is the durability of the engineering involved. Just as with the Roman roads still found throughout Europe, the engineers built things to last. While parts of the building have collapsed over the centuries, the plumbing and drainage systems are still largely in place, still fulfilling the duties for which they were designed.

So the next time you're in western England, why not stop and see this piece of history for yourself and see why people in past centuries went to town just to take a bath.