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Roman baths

A reconstruction of the baths at PompeiiA reconstruction of the baths at Pompeii Few Roman houses had bathrooms. Instead, people paid daily visits to the public baths. All Roman towns had at least one bathhouse and many had several. They were not only places to wash. Baths were also places to exercise, play games, meet people or discuss business. Most Romans, rich and poor, went every day, women in the morning, men in the afternoon. Wealthier Romans brought one or two slaves with them to carry their towels, help wash them and bring them refreshments. The Romans invented an underfloor heating system, or hypocaust, for heating their baths. The water for baths and all other purposes was brought along aqueducts.

Inside a bathhouse

Cutaway illustration of a bathhouseCutaway illustration of a bathhouseThe baths had several rooms and the bathers passed through each one. They undressed and left their clothes in the apodyterium (changing room). From here they might have visited the sudatorium, a hot, steamy room quite like a sauna. They could also enjoy a massage. A door led from the apodyterium to the tepidarium, a warm room where the bathers could relax and get used to the heat.

Next, they moved to the caldarium. This had a hot pool and was the place where people cleaned themselves. Finally, the bathers entered the frigidarium, where there was a cold bath to plunge into. Cold water closed the pores of the skin. In between visiting these rooms, people sat and chatted. People also might do some vigorous exercise, such as going to the gym (the palaestra), before visiting the baths.

The Romans did not have soap. Instead, while in the caldarium, a slave smeared his master’s body with perfumed oil, then scraped it off again, along with any dirt, using a long, thin, curved tool called a strigil.

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