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In the early Roman Republic and in the insulae where lived the poor population the cleanliness of the Romans were scarce: thanks to a washbasin, a water jug and a pail they had enough to their personal cleanliness; according to Seneca, Letters to Lucilius LXXXVI 12 “people washed their arms and legs and they only had a complete bath in the market days”.

However, when the houses could have a cistern and when the running water arrived to the city through the aqueducts, the domus, the villae and the cities started to have public and private baths.

At first, the private bathrooms were small and rudimentary installations with a drain and with a poor system of heating water, as much as sometimes the cistern only allowed baths or showers with water in ambient temperature; in these bathrooms there normally were the latrines (from the Latin lavatrina>latrina>latrine, “place to the cleanliness”).  One of these bathrooms is preserved in Embona (Agde) and it is located near the cistern of the house and it had a modest size:  2,50 metres large x 1,40 metres wide.

The Romans followed the Hellenistic fashion of the public baths and they took the Greek word:  from βαλανεῖον it passed to the Latin balnea, in plural to designate the public baths –dedicated exclusively to baths and not to sportive or cultural activities- and in singular, balneum, to designate private baths.  The Roman word is thermae, if the balnea had sports and cultural facilities, i. e., baths.  In order to distinguish some researchers said that balnea should be therapeutic baths and thermae hygienic baths.

The first balnea were small places without luxuries, open, managing by private businessmen; these balnea keep being small until the arriving of running water in big scale through the aqueducts in the I century b. C., especially under Agrippa.




Thanks to Caius Sergius Orata, a business man from Campania (in the centre of Italy) it was imported from Greece an underground heating system; with it the balnea improved considerably.  This system consisted of elevating the ground with brick pilaster that supported the floor –called in Latin suspensura, i. e., “hung up”- and formed an air chamber 60 centimetres high between the ground and the floor; this chambers was connected to an oven made of bricks or porous lava –hypocausum- that heated the chamber and heated the balnea’ floor; this chamber or this system is called hypocaustum (“that heats underneath”).  The suspensura was a layer of brickbats covered by marble or mosaics and it could reach 80 centimetres thick; so, although it lasted too much to heat the suspensura, that floor kept the heat for a very long time, although the over was put out.

This new feature brought by Sergius Orata was first used in the private baths that belonged to the rich Romans; so the number of bath increased considerably; in their houses the hypocausta were heated by ovens located near the kitchens; this advance made that baths ended up being small pigsty and became independent rooms in the privileged parts of domus and villae.  The next step was the decoration, becoming profuse with mosaics, marble, statues, etc.


Detail of the hypocaustum in the thermae of Glanum (near St. Rémy de Provence, Provence, France)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 8/8/2007)




Hypocaustum in the thermae of the Palace of Constantine –IV century a. C.- in Arelate (nowadays Arlés, Provence, France)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 10/8/2007)


Thermae of Vasio (nowadays Vaison la Romaine, Provence, France) with oven, chamber of the  hypocaustum and caldarium and tepidarium

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 6/8/2007)




With the advance in heating and with the supply of running water through the aqueducts, the maintenance of the balnea had less technical problems.  The water, stored in cisterns or coming from an aqueduct, entered directly through terracotta or lead pipes –tubuli- in the pools of cold water; to the pools of hot and tepid water it was necessary to store water in a cistern near the oven; then the water was heated and finally it passed to the pools –if cold water entered in the hot and tepid pools, it was necessary more efforts in heating the pools, because they got cool quickly-.  So, the ovens in the baths had three functions:  to heat the water to the hot and tepid pools, to be used as heating system through the hypocausta and to heat the rooms thanks to the parietes tubulati, i. e., walls that had inside terracotta pipes where the smoke and the heat from the oven circulated.


Tubuli parietales that, connected to the hypocaustum, heated some rooms in the thermae from the ground up to the roof.  (Photo from CONNOLLY, P. y DODGE, H., La Ciudad Antigua.  La vida en la Atenas y Roma clásicas, Madrid, 1998)




So, the balnea were private business and very soon they competed in services, so that they became more comfortable, beautiful and spacious.  The entrance was allowed to the women too.  Its construction did not stop, reaching the number of 160 at the end of the Republic and more than 1000 in the IV century a. C.

In the balnea and thermae it was established an almost ritual route, scientifically and medically explained: the alternation between heat and cold.  The visit to a bath not only allowed keeping in good form –where the palaestra and the gymnasium were considered as preparatory exercises to the ritual route-, but it was a highly esteemed pleasure.

The route started in the apodyterium –the changing room- where the Roman got undress; at first the Roman were very shy, they did not get undress in the presence of their children and they had a bath with the subligamentum –like a pants-; however, since the II century b. C., when the Romans were culturally Hellenized, nudity in the changing room stopped being something embarrasing.  In the apodyterium the rich men were helped to get undressed and dressed by slaves and they normally left their clothes in niches bored in the walls y closed by wooden doors with some padlock, in the style of our present lockers.




Apodyterium in the thermae of Bilbilis Augusta (near the present Calatayud, Zaragoza)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 21/8/2004)


Apodyterium in the thermae of the Bañales de Tarraca (Uncastillo)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 3/11/2007)

Click here to see the Thermae of the Bañales de Tarraca




The shyness in getting undress disappeared to such an extent that men and women had a bath together.  If the baths were enough large and rich, women had their own pools, similar to the men’s one, but it was normal that the balnea had only three pools, with hot, tepid and cold water; so, or there were different timetables to men and women or they shared the baths and the pools.  For this reason, the baths became the origin of all kind of rumours about adulteries and they became meeting point to lovers; this fact was an evident abandon of the traditional Roman habits and that scandalize some sector of the Roman society.  We have texts like Quintilianus, Institutio Oratoria V 9, 14, Martial, Epigrammata 72, 1 and 8, or Horace, Epistulae I 6, 61-64, where the authors commented some aspects related to the habit of mingled baths and the pleasure of the bath.  In fact, in some ages it was necessary to regularize the use of the bath in order to avoid these problems.  Hadrian imposed different timetables; Marcus Aurelius imposed similar measures –that Heliogabalus retired-; Alexander Severus imposed them again and in the 320 a. C. the Council of Laodicea forbade the women to use the baths.


The ritual thermal route inside the balnea or the thermae started in the tepid hall, the tepidarium, where there was a temperature between 25º and 30º C degrees –between 77º and 86º F degrees- and a humidity between 20 and 40 %.  When the transpiration started, the Roman went to the hot halls: to the laconicum, if the heat was dry, or to the sudatorium, if the heat was humid.  After that, they went to other hot hall, the caldarium, where the temperature could reach up to 55º C degrees -131º F degrees- and up to 80% humidity; there used to be a part in apse shape.  In the caldarium there was a pool with water in 40º C degrees -104º F degrees-; the pool could be 2 metres wide and it allowed twelve people to have a bath at the same time; it was here where the Romans washed themselves in the strict sense: they did not use soap, so that they rubbed themselves with a strigilum, a metal curved scraper whose hollow dragged the sweat, the oils and the other ointments previously applied.  When they could not stand the heat, they went to the labrum, a basin with cold water like a small bathtub located normally in the apse.  Afterwards, they completed the route if they dared to go to the cold hall, the frigidarium, swimming in a big pool with cold water; if they did not dare, they came back to the tepidarium before going to the frigidarium.  In addition, it was possible to go to a natatio, i. e., a swimming pool with cold water in the open air, exclusively to swim.  The basic principle was the same in all the cases:  to heat up in the tepidarium, to wash themselves with hot water in the caldarium and to refresh in the frigidariumIn the thermae of the Bañales in Uncastillo it is possible to see the plan of all these halls.

The favourite hour to go to the baths was the eighth hour –in summer, when the heat left to get worst and in winter, when there was still some sunlight-; everybody had to pay a quarter of an as, a Roman coin with scarce value; so, only a few could not got to the baths.  Before and after the bath, many people stayed in the thermae and went for a walk inside the building or in its garden and fountains; they also could have dinner or talk with friends or listen to music in the auditoriums or read in the library or seat on the exedras –stone benches-, etc.


Details of the apse in the thermae of Constantine in Arelate (nowadays Arlés, Provence, France)

(Photos: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 10/8/2007)




Afterwards, the emperors started to build colossal thermal complex as a symbol or their wealth and their magnanimity with their people.  Then the simple balnea were surrounded by gardens, halls to play with a ball –sphaeristeria-, halls for massages –unctoria-, porches, libraries, theatres, halls to have a rest, tabernae, etc., i. e., like large social clubs where people could spend their time, make business, have a rest, read, etc.  In addition, the thermae were profusely decorated with mosaics, marble, statues, etc., that sometimes reached colossal dimensions.  Agrippa started this tradition in the age of Augustus who ordered to build a large thermal complex in the Campus Martius in Rome between 25 and 19 b. C. that were reconstructed in the III century a. C.  Nero, between 60 and 64 a. C. built other thermae that occupied 3.000 m2 and they were the model to the later thermae built in Rome and along the empire, mixing the Greek palaestra with the Roman baths and establishing the thermae as an estate planning: around the thermal complex there were pools to store water, heating ovens, kitchen ranges, stocks of wood, housing for the workers; near inside the building there were the caldarium, the tepidarium and the big frigidarium that received the name of aula or basilica; in both sides of the building there were palaestrae –gymnasiums and spaces in the open air to practice some sports-, cloakrooms, halls reserved to different uses –games, massages, having a rest, etc.-.   The emperor Trajan, in the 109 a. C., inaugurated another thermae with garden, porches and palaestra that reached 110.000 m2 in a large enclosed area with four gates and it could shelter thousands of people.  The thermae of Caracalla, built in 216-271 a. C., occupied an extension of 140.000 m2 and the thermae of Diocletian, the last colossal thermae, built in 300 a. C., could shelter 3.000 bathers in an extension of 150.000 m2.  The thermae became a public service –not the balnea because they were private baths-; their managing was in charge of the ediles and the curatores, responsible of the staff, the water supply, the wooden supply –in general fir tree wood-, the moral and the habits inside the building.




The thermae of Caracalla o thermae Antonianan, were built by the emperor Caracalla, who inaugurated them, although they were finished by his successors Helogabalus and Alexander Severus.  It was necessary to make an especial derivation of an aqueduct, the aqua Marcia, to supply water to them.  They could shelter 1.600 bathers.  Today it is still possible to visit most of the thermal complex that, undoubtedly, allows to have an idea of the size of the building.


Palaestra in the thermae of Caracalla

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 29/12/2004)


Apse in the thermae of Caracalla

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 29/12/2004)

Pool in the thermae of Caracalla

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 29/12/2004)


Another pool in the thermae of Caracalla

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 29/12/2004)

Mosaic in the thermae of Caracalla

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 29/12/2004)


Mosaic in the thermae of Caracalla

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 29/12/2004)

Mosaic pavement in the thermae of Caracalla

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 29/12/2004)


Halls in the thermae of Caracalla

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 29/12/2004)




The thermae of Diocletian were the largest thermae in Rome with a central building of 250 metres long, 180metres wide and a total surface of 150.000 m2.  They were located in an area between three hills –Esquilinus, Quirinal and Viminal- and it was necessary to destroy many buildings for their construction, which was very quickly, between 298 and 306 a. C.  Today a part of the building is preserved as a church, Saint Marie of the Angels and the Martyrs, whose entrance is the ancient apse in the caldarium and whose interior is another part of the thermae –the frigidarium-; other part of the building is the present Museum of the Thermae; in its garden it is preserved the main façade of the thermae; finally, the present Exedra square has the same structure as the exedra in the thermae.


Exterior of the thermae of Diocletian from the  Republica Square-Termini Station, nowadays, Basílica of St. Maríe of the Angels and of the Martyrs  and Museum of the Thermae (Rome)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 31/12/2004)


Façade of the thermae of Diocletian from the garden of the Museum of the Thermae (Rome)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 31/12/2004)

Apse of the thermae of Diocletian, nowadays  entrance to the  Basílica of St. Maríe of the Angels and of the Martyrs (Rome)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga  31/12/2004)


Exterior of the thermae of  Diocletian with garden, nowadays, Basílica of St. Maríe of the Angels and of the Martyrs  and Museum of the Thermae (Rome)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga  31/12/2004)




Malissard explained that, as symbols of the imperial expansion, Rome spread all the cities with a temple dedicated to the Capitoline triad, i. e., they built a Capitolium in every city, elevated, dominant and consecrated to the gods, as reference of the political institutions, principles and the archaic and republican spirit, while Rome decorated these cities with thermae, larger and larger, sumptuous, heterogeneous, brimming with wealth as an image of the grandness of the empire and as a present of the god-emperor.  In short, the thermae and the balnea were an achievement of the Roman civilization and a symbol of progress that contributed to a subliminal unity of the empire, probable better than the public events and the language.




The model was exported to all the empire; we can quote the modest thermae in Glanum (near St. Rémy de Provence, France) that were built in the age of Augustus and they were surrounded by three galleries in the east, the south and the west.  From the thermal complex the hypocaustum of the caldarium, the frigidarium, the palaestra and the natatio with a theatre mask as mouth of a fountain are preserved.


(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga  8/8/2007)

Natatio in the thermae of Glanum

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 8/8/2007)


View of the palaestra, the natatio and the frigidarium in the thermae of Glanum

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga  8/8/2007)

Frigidarium in the thermae of Glanum

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga  8/8/2007)


Detail of the hypocaustum in the thermae of Glanum

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 8/8/2007)




In Aragon there are some examples of these thermal complexes:  the Bañales of Uncastillo, the thermae of Caesar Augusta, the thermae of Bilbilis Augusta, etc.







- MALISSARD, Alain: Los romanos y el agua: La cultura del agua en la Roma antigua, Barcelona, 1996

- BELTRÁN LLORIS, Miguel: “El agua profana en la cuenca media del valle del Ebro: AQUA DUCTA.  La captación del agua, presas, embalses, conducciones”, en AA. VV.: Aquaria: Agua, territorio y paisaje en Aragón, Zaragoza, 2006

- CONNOLLY, Peter y DODGE, Hazel, La Ciudad Antigua.  La vida en la Atenas y Roma clásicas, Madrid, 1998

- SALVIAT, François: Glanum et les Antiques, París, 1991