Bathing in massive public baths was once a hallmark of what it meant to be Roman. But in the late Roman Empire, many of these baths closed to the public or were turned into other structures altogether. New research by Jordan Pickett, an archaeologist and environmental historian at the University of Georgia, reveals that a combination of social, financial, and environmental challenges contributed to the decline of large public bathing complexes in Rome and elsewhere in the Empire. While popular myths for the disappearance of Roman bathing once focused on Christian opposition to nudity, his research focuses on social and environmental history as pivotal ways for understanding the decline in large-scale bathing in the late Roman Empire.
Bathing culture was a symbol of being Roman and a “social theater” for many, who engaged in it daily. However, the Romans did not invent the practice of communal bathing or the technology behind bathhouses. Built around the year 2500 BCE, the earliest extant public bathhouse is usually identified as one within the city of Mohenjo-daro in modern-day Pakistan. Built by the Harappan or Indus Valley civilization, the “Great Bath” of the city is located behind a granary and had a courtyard with windows around a watertight, rectangular basin. Archaeologists believe this was a space for ritual bathing, open to the people of the city. Private bathing and bathtubs are also found in many other pre-Roman cultures, in the Ancient Near East, in Middle and New Kingdom Egypt, and at the Minoan palace at Knossos.
The introduction of a bathing culture to Romans in the Middle Republic came in part from the Greek habit of rinsing after they exercised or competed in athletics. This is bathing as connected to the mental and physical space for conditioning called the gymnasium. Around 450–400 BCE in Athens, and then into the Hellenistic period that followed in places like Magna Graecia and Egypt, bathing complexes were often built as part of gymnasia. There were also public baths called balaneia, with “hip-bathtubs” where visitors could sit down and bath in individualized tubs within a large communal area. Work by archaeologists like Sandra Lucore and Monika Trümper in the past decade has greatly augmented our understanding of the introduction of bathing into the ancient Greek world. Research by architectural historian Fikret Yegül has also argued that Roman bathing culture was also influenced by farmhouse washing in the Italic peninsula, as well as pan-Mediterranean practices of bathing in Punic, Greek, and Hellenistic cultures.
During the Roman imperial era of the Mediterranean, which began under the rule of Augustus from 27 BCE onward, bathing was an often-daily exercise available to most. There was a mixture of cold and hot bathing rooms, often with a central, open court called a palaestra. It cost only around 1/64 of a day’s wage to visit. Even impoverished Romans could pay a bronze coin called a quadrans to go for an afternoon wash/bath. Public bath complexes often called thermae came to Rome during the transition to the imperial period. The Baths of Marcus Agrippa were completed by 25 BCE and required large amounts of water fed by an aqueduct named the Aqua Virgo after 19 BCE. By the fourth century CE, regionary catalogues of the city of Rome record that it had 11 large bathing complexes and 856 smaller public baths. This required not only a large amount of water, but also a large amount of fuel to heat the baths — usually in the form of firewood or charcoal.
Current research on late antique baths and bathing in the period of the later Roman Empire is establishing multiple reasons why large imperial bathhouses decreased and then disappeared in Late Antiquity (200–800 CE). Pickett’s study, “A Social Explanation for the Disappearance of Roman Thermae,” published in the Journal of Late Antiquity, remarks on a traditional explanation for the disappearance of imperial baths in the 5th through 7th centuries: Christianity. While it is true that many Church fathers and Christian writers decried the licentiousness of the baths, this assessment of the space as immoral far preceded early Christianity. Prior scholarship has already pointed to the fact that churches built adjacent to large baths often included bathing components and many a bishop was known to bathe regularly in either imperial baths such as the Baths of Zeuxippus at Constantinople or in hot springs. Pickett notes that “Christianity provided no impediment to public bathing per se.”
Environmental factors were likely a significant issue, as was funding from the emperor and wealthy Romans. Legislation from the fourth century reveals that firewood had to be brought into Rome from North Africa. It was costly for Roman patrons to pay for the massive amounts of fuel needed to keep the baths heated. Pickett also remarks on the impact of natural disasters: volcanic eruptions that caused a “dust veil” that dropped hemispheric temperatures by four degrees Celsius after 536 CE. Debate continues as to whether the devastating plague dubbed the Justinianic plague that broke in 541–542 CE was caused by this rapid change in temperature. Baths provided a public space for social tensions and violence throughout this period, which may have also compelled their conversion into government centers for bureaucracy. As such, they may have been eyed as places to be repurposed and reused in manners that would not facilitate civic upheaval or rioting.
Massive Roman imperial baths were gradually abandoned and repurposed — first in the West and then in the East by the seventh century — in favor of neighborhood, private, or church-related baths, all at a smaller scale. In Constantinople, the Baths of Zeuxippus were converted for use as a prison in the eighth century CE and may have also housed silk factories. However, the tradition of bathing continued in the Eastern Mediterranean as part of the Islamic culture. The Umayyad caliphs (661–750 CE) enjoyed baths at their palaces, although there was no longer a cold room within the bathing rotation. Scholars like Sadi Maréchal have recently published on the cultural continuities between Roman baths during the imperial period and the hammam as an important institution in the Middle Ages that stretched across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula.
Medieval bathing also continued on a smaller scale in Europe and throughout the Levant and North Africa. Medieval people were in fact much cleaner than modern people tend to think: Rather than large public Roman baths, people began to bathe in smaller and more private facilities.
Pickett also points to the impact of Roman bathing culture and the imperial baths on modernity through another type of public architecture: train stations. Penn Station in New York is just one example of a train station inspired by the Baths of Caracalla. He notes, “In the later nineteenth and early twentieth century across the United States for public train stations, whose designs borrowed forms from recent archaeological publications to rebuild baths for urban transport.”
Although many from the Enlightenment onward may view the migration away from large imperial bathing venues as a signifier of decline, it is instead a cultural shift influenced by many factors: environmental, social, and fiscal. Rejecting the overly simplistic idea and false argument that Christianity simply killed certain Roman, “pagan” practices such as bathing is key to understanding the complex truth behind the late Roman Empire, Pickett’s and others’ work on late Roman bathing also underscores that environmental history, when understood alongside other factors such as financial constraints and socio-political tumult, can also reveal new insights about the so-called “fall” of the Roman Empire.