The Fountain of Eternal Youth: A History of Roman Thermal Baths

by the German painter L. Alma Tadema

Baths of Caracalla

Yet again, the origin lies in the name. Thermos, the Greek word for “heat,” situates itself among many concepts recovered and recycled from ancient Greece by the Romans, who popularised the communal bath system during the fifth century BC. Initially, the Romans privatised the baths’ use for the elites, such as Senators and merchants. Ahead of their time in terms of hygiene, as with most things, the Romans discovered the basic health benefits of thermal baths by the first century. However, the use of spas on a mass scale took until the Empire of Augustus, who was advised by Agrippa to make his generals frequently take cold baths. With the trust of the Emperor won, the ‘public bath’ concept was born.

by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The Baths at Caracalla

The first spas spread rapidly throughout the Empire, transforming into a popular site of congregation and socialisation for members of every profession, social class and milieu. While originally known for its health and hygiene functions, the spa soon became an indispensable component for a healthy society — a sort of community centre and meeting place all-in-one, where all types of relationships and business intermingled. The sense of relaxation and intimacy provided by this place, designed with attention to architectural detail unimaginable today, was elaborated by an entranceway with restrooms, exercise areas, a primitive version of a locker room, saunas and steam rooms, and three deep basin pools filled with water of different temperatures: one hot, one warm to tepid and one cold. Through the various rooms, guests could benefit from Roman thermal baths in nearly identical ways to how visitors to the modern version of the spa do today.

Today a church

Roman Baths of Diocletian

In continuous use until roughly the sixth century, which depended on their location, many of the Roman baths were destroyed or neglected during the disintegration of the empire. Over the Medieval period, given the mounting support for Christian morality, modesty, and the intolerance for promiscuity, the baths were often transformed into monasteries. One such example is the Baths of Diocletian, the largest of any baths built in Rome, which could at one time accommodate up to 3,000 bathers, was transformed into a series of religious buildings during the sixteenth century.

During the twelfth century, the repair of many older spas and the opening of new ones were undertaken, mainly in the Tuscan and Emilia-Romagna regions, which to this day remain the regions of Italy with the highest concentration of spas. The Baths of Casciana and those of di Lucca, originally property of the Countess Matilde, count among the many examples. Their use was once private, with a four week long treatment that consisted of various baths between 30 minutes to two hours, with the time gradually decreased over the period of treatment. The principle behind this very exact regimen remains a mystery, but it is believed to date back to Hippocrates’ Theory of Humours, which attempted to treat symptoms of disease with their exact opposite. For example, sulphur-rich water was used to treat skin infections, and waters rich with minerals were intended to cure infertility. The steam rooms were also a very popular cure for body odour linked to sweat.

at Hotel Helvetica

Contemprary Spa in Porretta

Renaissance thinkers and artisans rediscovered the classical charm and advanced theories (for their time) of Greco-Roman cultures, which put considerable pressure on local leaders, such as princes and lords, to ameliorate the former spas in terms of structural features and artistic design, but their use remained essentially non-medical, for example at the Porretta spa in Emilia. Later, during the age of imperialism, and especially after the remains of Pompeii coincidentally surfaced in 1779, a romantic vision of Roman culture led many elites of the era to want to reinterpret their lifestyle and customs. Numerous paintings on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris exhibit this viewpoint, where the term, “a century of the baths,” denotes the formation of a well-defined civil society.

England's most famous bath

Roman Baths in Bath, England

Since the late nineteenth century, due to medical progress and experimentation, along with the gradual gentrification of society, leaders regained a sense of social obligation for hygiene, even if this obligation remained limited to the privileged classes. Not only did the nobles of Europe rediscover the therapeutic sense of a day at the spa, but also a dimension of overall well-being, which included body, mind and spirit. In the modern era, scientific progress proved the advantages of combined therapies, exemplified by the importance and variety of today’s wellness centres and spas. For example, those suffering from chronic illness in Northern Italy have deemed the Baths of Casciana in Pisa an indispensable part of rehabilitation. Other well-preserved spas from the Roman era preserved a fun and relaxing attitude, such as the hot springs of Saturnia or Petriolo, openly accessible by all ages and social classes for recreational as well as therapeutic use. (Baths of Caracalla by the German painter L. Alma Tadema)

An interesting phenomenon over the past few years has been the rise of specialty spas

England's most famous bath

Bath, England at night

flanked by villas and boutique hotels that offer a mix of public baths and private therapeutic services, often catered by a specialized team with experience in medical treatments, physical therapy, massages and other services. While non-clinical in nature, these specialised spas advertise custom treatments and wellness programs in targeted sessions of a few days to weeks, in a naturally pleasant environment to rejuvenate both body and spirit.

Some other locations where original Roman spas can be found in abundance include France, England, Germany, Spain and Turkey. Here is a list of some such locations, many still functioning in their original capacities today and others renovated or redesigned for other uses, as provided by Wikipedia:

  • United Kingdom: Bath – Roman Baths; Exeter, Devon; Leicester – Jewry Wall; Ribchester, in Lancashire; Tripontium, near today’s Rugby, Warwickshire; Welwyn, in Hertfordshire; Chedworth; Fishbourne Roman Palace; and York.
  • France: Arles – Thermes de Constantin; Glanum, near today’s Saint-Rémy-de-Provence; and Paris – Thermes de Cluny.
  • Germany: Baden-Baden, Baden-Württemberg; Trier; and Weißenburg.
  • Italy: Baths of Agrippa, Baths of Caracalla, Baths of Diocletian, Baths of Titus, Baths of Trajan,  Pompeii (ruins), and Herculaneum.
  • Spain: Caldes de Malavella, Gerona; Caldes de Montbui, Barcelona; Clunia, Burgos; and Lucus Augusti, Lugo.

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For a list of spas in Italy, please see http://www.termeitalia.info/
For a wide variety of products ideal for spas, such as soft and durable bathrobes, slippers, sandals, bathing suits, Asorbtex and microfibre towels, please visit Caractère’s spa page at http://disposable-linen.co.uk/bed-sheet-towelling-bedding/contents/en-uk/d115_spa-wellness.html
For all other Caractère products, see http://disposable-linen.co.uk/bed-sheet-towelling-bedding/

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