Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

The new baths in Roman Bath may open at some point in the next millennium, but they will bear no relation to the real thing.

Public baths were the Romans' leisure-and-relaxation centres, built wherever the legions stationed themselves across the empire and offering everyone a taste of what was felt to be the aristocratic life. Emperor, toffs, struggling workers and slaves alike, all naked, took advantage of them, women included (mixed and separate bathing were available, depending on local tastes). The entry fee was minimal.

Romans came there to be olive-oiled up, to work out -- physical fitness was an important 'lifestyle' priority -- and then bathe it all off: first in the sweating room, then the hot bath, the medium and the cold (Marcus Aurelius comments that bathing is all 'oil, sweat, filth and greasy water'). Romans were then ready for whatever the evening had to offer -- for the most popular time to go to the baths was in the afternoon, immediately before dinner. Indeed, the baths were often used as a pre-dinner meeting place for guests.

Luxury baths like those built by the emperor Trajan in Rome (he knew how to keep the people sweet) offered a wide range of other facilities: shops, libraries, barbers, depilation, massage parlours, stalls for food and drink and brothels. …

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