What Would a Day in the Public Baths of Ancient Rome Look Like?

This article explores the social world of bathing in Ancient Rome and uncovers the many rooms and innovations behind one of the Empire's greatest luxuries.

Mar 12, 2024By Jessica Venner, PhD Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology; MA Classics

public bathing ancient rome


At the 8th Roman hour, or 2pm today, the Romans would finish their working day and head to one specific place to socialise, relax, and clean off the dirt of the day: the terme, or public baths. If you weren’t lucky enough to have your own bath at home (balnea), you would head to the communal building. While there, you might get a massage, be cleaned by a slave, meet friends, conduct business, exercise, or take a swim. But always, the baths were the place to see and be seen.


The Origin of Bathing in Ancient Rome

main pool roman baths
View of the main pool in the Roman Baths, Bath. Source: Paul Cuoco at Unsplash


Public baths began their life in ancient Greece around the 6th century BCE. The Greeks would bathe in hip baths which were centered around a circular room with columns and a domed roof known as a tholos. In these small sitz-baths, the bather would crouch down while an attendant would shower them with hot or cold water. Not content with this rather limited way of bathing, the Romans began building upon this concept around the 3rd century BCE.


Initially, baths in Rome (formerly known as gymnasia) were intended as a location for athletes to exercise and recuperate. The average Roman would only wash the areas that got dirty from working, primarily their arms and legs, and only wash the rest of their body once every nine days. This would usually coincide with the market, or nundinae, held every nine days (hence their name). The main area of the Roman gymnasia, modeled on the Greek example, would be a courtyard for exercise and practice, while communal baths would provide the opportunity for a wash.


This wet and warm environment was the perfect place to remove sweat and dirt from exercising or to remove olive oil, which was used by athletes as a muscle relaxant and for injury prevention. Over time, public baths became more and more elaborate, allowing the bather to take a journey through different rooms intended for various purposes. Each would be designed with beautiful mosaics, wall paintings, stucco and even statues. In Rome alone, there were 170 small, mostly private, baths littered across the city, but by the early 5th century, this number had grown to 856, with many available for public use.

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The Roman Bathing Journey

plan of baths diocletian
The floor plan of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, completed in c. 305 CE. Source: Penn State University Library


Pompeii, destroyed and buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, preserves various examples of public baths of varying size and complexity. One of these is in the very center of Pompeii, close to the Forum, and is now named the Terme del Foro. Though not the largest in the city, this complex had all the mod cons of a standard Roman bathing establishment. For more facilities, a Pompeian might have instead opted for the largest in the town, the Stabian Baths.


Starting at the entrance of the standard bathing complex, one would enter either via the male or female entrance and pay a nominal fee. This amount was set low enough to allow even the poor to bathe. If you were a woman, you would likely be paying twice the number of men to enter the female-only baths. Following this, bathers would enter the changing room (the apodyterium). Here stone benches were set around the room to allow you to take off all of your clothes, while niches above provided space to store your garments and items.


If you had the spare change, you might like to pay a slave to watch your clothes for you. This may have been money well spent as a peeved bather from the Roman Terme in Bath attests to. A lead curse tablet found on site preserved the handwritten curse of Solinus whose cloak he had lost in the baths. On its surface, Solinus (or a scribe) wrote:

“Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty my bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him… who has done me wrong, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.” Curse tablet quoted by Garrett G. Fagan.


Warming Up in the Baths

stabian baths pompeii
A room in Pompeii’s Stabian Baths, with niches for items and a plunge pool. Source: Pompeii Sites.


Having secured your items in the changing rooms, you would then begin your journey through the various rooms of the baths, beginning with the tepidarium, or ‘warm room’, which acted as a transition point between the hot and cold rooms. In the tepidarium, bathers would take time to relax in the lightly heated room. Temperatures in this room would not go above 99-102 Fahrenheit, making it the perfect place to relax on the warm benches. Here, you might pay a slave to clean you with a strigil, a curved metal instrument used to scrape the body.


First, the slave would cover you in olive oil before scraping this, and any accompanying dirt, off with the tool. In the Terme del Foro in Pompeii, bathers could also take a dip in the warm bath with water heated by a bronze brazier. Others would spend the time gambling with friends; dice and other gaming objects, such as knuckle bones, have been discovered in Roman baths. The discovery of needles and textiles in the archaeological remains of baths hints at the female activities of weaving and needlework while at the baths. After the tepidarium, it was time to make your way to the caldarium, or the ‘hot room’. Here, the heat from the hypocaust, located in the next room, would be the most intense.


Central Heating and Water Supply

hypocaust roman villa
Hypocaust from the Roman villa in Vieux-la-Romaine, near Caen, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Though elements of the hypocaust existed prior to the Republican period, the design of the hypocaust was refined by the Romans in the 2nd century BCE. This innovation consisted of brick pillars that raised the floor level, leaving open gaps below for hot air to circulate. The heat from a furnace would then be directed into the space under the floor, heating the floor throughout. This mechanism was also used to heat the water in certain areas of the bath, such as the caldarium.


In Pompeii’s baths, excavators found a marble labrum, a bath that would be filled with cold water for bathers who needed a cool down. In the caldarium you would often find a hot plunge bath to soothe the muscles. Temperatures in the caldarium reached 100 Fahrenheit, while humidity was kept at a high level to increase the healthful benefits of the room. In some of the larger baths in Rome, the caldarium also featured a large, heated pool. Here, slaves would pour dishes of cool water (patara) on hot bathers.


Such complex building designs would require a high and regular supply of water. So, was it that these baths were supplied with such a ready supply? The Romans were especially skilled in water engineering and the supply of major cities with aqueducts allowed fresh water to be syphoned to public baths, as well as fountains, some commercial properties, and private (wealthy) buildings. Aqueduct and rainwater was kept in reservoirs and cisterns, meaning that in even very arid areas, water shortages were very rare. For example, during the reign of Trajan (98-117 CE), nine aqueducts supplied the city of Rome with over 1 million cubic meters of water daily. This was equivalent to 300 gallons of water per person.


The Ancient Roman ‘Sport Centers’

diocletian reconstruction
The frigidarium in the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. Source: Muzeo Nazionale Romano.


But it was not all about bathing. Very much in the spirit of modern gymnasia or sports complexes, while at the baths, you might also like to catch a poetry recital or engage in a ball game or two in one of the outdoor areas. In larger examples across the Empire, half-stadia for entertainment have been found in public bath complexes. Here, bathers may have taken in displays of juggling or gymnastics or listened to music played by musicians in the warm sun. Swimming pools were also common features of the public baths, usually surrounded by columns and undercover, as in the style of the rest of the baths, while public toilets were also provided.


athlete mosaic baths caracalla
Athlete Mosaic from the Baths of Caracalla, ca. 4th century CE. Source: Musei Vaticani, Vatican City


An excellent example of the ‘great Imperial bath’ blueprint in Rome were the Baths of Diocletian. Commissioned by the Emperor in 298 CE, this complex could hold up to 3,000 bathers and athletes at once, twice the amount of the second largest public baths in Rome, the Baths of Caracalla. In each, elaborate displays of wall art have been discovered, accompanied by incredible mosaic designs on the floor. Both examples in Rome also boasted libraries, with each likely containing important or civic works.


Hawkers provided the opportunity to buy snacks at the entrance to the baths or in shops around the edges of the bath complex once inside. This food would often be light as it would have been eaten before the main meal of the day held in the evening. Swathes of food remains have been discovered in the drains of many Roman baths, along with fragments of plates, cups, jugs, animal bones, and even shells. You might also like to get some dental work done with a dentist; teeth and scalpel discoveries at bath sites suggest that such activities happened in public baths.


Cooling Off

frigidarium roman baths bath
The circular cold bath in the Roman Baths, Bath. Source: Wikimedia Commons


After sweating it out in the caldarium, the next stop was the frigidarium for a cold plunge. The frigidarium was the ‘cold room’. This room was usually larger than others and had one or two baths served by steps. These baths were fed with pipes which were channeled through the walls of the frigidarium. Here you might like to take a swim or just relax in the coolness of the water after the heat of the previous room. This was also the opportune time to get all the sweat and oil off from previous rooms. Content with their journey through the many rooms, bathers would return to their items (providing they were still there) and make their way home in time for dinner.

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By Jessica VennerPhD Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology; MA ClassicsJessica is a world-leading expert in ancient Pompeii with a special interest in urban agriculture, domestic architecture, and identity formation in the late Republican and early Imperial period. She is an Early Career Research Associate at the School of Advanced Study, University of London and holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, with a full scholarship from the AHRC-M3C Doctoral Training Partnership. She has previously held roles at the British School at Rome and the Ashmolean Museum and has over 55,000 followers on TikTok for her history channel, Life in the Past Lane.