THE GRECO-ROMAN BATH
Cleanliness is Health
The ancient Greeks and Romans had the wisdom and insight to know that bodily cleanliness was an essential component of good hygiene and good health. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was plunged into the ignorance of the Dark Ages, and this simple and self evident hygienic truth was obscured and covered over by a plethora of unfounded superstitions about the dangers of bathing.
Bathing is also a way of caring for and loving the body by taking good care of it. This ran counter to the Church's prevailing attitude of ascetic denial and despising of the body and its needs.
In Western civilization, bathing practices suffered somewhat of a disruption or hiatus due to the ignorance and superstition that prevailed in the Dark Ages and medieval times. And so, bathing had to reinvent itself in the modern era. Consequently, the way we bathe today is quite different from the way the ancient Greeks and Romans bathed. Let's see how:
Bathing: A Way of Life
The most important thing to understand about the classical approach to bathing is that it was a way of life. The Greek and Roman baths incorporated not only the mere cleansing of the body, but also exercise and sports, socializing, lectures and entertainment, and even snacks and delicacies. Most importantly, it was a great way to relax and chill out after a hard day's work.
The Romans are most famous for the magnificent baths they built, like the imperial baths at Caracalla; they were perhaps the most ardent devotees of the bath. But the Greeks also loved bathing, although the baths they constructed were much simpler affairs. In the ancient Greek baths, we can see the origins of the later Roman baths.
The ancient Greeks and Romans lived a more communal lifestyle than we do today, and weren't as ashamed to expose their bodies. Some baths were sexually segregated, but many others weren't.
Toilets at the public baths consisted of a series of slots in a long slab of marble. Underneath the marble slab, an inclined sewage ditch with running water carried away the excrements. The users of these toilets sat next to each other, unseparated and unhidden by any partitioning walls or stalls.
A gymnasium or palaestra adjoined many public baths. This was used for athletics and sporting activities. Many athletes worked out in the nude at sports like running, wrestling and weightlifting; for women, the preferred activities were swimming and running while driving a rolling hoop with a stick.
Nowadays, bathing is a private matter for most people, as most homes have their own lavatory and bathing facilities, but in ancient times, bathing was a communal affair. In addition to promoting a public spirit of health awareness, the public baths were centers for socializing and entertainment.
Food vendors hawked their wares of light snacks and delicacies. Strolling musicians, acrobats and jugglers offered entertainment. One could even listen to the discourses and dialogs of philosophers; even the likes of Plato obliged the public at the baths.
Types of Baths
An ancient Greek steam bath was called a Laconia. It was usually a circular room with a large, conical domed roof. It was heated either by fires underneath the floor, or by rocks heated in a fire, which were then brought into the bath with pitchforks and placed into a central tray. Water was then poured onto the hot rocks to create steam. Sometimes, the leaves or branches of Bay Laurel, Fir, Pine, or Juniper were added for their therapeutic essences. Or, the infusions or essential oils of these plants were used.
The sweating process could be enhanced by previously massaging the body with oils medicated with these or other essences, or by quaffing a cup of hot diaphoretic herb tea like Peppermint or Elder flowers before entering the steam bath.
At the Roman public baths, bathers would usually first soak in the warm waters of the Tepidarium bath to relax and unwind. Once the body was relaxed, and the pores had started to open, the bather then entered into the pool of the Caldarium, where water temperatures could reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 40 degrees Celsius or more. And finally, a quick dip into the cold water pool of a Frigidarium was needed to brace the body and close the pores.
The warm waters of the Tepidarium relax the muscles and joints, and improve the circulation, digestion and appetite. The hot waters of the Caldarium fully open the capillaries and provoke a good sweat. A final quick dip in the Frigidarium closes the pores, which protects the organism from incoming drafts and chills.
Cleaning the Body
Nowadays, soap, in one form or another, is almost universally used to clean the body, but it wasn't always so. The ancient Greeks and Romans first smeared their wet bodies with a mixture of pumice and ashes, and then applied a liberal dose of olive oil over that. Then, they used a curved metal scraper called a strigil to scrape of this "muck", which would take the dirt and grime that had accumulated on the skin along with it. The body, thus cleaned, was ready to immerse itself in the large warm or hot water pools for a long soak.
Although soap-like substances have been found in artifacts in archeological excavations of ancient Egyptian and Babylonian sites dating back to almost 3,000 BCE, according to Roman legend, soap, called sapon, was invented quite by accident on a sacred mountain, Mount Sapo. There, the fat or tallow from sacrificially slaughtered animals accidentally mixed with ashy water that flowed over the ashes of sacrificial fires to create the world's first soap. Or at least that's how we got the word.
That's the basic chemistry of soapmaking. The water and ashes, when mixed together, create alkaline potassium salts which, when mixed with oils or fats, transforms them into a detergent, or soap, in a process called saponification. A detergent, which all soaps are, is a substance capable of emulsifying fats, grease and grime, so it can be washed away or cleansed by water.
In ancient Greece, a soap or detergent was called smegma. In modern medical terminology, smegma means a cheesy, foul-smelling exudate that collects on the genitals of both sexes. By the second century AD, Galen was recommending soap for cleansing and therapeutic purposes.
An auxiliary cleansing procedure that was sometimes used before the rubdown with oil or soap was rubbing the wet body with a mitt made of coarse muslin cloth. This not only stimulated and opened up the capillary circulation, but it also removed any residual dead skin on the surface of the epidermis.
Galen also recommended this treatment on the dry, clean body prior to massage. It would open the pores, stimulate the peripheral circulation, and prepare the body to receive the oil. Nowadays, the traditional coarse muslin cloth has been replaced, in most cases, by the loofa sponge or the bristle brush, which are used for the same purposes.
Healing Spas and Curative Waters
The ancient Greeks were great believers in the therapeutic powers of bathing. Hippocrates recommends daily bathing and massage with fragrant oils for optimum health.
The ancient Greeks also used medicinal baths of minerals, salts and herbal infusions for therapeutic purposes. A bath of clay water or epsom salts can draw toxins out of the body. A bath in an infusion of Bay Laurel leaves or essence stimulates the circulation and relieves rheumatic aches and pains. A bath in Lavender scented water soothes the nerves and helps one relax.
The ancient Greeks and Romans went to certain natural hot springs resorts to "take the waters", because these waters had special healing properties. Different hot springs resorts were indicated for different conditions, and each had their own specialties.
Wherever the Romans went in expanding their far-flung empire, they took their baths with them. The Roman baths at Bath, England are preserved even to this day. In Dacia, or present day Romania, Baile Herculane, or The bath of Hercules, is still functioning, drawing many to seek out its curative waters.
In European countries like Romania, in which many of the old Greek and Roman spas are still functioning, balneotherapy, or medicinal bathing, is a recognized subspecialty of medicine. I will go into hydrotherapy and balneotherapy in more detail in my article on the Water Cure, in the Therapies section of this website.
Bathing, whether for cleansing or therapeutic purposes, makes use of the Expulsive Virtue of the Water element. That's the whole principle behind it, and the secret of its efficacy.
Turkish Baths, or Hammams
The Roman baths live on in spirit in the Turkish Hammams. I was priviledged to have the opportunity to bathe in one the last time I visited Istanbul, Turkey.
First, you are given a towel, some soap, a key, and a cloth skirt, or wrap. You enter a private cubicle and undress, wrapping yourself in the wrap.
Then, you enter the main room of the bath. You are doused with water, then rubbed with mitts of coarse muslin cloth to rub off the residual dead skin.
Next follows a thorough sudsing and rubdown with soap, worked into a profuse lather. Then, you are dowsed again and rinsed of the suds. A second sudsing and lathering follows, followed by a second rinse.
Then, you soak in a hot tub, or lie on a warm marble slab to relax and chill out. If you wish, you may receive a massage with fragrant, scented medicinal oils.
When you come out, you feel thoroughly refreshed, revitalized and thoroughly clean. You have been reborn!
There are many great internet sites on Greco-Roman bathing practices, many of which provided a lot of the information in this article.
The PBS TV program Nova has an excellent site up on the Roman baths. The highlight is a virtual tour of the imperial Roman baths at Caracalla, and even recipes for some of the traditional Roman snacks and delicacies that were available at the baths. The site is at:
An illustrated short history of soap can be found at the following site:
A very interesting and informative site on early Greek bathing practices is the following: