The Amazing Engineering of Roman Baths

Few depic­tions of ancient Roman life neglect to ref­er­ence all the time ancient Romans spent at the baths. One gets the impres­sion that their civ­i­liza­tion was obsessed with clean­li­ness, in con­trast to most of the soci­eties found around the world at the time, but that turns out hard­ly to be the case. In fact, bathing seems to have been a sec­ondary activ­i­ty at Roman baths, which were “places to meet friends, make con­nec­tions, per­haps even score a din­ner invi­ta­tion”; “places to buy a snack, have a mas­sage, or face the dread­ed tweez­ers of the hair remover”; “places to escape from a harsh and sta­tus-dri­ven world; “places to be Roman.”

So says Gar­rett Ryan, cre­ator of the ancient-his­to­ry Youtube chan­nel Told in Stone, in the new video above. He might have added that Roman baths were “third places.” Pop­u­lar­ized by the late soci­ol­o­gist Ray Old­en­burg with the 1989 book The Great Good Place, the con­cept of the third place stands in con­trast to our first and sec­ond places, home and work.

A book­store could be a third place, or a café, or any “hang­out” occu­py­ing that hard-to-define (and by the late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry in Amer­i­ca, hard-to-find) realm between pub­lic and pri­vate. If it makes you feel con­nect­ed to the com­mu­ni­ty in which you live — indeed, if it makes you feel like you live in a com­mu­ni­ty at all — it may well be a third place.

Roman baths weren’t just impres­sive soci­o­log­i­cal­ly, but also tech­no­log­i­cal­ly. Ryan explains their archi­tec­ture, water sup­ply, heat­ing sys­tems, and clean­ing pro­ce­dures, such as they were. He quotes Mar­cus Aure­lius as describ­ing bath water as “a repul­sive blend of oil, sweat, and filth”; in all like­li­hood, it was “only changed when it became so cloudy that it repelled bathers.” San­i­ta­tion prac­tices appear much improved at Ham­mam Essal­i­hine in Alge­ria, one of the very few ancient Roman baths in con­tin­u­ous use since its con­struc­tion. Ryan doc­u­ments his trip there in the video just above from his oth­er chan­nel Scenic Routes to the Past. Though cap­ti­vat­ed by the sight of a real Roman bath func­tion­ing just as designed, he must have been too con­sumed by thoughts of antiq­ui­ty to remem­ber to pack that mod­ern neces­si­ty, a swim­suit.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Did Roman Aque­ducts Work?: The Most Impres­sive Achieve­ment of Ancient Rome’s Infra­struc­ture, Explained

The Mys­tery Final­ly Solved: Why Has Roman Con­crete Been So Durable?

Archae­ol­o­gists Dis­cov­er an Ancient Roman Snack Bar in the Ruins of Pom­peii

An Ani­mat­ed Recon­struc­tion of Ancient Rome: Take A 30-Minute Stroll Through the City’s Vir­tu­al­ly-Recre­at­ed Streets

Behold 3D Recre­ations of Pompeii’s Lav­ish Homes — As They Exist­ed Before the Erup­tion of Mount Vesu­vius

How Toi­lets Worked in Ancient Rome and Medieval Eng­land

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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