On the Ides of March: a look at the Roman bath

death of caesar
Public Domain Vincenzo Camuccini, 1798

It’s the Ides of March, the anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar, stabbed in the rotunda, (which has got to hurt) by senators who wanted to restore the republic. Unfortunately, what they got instead was a terrible civil war followed by the rule of Augustus and a line of good and bad emperors. Not much of Julian Rome is left but those emperors who followed rebuilt the city, including its amazing public baths. And we at TreeHugger will never miss an opportunity to talk about baths and bathing.

bathing in romeCrassus and Caesar talking in the bath/Screen capture

Baths were much more than just a place to get clean; they were where you met people, even where you did business. Here, in the 1960 Stanley Kubrick version of Spartacus, Laurence Olivier as Crassus is discussing current events with John Gavin as Julius Caesar.

panorama bathsBaths of Caracalla/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The baths were BIG; the Baths of Caracalla, completed in 235, could handle 8,000 visitors a day. Its 50 furnaces burned ten tons of wood every day to keep the water warm. Its biggest dome was a hundred feet high. But the most important thing about roman bathing was that it was social. Everything happened in the baths. There was a real ritual;

plan of bathsAncient History Encyclopedia/via

You arrived and changed in the apodyterium, then took exercise in the palaestrae. Then you went through a series of rooms; first, the notatio, a big open air swimming pool with cool water. Then you moved to the laconica and sudatoria, saunas and steam rooms. Then it’s off to the calidarium, a hot room, after which you hang out in the tepidarium, a warm but comfy room, probably where Crassus and Caesar were hanging out. Then it’s a jump into the Calidarium, a cool room that’s actually the biggest and most dramatic. Finish off with a massage, take in a lecture or read a book in the library and you are probably ready for dinner or bed.

hypocaustAncient History Encyclopedia/via

The baths were heated by hypocausts, a radiant floor system where warm air from all the furnaces was channeled under the floor. Water was heated in giant lead boilers and delivered in lead pipes.

baths for TorontoLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I have always thought that we should still be doing this, having long days at the baths, and perhaps even still doing our business there instead of the office. In fact, my last thesis project at the University of Toronto School of Architecture, as it was then known, was the design of modern public baths for Toronto. Rather than use ten tons of trees every day, I proposed that it be built next to the big Hearn generating plant on the waterfront. You could windsurf all year in the warm water that flowed out from the plant, so I built the baths around the water outlet channel.

plan of bathsLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Here you can see the plan of the baths, with the change booths on the right, and a successions of baths descending to the lowest level where you could swim out into the harbour.

section through bathsLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Section through the baths. Alas, Toronto wasn’t ready for this, and they shut down the dirty coal generating station shortly afterward. And when you look at the section of the original, my glass roof cascading down to the water is not nearly as interesting or dramatic. But they let me graduate anyway.

baths sectionSection through baths/Public Domain

But I still feel that we have lost something, the idea that baths are fun, baths can be social, bathing is a community activity, not something we should hide away in a little room. Something else to think about on the ides of March.

And if you have never seen Canada’s greatest contribution to the world of humour, here are Wayne and Schuster in “Rinse the blood off my toga”- the story of a private detective, Flavius Maximus, trying to solve the murder of Julius Caesar. And the source of the "stabbed in the rotunda" -oh, that's gotta hurt.

Tags: Bathrooms | Wayback Machine


treehugger slideshows