Health, Fellowship, and Heated Debates

A reconstruction of the Baths of Diocletian, in Rome.

In the year 667 CE, in the twenty-seventh year of his reign, the Emperor Constans II was murdered in a bath complex named Daphne in the town of Syracuse, Sicily. This was done, according to Theophanes, as retribution for Constants’ murder of his brother Theodosius, along with numerous other crimes which had elicited the hatred of many in Byzantium. While the death of a ruler is always a notable historical event, what is fascinating for those interested in living late Antiquity is that the emperor was in a bath. To be murdered in a bath meant that you were accessible in a bath.

Bathing was not the private affair in antiquity that it is today. It was a place of social interaction, entertainment, and hygiene which remained popular and vital during much of the late antique period. In short, a bath could mean quite a few things to the people of late antiquity, and not all of them had to do with cleansing the body.

For the Romans, a bath was an event to be shared with others and enjoyed in a complex of rooms, each with a different purpose. As students of the classical world already know well, the bathing spaces were the cool tepidarium, the hot calidarium, and the cold frigidarium. Before any actual bathing occurred, though, a Roman would first exercise in a gymnasium or an open courtyard to work up a sweat. Leaving his or her clothes in the apodyterium, they would go to the palaestra, a kind of sauna, and then the tepidarium to be cleaned by a servant, who would scrape all the oils from their skin with a curved metal tool called a strigil. From here, they would travel to the calidarium and enjoy the heated waters there.

In some cases, as with the Baths of Diocletian, this water was supplied by natural hot springs and in others it came from the hypocaust, the bath system’s furnaces. The floor and walls of the room itself (and the tepidarium, to a lesser degree) were heated by the smoke from the hypocaust. By raising the floor, smoke was able to move between the stacked brick, creating an encompassing heat. The frigidarium, which featured something akin to a modern pool, cooled the bathers after their time in the calidarium.

The hypocaust system in the baths at Bet Shean.

Whether one went to a public bath or private one, this cultural experience was so central that in Antioch and other cities, imperial authorities would threaten to close the public baths as a way of curtailing misbehavior. After the emperor Theodosius I, who had come to power in 379, and was the last to rule both the Eastern and Western halves of the empire, closed Antioch’s baths in response to a riot in 387 CE. Some Christians like John Chrysostom criticized the citizens for too loudly lamenting the closure. “You have not been shut out of the baths for even twenty days,” Chrysostom said, “and so you are excessively distraught and acting hopeless that you act as is you have spent an entire year unwashed?” (Schoolman 263) Adopting the quise of a desert ascetic, someone who despised bathing, Chrysostom was making a statement that put him at odds with city life and urban living.

Chrysostom’s vocal desire to separate his Christian community from the wider city speaks to a larger issue that researchers have been grappling with when looking at late antique life: namely, whether voices like the zealous Christian succeeded in cutting cities off from their classical past or whether they spoke up in vain. With new archeological discoveries, the argument for the continuity of Roman ways of living—albeit with change—is strengthening. 

Baths have an important role to play in this debate. Many baths were maintained well into Late Antiquity, including the baths in Pella, which show continued use through the seventh century, and the Thermes d’hiver in the North African city of Thuburbo Maius. Other baths were constructed during late antiquity, like those at Sidi Ghrib (nineteen miles outside Carthage), which were built in the fifth century and those at Serjilla, dedicated in 473 CE. The continued use of baths in Late Antiquity saw expansions in utilization. In North Africa, evidence suggest their use as a meeting place for a collegium, a kind of guild or club with legal status in Rome. By the 370s, large sections of a bath complex constructed by Constantine in Trier had been converted into government offices.

Not all baths stayed baths, of course. In Complutum, near present day Toledo, the baths were converted to poor housing around the fifth century. The bains du Labyrinth in Thuburbo Maius for converted into a workshop for crafts and other activities. Interestingly, in the case of Thuburbo Maius, baths were both maintained and repurposed. As theorists of urbanism have helpfully reminded us, over the centuries changing cities tell us more about people’s changing ideas of urbanism than their fears of potential disaster.

Still, bathing would have a complicated legacy, in part, because it was a social practice that evolved amidst the changing power dynamics of the late antique world. Christians themselves would have a complex relationship with bathing, some hating it, as John Chrysostom did, and others finding it to be a place of “grace and happiness” which found use with even monastic communities through the fifth century (Schoolman 239). Many of these men and women were developing new understandings of the body, sacralizing it in a way which traditional Roman religion had not done, ensuring that long-standing cultural practices like going to the baths would continue to produce heated opinions.

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Kailen Kinsey