In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ancient Mediterranean Baths and Bathing

  • Introduction
  • Archaic and Classical Greek Periods
  • Hellenistic and Roman Republican Eras
  • Late Antiquity

Classics Ancient Mediterranean Baths and Bathing
Betsey A. Robinson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0370


Studies of ancient Mediterranean baths and bathing are now so ubiquitous that it is easily forgotten that these subjects received relatively little scholarly attention before the late 20th century, with the exception of the great imperial thermae of Rome that have fascinated architects and antiquarians since the Renaissance. Bathing establishments were among the most common and the most important types of civic architecture in Rome and its empire. They range in size from intimate to monumental, and they were an integral part of lives and daily routines. Their appearance across the Mediterranean world and beyond, from the British Isles to the Euphrates, speaks to the expanse of Roman rule and cultural influence. Roman-style baths and communal bathing for relaxation and sensory pleasure, as well as hygiene, became trademarks of Romanitas in the provinces. Baths were often among the first structures built after Roman conquest, often established and funded by members of the local elite. Only the wealthiest families had their own domestic bath complexes, so public baths were places where men and women of all ages and all levels of society spent time washing, relaxing, recreating, and sometimes crossing paths. Men and woman were sometimes segregated by architecture or scheduling, but probably often bathed together. Informal meetings also occurred, between friends and lovers, and with prostitutes. Roman thermae often included spaces designed for varied activities, from lecture halls and libraries to exercise grounds and gardens. They were places for politics and business gatherings. More modest in size than their Roman successors, Greek public baths (balaneia) have also come into their own in recent scholarship. Greek bath building peaked in the Hellenistic period in Greece, Sicily, and South Italy, and especially in Egypt. Particularly interesting are studies of the evolution of bathing practices from the more personal Greek experience in relatively small complexes, through Hellenistic and Roman Republican technological advances, to social bathing in the great thermae of the high Roman Empire. Publications represent a wide variety of approaches, focusing on literary sources, archaeological excavations, architectural form, technology, and more. New questions are offering new insights into ancient baths and bathing even as field surveys and excavations continue to add to the corpus.

Essential Bibliography

The subjects of ancient baths and bathing culture are well covered in technical works, highly readable scholarly surveys, articles in companion volumes and anthologies containing the collected papers of working groups or conferences. Online databases offer direct routes for finding recent publications.

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