When in Rome…Take a Bath

Posted on December 10th, 2007 by

To see where Romans fall in the history of personal hygiene, read Salon’s interview with Katherine Ashenburg, author of “The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History” here.

What did clean mean in ancient Rome?   If you were a man, you would take off all your clothes, put a little oil on your body, rub it with dust and go out into the playing field to work up a sweat. Then you would get somebody to scrape off your perspiration with an instrument that looks like a little tiny rake, called a strigil. Then you would get into a tepid bath, then into a really hot bath, then into a cold bath.You never used any soap, and it was all done in public. If you were just a normal person, you’d probably spend a couple of hours every day in the bathhouse, where you could get wine, food, sex, a medical treatment, a haircut. You could have a depilator pluck the hair in your armpits.   

 Why did public baths go out of fashion?They went out of fashion because the infrastructure to run them — the mechanisms that brought them water, that heated their water, that separated out the different heats of the various pools — required an enormously sophisticated and complicated infrastructure, which the Roman Empire had. But when the empire started to fall apart, people couldn’t maintain that, and the invading barbarians disabled the aqueducts. There was never an empire large enough to support that again.


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