Roman baths

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Juvenal (c. 60—130 ad)


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Public facilities developed in ancient Rome, based upon customs imported from Campania, also known as thermae. The first such facility constructed in the Republic was the Baths of Agrippa, situated behind the Pantheon in Rome. Public baths became an established feature of all Roman cities. The largest examples in Rome were the Baths of Caracalla and Diocletian (ad 298), made possible in part by the use of concrete that could facilitate expansive architectural design on unprecedented scale. The Baths of Diocletian occupied around 27 acres of land, and could accommodate 3,000 bathers, twice as many as those of Caracalla. The baths comprised a range of facilities: hot, warm, and cold rooms; changing rooms where slaves would guard the bathers' garments in the niches in the wall that acted as lockers; rooms for getting rubbed down with oil; the Greek-style palaestra where exercisers could work out, wrestle, fence, or box, but mostly played ball games; gardens and an outdoor running track; corners and colonnades for rest and contemplation. The ball games were mostly played before bathing, and mostly involved groups: one group would try to grab, or rob, the coloured (stuffed, or air-filled leather) ball from another group. There were also Greek and Latin libraries in the complex. Classicist Norma Goldman notes that: ‘Baths were not just for bathing, they were social centers where Romans spent entire afternoons’ (Robert Kahn, ed., City Secrets: Rome, New York, The Little Bookroom, p. 35). Conversation as well as callisthenics was certainly on the agenda at complexes such as these. The Roman baths showed the persisting influence of Greek physical culture in at least one element of Roman cultural and physical life, offering a means of combining a healthy mind with a healthy body, as recommended by Juvenal as a way of countering excess.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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