Chapter VII - Women's Baths

Chapter 6 Contents Chapter 8

The abuses of promiscuous bathing had become so flagrant, that Spartianus says Hadrian ordered the separation of the sexes, which had, however, been done ineffectually before. Eunuchs were appointed to attend in the women's baths, as Lampridius observes ; and a Roman law makes the offence of forcibly entering the women's baths by a man capital. «Vir qui thermas mulieribus discretas violenter intrare praesumpsisset capite puniretur».

This is, of course, still retained in double force in the East. At Athens the Turkish Disdar of the Acropolis was, in the present century, forced to fly, from the bare suspicion of having been in the baths at an hour dedicated to the women.

Vitruvius, Book V, shows that the baths of the two sexes were not, even in his time, the same, though, for the convenience of the stoves, they were contiguous.

«Uti calidaria muliebria viriliaque conjuncta, et in iisdem regionibus sint collocata, sic enim efficiebatur uti vasaria ex hypocausto communis sit eorum».

The baths of Baden, cited by Wilkins in his Vitruvius, were double ; those of the females being an exact repetition of the men's apartments. Without relying too much on the information of Vitruvius, who says that the baths of the women were on the right of the furnace, it seems highly probable that the females of Pompeii, without waiting for an hour set apart, had baths consecrated to their exclusive use ; and, if so, the chambers marked in the plan 3, 4, and 5, seem those best adapted to their purposes.

Bonucci, in his instructive work, has imagined these to have constituted the male thermae ; but only from a sentiment of modern gallantry which would assign to the ladies the handsomer apartment ; whereas it would appear, that a smaller and less airy suite of chambers would have been equally convenient for the women, who did not, like the men, spend half their lives at the bath, but only frequented it for the purposes of health or cleanliness.

It might also be supposed that ladies of rank had, as at Rome and at the villa of Diomedes, in the suburb of Pompeii, their own baths, so that females of consequence were not seen at the public thermae ; but, be that as it may, we find in the little room, 1, a place where either towels or clothes were dried or suspended. In the room 3, or frigidarium, we find a cold bath or natatorium, 2.

In the next chamber, 4, is the tepidarium ; and that marked 5 is the laconicum, with its caldarium or hot water, 7 ; and, below it, is a stove, 6, or hypocaust, for heating the whole. Near the entrance is painted in red letters


All the rooms yet retain, in perfection, their vaulted roofs.

The first chamber is twenty-five feet long, plate XXXIII, by twelve feet nine inches. The view seems, at first sight, defective in perspective on the left ; but the room is, in one part, one foot six wider than the other. The piscina, or bath, is six feet eight wide in front, by seven feet four in breadth. The floor is in white mosaic, with a little border of black. The walls have been ornamented with yellow pilasters, on a blue or black ground.

The light is, by no means, strong, but another window may have existed over the piscina to the north. The tepidarium is about twenty feet long and nearly square. The roof is vaulted. The floor is suspended, by way of compensation for the absence of the foculare of bronze ; but the heat must have been moderated by the distance. The walls are panelled in yellow, with red pilasters, and the light enters through a small window far from the ground.

The laconicum has a fire-place, 6, on a lower level, which, as the floor is ruined, may possibly have been lighted from within, and have been approached by two or three steps. The floor was either wholly or in part suspended. There was not, in this chamber, a sufficiency of light to have rendered it serviceable as a place of eaercise, as some have supposed.

The whole is vaulted, and, perhaps, there may have been a cistern or reservoir above the arch. A vase, or solium, or labrum, at the north end of this chamber is much ruined, but may have served for hot or cold water, or any of the purposes to which such vessels were applicable.

Plate 34 - Commentary

The court or yard, 8, may have been the place where wood was piled for burning ; and two rude pillars, yet standing, may have supported a roof of tiles for keeping it dry. A flight of stairs ran hence to the roof of the baths, which retained, when discovered, their original covering of plaster or stucco.

On the right of the entrance into these women's baths, is a stone wall of good masonry and singular thickness.

In the alley, or vicus, on the outside of this is the mark of a sort of gutter to direct the falling water either from the roof or the cistern.

It is supposed that there was an arched or other connexion between the therma and the buildings on the other side of this vicus, opposite the house of Pansa.

We have now given an account of the different parts of the thermae, and endeavoured to apply to the remains the discordant and unintelligible accounts of the ancients, all the fragments of which have been collected in the works reedited by Groevius and Gronovius.

The subject has unavoidably led to a protracted dissertation, for which the apology must be the interesting, and hitherto unsuccessfully attempted, adjustment of facts to localities.

The public vas informed, by a bell placed above the thermae, when the water was heated, and the baths open. When a certain hour was passed, the fires were extinguished. The hour for bathing, according to Pliny, was eight in winter, and nine in summer ; but this must have frequently varied. Julius Capitolinus relates that, before the time of Alexander Severus, the thermae were not opened before daylight, and were closed before night ; and Hadrian made a law, that those who bathed on account of any infirmity should have the use of the public thermae only till the eighth hour.

The baths were closed, as are modern theatres, on occasions of public mourning, according to Livy ; and a very serious inconvenience it must have been to a people who thought themselves entitled to eat a second dinner after perspiration, and seem to have passed the greater part of their lives at the thermae.

As fashions changed, sonne physicians, according to Pliny, attacked the practice of bathing. Thessalus, in the time of Nero and Charmis, wrote against it ; but Telephus, the grammarian, says Galen, bathed twice a month in winter, three times a month in spring, and four times a month in summer, and lived, in consequence, to the age of one hundred without disease.

Baths, by which are understood prepared baths, are mentioned in the East by the sacred writers, and by Homer. Vegetius says, however, that the senate formed the Campus Martius near the Tiber, that, after exercising, the Roman youth might bathe : and, in 440 U. C. we are told by Festus Pompeius, and not before, a piscina publica was constructed «ad Clivum Capitolinum juxta Tiberim». But this only provided for the first and most simple part of the process. The names of the parts of the thermae were all Greek, and derived, with the invention, from that people. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle talk of baths as common ; and Hippocrates, about the time of the Peloponnesian war, recommends their use. About the time of Augustus, baths were innumerable in Rome ; and we see, by the splendid work of Mr Lysons, that even the Roman villas of England possessed them.

In process of time, some of the baths in the capital were found unnecessary. Aurelius shut up several. Heliogabalus, among other caprices, bathed only once in some of the baths and then destroyed them. They seem to have been used, more or less, in Europe till the wars of the Vandals, Goths, Huns, and Longobardi, after which the ruined thermae were frequently converted into churches.

It is probable that the thermae often became the favourite resort of the vicious and the profligate, and, as such, liable to the animadversions and reprehensions of the fathers of the church, whence the name of bagnio has become synonymous with brothel in our own language. J. B. Casalius, who has written a treatise «De Thermis et Balneis veterum», says that, as Christianity prevailed, the taste for ablution diminished. It is curious that a superstition should have prevailed according to which those who had been baptized were supposed no longer to stand in need of washing. Casalius cites authors who affirm that a whole nation, on the confines of Armenia, was, by nature, stinking ; and a patriarch of Constantinople refused baptism to some who sought it, not from conscientious motives, but merely as an easy way of sweetening their persons. Fortunatus is cited, who talks of Jews christened by St. Avitus in the year 579, who, from exhaling an unsavoury odour, became, by the operation of the ceremony, perfectly ambrosial.

It is probable, however, that the thermae were destroyed or neglected during the troubles of the middle ages ; but it is somewhat remarkable, that when the Spaniards attempted, by force, the conversion of the Moors of Granada, Marmol, p. 133, vol. I. declares, that, in the furtherance of this object, not only were they forbidden the use of their own language and dress by the emperor Don Carlos, but baths, either in public or in private, were especially prohibited to persons of every condition, and those which existed, even in private houses, were ordered to be destroyed.

The head and tail pieces of this chapter represent the plans of two baths excavated in the last century at Stabiae. There can be little doubt that, on coming to the pavement of the natatorium encircling the piscina, the workmen thought they had found the bottom, though the vase was yet filled with earth. These plans were in the possession of Signor Carlo Bonucci in the year 1827.

These are supposed to have appertained to some of the villas which occupied the site of the deserted city of Stabiae. A section of the laconicum of one of these thermae has been preserved by La Vega, who was employed in the excavations, so exactly similar to that which is given in this work as the laconicum at Pompeii, that the publication of it might have forestalled all the information now acquired by the recent discoveries.

Vignette 16 - Commentary