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Basic Information

Thermae1 were the great bathing and leisure complexes of ancient Rome, preserved to some degree today in the Turkish Baths (inherited by the Turks from Byzantium2) and, arguably, the ancestor of the modern leisure centre.

As well as being a place for personal ablutions, the thermae were the sports and social centre of a Roman town (or district, if a town or city was large and fortunate enough to possess more than one), and from a fairly modest start in the early Republic they grew to sprawling complexes by the late Empire.

The user entered through an atrium, in which a doorkeeper collected a usually token fee. The baths were segregated by gender and in some cases there were separate atria for men and women, whilst in others the genders divided in a single atrium3. The next room was a changing room, in which bathers would remove and hang up their clothing … there were usually slaves employed to watch over the bathers possessions, but evidence seems to suggest that thefts were relatively common. In later eras, the atrium might well feature waiting rooms, bars and restaurants - even, on occasions a library.

From there, the bather moved into either the tepidarium (a warm room which might or might not contain a heated pool) or the frigidarium - an unheated, often open air room containing a pool which was ideally large enough to swim in. The tepidarium let onto the caldarium - a room containing a hot bath, which in turn gave access to the sudatorium (steam sauna) and the laconium (a dry, hot room that was a relatively late invention and tended not to appear in early baths). These hot rooms were located close to (or even directly on top of) the hypocaust furnaces and were typically very hot indeed4. Since the Romans were not well acquainted with soap, the hot rooms served to induce copious sweating to open the pores of the skin, during which the bathers would anoint themselves with olive oil before scraping it, and the dirt, away with a scraper known as a strigil - although many Romans would have a slave do the oiling and scraping. Massage rooms were also frequently located around the hot section, although they could let off any part of the bath.

Besides bathing and swimming, the larger baths would also tend to feature gymnasia and/or colonnades for general exercises such as weight training, ball games and wrestling. The baths were also a logical place to find barbers5, manicurists, perfumers, sellers of food and drink and various other service businesses. In some cases appropriate shrines or temples might also be included.

Bathing was an - at least - daily ritual for all but the most destitute of Romans, citizen, freedman and slave alike and whilst there might be some social stratification by district, and whilst the rich might well have a private balnae6, or at least a balinarium7 there was a fair degree of social equality (by Roman standards), as might be expected in a place where everyone was walking about naked. It was as much a place to socialise and do business as a place to get clean and exercise.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • If running a campaign set in or around ancient Rome it will be unusual for characters not to spend a lot of time in the baths.
    • Apart from just bathing, this will be a good place to meet contacts and clients - or to look for people, gossip and rumours.
    • It may also be an appropriate place to hire a tutor or coach when it's time to upgrade physical skills.
    • Given that everyone is obliged to be naked, a fight here will be a good way to strip PCs of their fancy weapons and armour and remind them of the need to develop a well rounded set of combat skills.
      • Anyone recall the fight in the Russian baths in Red Heat?
    • Even in an early dark ages campaign the Roman baths may still be partially operational (Bernard Cornwall's Warlord cycle features a visit to the (somewhat dilapidated) baths at Bath, which are quite an eye opener for the mostly post-Roman Briton characters).
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