The other day I saw some paintings of ancient baths which got my imagination going. The scale of the architecture has almost a mythical quality. There are traces here of the capricci style, which has a special place in my heart.
I also like these paintings because they’re a simple reminder of the playful, leisurely aspects of our humanity. (Actually, Kim Stanley Robinson has an interesting line about this universal human urge in his Red Mars trilogy. If I can find it, I’ll update it here.) The way our ancestors in the West used large, spacious public buildings to satisfy that urge was quite different than how we approach bathing today. Why is this the case? How and why did it change? It is commonly thought that Christianity spoiled all the fun, but an article at Hyperallergic points to research which argues that in fact the answer is more complicated and multifaceted:
Current research on late antique baths and bathing in the period of the later Roman Empire is establishing multiple reasons why large imperial bathhouses decreased and then disappeared in Late Antiquity (200–800 CE). Pickett’s study, “A Social Explanation for the Disappearance of Roman Thermae,” published in the Journal of Late Antiquity, remarks on a traditional explanation for the disappearance of imperial baths in the 5th through 7th centuries: Christianity. While it is true that many Church fathers and Christian writers decried the licentiousness of the baths, this assessment of the space as immoral far preceded early Christianity. Prior scholarship has already pointed to the fact that churches built adjacent to large baths often included bathing components and many a bishop was known to bathe regularly in either imperial baths such as the Baths of Zeuxippus at Constantinople or in hot springs. Pickett notes that “Christianity provided no impediment to public bathing per se.”
Environmental factors were likely a significant issue, as was funding from the emperor and wealthy Romans. Legislation from the fourth century reveals that firewood had to be brought into Rome from North Africa. It was costly for Roman patrons to pay for the massive amounts of fuel needed to keep the baths heated. Pickett also remarks on the impact of natural disasters: volcanic eruptions that caused a “dust veil” that dropped hemispheric temperatures by four degrees Celsius after 536 CE. Debate continues as to whether the devastating plague dubbed the Justinianic plague that broke in 541–542 CE was caused by this rapid change in temperature. Baths provided a public space for social tensions and violence throughout this period, which may have also compelled their conversion into government centers for bureaucracy. As such, they may have been eyed as places to be repurposed and reused in manners that would not facilitate civic upheaval or rioting.
Go read the whole thing.
As a side note, it’s also cool to see a line in there which challenges our tendency to regard the filthy conditions of the Middle Ages with disgust: “Medieval people were in fact much cleaner than modern people tend to think: Rather than large public Roman baths, people began to bathe in smaller and more private facilities.”