Swarthmore College Environmental Studies


The Roman Baths

The Roman Water system
-The significant amount of silt in the Tiber River necessitated aqueduct water technology
-Water was imported from distant springs, rivers and other natural sources; It traveled through aqueducts, tunnels, bridges, and was deposited into a catch-basin upon arrival into the city (sediment filtered out here); water then pumped through open canals, lead and terracotta pipes to storage reservoirs, then through lead pipes to users.
-Estimated that water from aqueducts totaled about 600000 cubic meters / day
-Water constantly flowed to baths. Flowing water was not typical for the common city resident. Flowing water was centrally located at different sites throughout the city.
-Baths often featured latrines, wherein waste was washed away by a constant flow of water
-Water in baths circulated automatically by a thermo-siphon; water in pools was thus changed several times a day.
-Estimated that lower/middle class person used about 67 liters of water per day solely from centrally located water fountains throughout the city (not including water used at baths and latrines); United States residents today use about 250 liters /day
-Waste water drained directly into the Tiber River, polluting it and increasing its flow

The Roman Baths and their connection to medicine
-Baths had supposed medical and preventative powers
-Ancient medical writers advised an increase or decrease in bath use for nearly every ailment. There is even evidence of a Hadriatic decree reserving certain hours at the baths for the ill.
-Non-medical writers also compelled people to make bathing part of their daily routine. Even the Christian church did not ban frequent bath use–as long as it did not become too much of an indulgent “pleasure”.
-Baths decoration often featured statuary, images, and mosaics of deities associated with hygiene. Baths also featured health-promoting epigrams and inscriptions.
-It is plausible that doctors worked at the baths. Archaeological evidence exists that doctors may have worked at baths–medical tools found. Uncertain as to what those tools or doctors functions would be; It would be beneficial for doctors to work at a site with a constant source of flowing water and numerous clients.

Windows, Baths and Solar Energy
-Reasonable to believe that Romans utilized solar energy to help heat the baths in addition to the baths hypocaust system.
-Baths implemented some of the newest technologies (ie windows); We witness large south-facing windows in some baths: What prompted their use?
-One hypothesis exists that windows were glazed (had glass pane) or else the bath’s tepidarium could not be maintained at about 100 degrees F (optimal hot room temperature); Less heat loss to the external environment
-Thermal heat can be stored in bath masonry and flow back into room air at night when hypocaust fires are stopped; Prevents too much cooling before next day’s use; Perhaps bath floor thickness was chosen for maximum heat retention.
-Cost of fuel was increasing at this time; Imported lots of timber for bath function.
Timber and Baths
-Wood was used for all heating in Rome
-A small bath alone used about 228000lb of wood / year.
-A large palace or villa used about 2500000 lb wood / year (So perhaps a large bath used this much).
-A whole guild, equipped with 60 ships, had the sole purpose of obtaining wood for bath-heating.
-Deforestation depleted Roman soils (Rome was very hilly), increased the marshlands of low areas, caused movement of some industries (glass and brick) and caused shipping goods to be subject to shipping costs.


Fagan, G. Bathing in Public in the Roman World. Ch. 4: "Baths and Roman Medicine," Univ. of Michigan Press: 1999 (McCabe DG 97 .F34 1999).

Hansen, Roger D. Water and wastewater systems in imperial Rome. <http:/www.waterhistory.org/histories/rome/rome.pdf>

Johnston, M. Roman Life: Successor to Private Life of the Romans. Scott Foresman & Co: 1957, pp. 245-256.

Ring, J.W., 1996. Windows, Baths, and Solar Energy in the Roman Empire. Am. Jour. of Arch. 100:4, pp. 717-724.

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