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La Victoire de Samothrace, Unknown, 190 BC

Pompeii

1st c. AD

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Our last stop is the Stabian baths.

Very few people could afford baths at home, so most Pompeians would use communal baths.

Public baths were also like sports clubs, providing access to other amenities like gyms, pools, restaurants, libraries...

Pompeii had 5 public baths, which each could hold about 1,000 people.

People came to both bath and socialise.

The Stabian Baths are one of the oldest to survive from the Roman world.

There were separate sections for men and women.

The men's section was larger, cost less and was more sophisticated than the women's.

Bathers would typically come to the baths around 2pm, after work.

They would go to their lockers, change into linen bath clothes and take oils, sponges and strigils (small metal blades to scrape off sweat and dead skin).

Slaves would provide towels and wooden sandals.

Fun fact : some baths had explicit sexual frescos over each locker to help bathers memorise which one was theirs!

Men would often exercise in the open air gym - typically lifting weights or playing ball games - and swim in the open air pool.

They would then get massaged and scrubbed before walking into the thermal baths.

They would start by the warm room, move on to the hot room, retreat to the warm room again and go to the cold room.

Fires would be tended by slaves in the furnace rooms next door, and hot air channelled through tunnels into neighbouring rooms.

Light would be very dim, provided by small windows and lanterns or torches.

Pompeiians could spend hours socialising in the baths before going home for dinner.

Roman poet Martial describes how he would be pestered by people at the baths :

"To escape Menogenes at the baths is quite impossible, although you try every art to do so. He will catch your warm ball with eager hands... He will pick up the football, when collapsed... If you bring linen with you, he will declare it whiter than snow... If you comb your scanty hair with the toothed ivory, he will say that you have arranged your tresses like those of Achilles... He will praise everything, admire everything about you, until, after having patiently endured a thousand tortures, you utter the invitation, "Come and dine!"

Not everyone was a fan of living near the baths.

As Seneca explains :

“I live over a public bath house. Just imagine every kind of annoying noise! The sturdy gentleman does his exercise with lead weights; when he is working hard (or pretending to) I can hear him grunt; when he breathes out, I can hear him panting in high pitched tones. Or I might notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rub-down, and hear the blows of the hand slapping his shoulders. The sound varies, depending on whether the massager hits with a flat or hollow hand. To all of this, you can add the arrest of the occasional pickpocket; there’s also the racket made by the man who loves to hear his own voice in the bath or the chap who dives in with a lot of noise and splashing!”

La Joconde, de Vinci (1519)

Next:

Plaster moulds

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