History of European Bathing – What We Learned from the Greeks & Romans

By Kerry Knight

Photo Credit: hellenicaworld.com
Bathing in water has been essential to good health and peace of mind since the beginning of time.  Bathing emporiums became fashionable as early as the third century A.D.  The Greeks and Romans were instrumental in erecting many ornate and expensive bathhouses where business was conducted, gossip exchanged, and social contact between friends and lovers were enjoyed.

Many of these bathhouses were so spectacular that they had their own lecture halls, art galleries, meditation rooms, and prayer stalls.  There were special rooms to the side where “private” business was conducted.  Larger bathhouses afforded entertainment and physical fitness centers.  It was very common for wounded and tired soldiers to find refuge in these places before returning to the public after battle.  Some of the finest healers worked in these houses.  Many of the larger houses could accommodate 6,000 or more bathers at one time.

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Although the Greeks and Romans were both fond of bathing, their approach to the concept was a little different.  The Romans bathed to keep themselves healthy while the Greeks believed only women should immerse their entire bodies in water.  (Maybe the Spartans’ legendary strength was also due to their overpowering body odor?) 

The Greeks viewed bathing as something one simply did to cleanse oneself before conducting business, after a day’s work, or before taking part in philosophical discussions, or after a battle.

Regardless, the Greeks built numerous rich, beautifully designed bathhouses for both sexes, but the baths were not quite as splendid as those built by the Romans.

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The Egyptian, Greek, and Roman baths were known as temples of beauty, and many therapies were developed to either heal or beautify those who entered through their doors.  The Romans were believed to be the first who used different colored plasters applied directly to the skin for specific ailments. As many as seven healers at one time would take a client into a bath with each healer taking responsibility for a specific area of the body.  Each had a field of expertise such as knowledge of herbs, oils, gems, or colors and their services were more sought after than local physicians. 

Bathhouses became so popular in Rome that not long after the third century the government learned to transport water by means of the aqueducts.  The initial reward was all of Rome was supplied with abundant water for their needs.

Not only the Greeks and Romans, but also many other cultures had a passion for the many pleasures bathhouses offered them.  The Turks developed very hot baths, which to this day are still known as Turkish Baths, or steam baths.  Their bathhouses were very artistic and expensive with rich hand-woven carpets, tapestries and ornate columns, fashioned with gold, silver, or brass fixtures.

Photo Credit: europeantraveler.net
The success of the bathhouses was short lived as many plagues, epidemics and diseases were quickly spread by water throughout the population of Europe and England.  The early aquaducts were made of lead and it was later discovered that this was the source of mass poisoning or toxicity.  As well as contracting various diseases from communal bathing, many people suffered a form of poisoning while others became impotent or sterile.  The baths soon became suspect and attendance dropped once the connection was made between the bathhouses and the spread of disease.  Eventually, mass public bathing facilities were closed.

In the late 16th century, and for the next two centuries, bathing lost its popularity.  Churches became increasingly more outspoken about the sins of self-indulgence, with many of their church members spending more time at bathhouses than at church.  The priests were particularly disturbed that many illegitimate children were created from dubious encounters outside of marriage, conducted, presumably, in the public bath houses. 

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As time passed, various citizens began to protest against the “sins” of the bathers.  The new Christian trend was to oppose cleanliness because it was too sensuous and sexual.  Dirt was a symbol of one’s spiritual purity and indicated that the focus was outside one’s self, rather than on personal hygiene.  Refusing to bathe was proof that one was beyond such things and thus not egotistical or self-absorbed. 

It was also believed that filth was a protection against germs due to the numerous plagues that had previously killed a large population of England and Europe. Rather than being put off by the smell, body odor was thought to be magnetic and a turn on.  Powders, perfumes, wigs, cosmetics, and layers of clothes hid the grime and body scent.  If overwhelmed by a particularly potent smell, a bit of snuff to clear one’s nostrils was all that was needed.

Provisions for bathing were scant because there was not enough simple plumbing to make household consumption available.  When the plagues hit England in the early 1800s, so many people became ill or died that an immediate investigation was made as to how to connect the average home with water.  It was found that water was not the cause of the problem, but part of the cure.   England, having spent a lot of time and money researching the cause and the epidemiology of the plague, eventually became a leader in bathroom innovations.  

Once water became plentiful, new healing modalities, which used water, were created to prevent or cure many diseases such as typhoid and fever.  Bathing became viewed as being healthy and once again became fashionable.

Worldwide, people have adopted the same general attitudes towards water, using it to clean and to heal.  Soaking in tubs, Jacuzzis, spas and saunas has become increasingly popular. Plus, now with water coming in to each and every home, private bathing regularly has become the cultural mainstay. 

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Today, the deep porcelain soaking tubs such as the Slipper, Double Slipper, Roll Top, Pedestal and
Dual-ended can be found in many homes.

Seniors (and others) enjoy the proven benefits of the celebrated Walk-in Tub that offers many great features:

  • Private, independent bathing
  • Safety and protection against falling
  • Air- and water-jetted hydrotherapy

Furthermore, our new, European-designed/USA-made Safety Suite Showers provide low threshold ingress and egress, and can be custom-configured to accommodate anyone’s needs. 

We’ve come a long way in the evolution of bathing, and the mystery of the healing power of water lives on. Hmm. Come to think of it, that sounds like a great topic for an upcoming blog.  Stay tuned!

In this article, I provided a brief overview of the history of bathing, particularly in Europe as it was first enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans. I then discussed European and early Christian attitudes towards bathing in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and afterwards.  

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Alan and Kerry Knight are the owners of Tub King, Inc., and SeniorBathtub.com  in Jacksonville, Florida. Together they have many years of experience in the antique and senior bathtub industries. Their companies not only provide superior products, they are also award winners, receiving the “Best of Jacksonville Chamber Award” four years running. To contact Tub King directly, call (800) 409-3375, (800)843-4231 or email alan@tubking.com.