Romans followed a ritual when it came to bathing: exercise, sauna, massage, bath, relax. Roman baths were very similar to our modern health clubs and spas.
Visiting the local bathing complex was a part of nearly every Roman citizen’s daily life. Sure, the baths had their critics, old fashioned Romans who thought of daily bathing as unnecessary, and who felt that the complex was a source of hedonism and trouble (many baths attracted prostitutes and other lower-class peddlers). But for most, the baths were a place to unwind, mingle with friends, and wash away a day’s work (for the men, anyw
ay). And even though some Romans had their own baths at their homes, paying a visit to the larger and more luxurious bath complexes was a part of life, a way to network socially and politically, as well as a way to get clean.
When A Roman entered the bath complex, he would pay a fee (which was very inexpensive, even at the state-run houses, so that everyone could use them), and then retreat to a dressing room (apodyterium), where he would remove his clothing and give it to a slave, either his own or one employed by the bathhouse. The clothes would be stored in cabinets (like lockers) while he was doing his bathing ritual. Men and women alike would wear some type of thin garment while exercising, unlike the Greeks, who exercised in the nude.
Once changed for exercise, the Roman would enter the palaestra, or a central courtyard, where he would play ball, lift weights, run, or even just play dice games with other bathers. Some larger complexes had large outdoor swimming pools (natatio), where bathers could get another form of exercise. Exercise was mostly an activity reserved for the men, except for a very few competitive female athletes.
Once exercise was over, the Roman would take a dip in the tepidarium, a warm pool, and then move on to the caldarium, a hot bath that served a similar purpose to modern saunas. After sweating out impurities, the bather would then have a slave massage his body with olive oil, and then all of the oil and dirt would be scraped off with an implement called a strigil. The bather would then retreat back to the tepidarium, where he socialized and relaxed. The final step was to take a dip in the frigidarium, a cold pool that refreshed the body and left the bather ready to go enjoy a relaxing dinner at home.
Roman bathing was a ritual, a way of life, and something that only grew in popularity as the Roman Republic grew into an Empire, with as many as 900 Roman baths in operation at it’s height.