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History: Swimming Pools & Bath

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The Great Bath

According to the archaeological discoveries from 1926 one of the first known swimming pools called “The Great Bath” has been built and used by ancient Indus Valley Civilization at Mohenjo-daro in Sindh, Pakistan in the 3rd Millennium BC. The historians call it "earliest public water tank of the ancient world". The Great Bath measures 39 feet x 23 feet (11.88 meters x 7.01 meters), and has a maximum depth of almost 8 feet (2.43 meters). Most scholars agree that this tank would have been used for special religious functions where water was used to purify and renew the well being of the bathers.

Ancient Greece

In The Book of the Bath, Françoise de Bonneville wrote, "The history of public baths begins in Greece in the sixth century B.C.," where men and women washed in basins near places of exercise, physical and intellectual. Later gymnasium had indoor basins set overhead, the open maws of marble lions offering showers, and circular pools with tiers of steps for lounging.

Bathing was ritualized, becoming an art – of cleansing sands, hot water, hot air in dark vaulted "vapor baths," a cooling plunge, a rubdown with aromatic oils. Cities all over Ancient Greece honored sites where "young ephebes (young man of 18–20) stood and splashed water over their bodies."

Roman Empire

Roman Baths have existed in Roman civilization since the 2nd century BC and were initially for men only. Some scholars say that they were considered places for important matters and business to be discussed and thus there was no need to consider an area for women.

Dr. Garrett G Fagan, Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and History at The Pennsylvania State University, has named public bathing as a "social event" for the Romans in his book "Bathing in Public in the Roman World".

The first baths which are referred to with the neuter word balneum (Latin for bath, bathing place, and bathroom), were privately owned, therefore not everyone could afford to use them.

Greeks had small pools, tubs, footbaths and even a form of shower. But the Romans took all these ideas to develop an architectural marvel. Looking at baths from previous cultures, they added various areas for sports and exercise and created huge monuments with a form of central heating that had never before been seen.

There were not only the hot, warm and cool baths. The Thermae of Marcus Crassus advertised both fresh and salt water baths. One could also find exercise areas, masseurs, barbers, shops, restaurants, and even libraries. The private bath in one’s home was fine for a good soak but there was no comradery there. When out in the country and away from the activity of the city, the bath in one's own villa will do.

But in the city, the bathhouses were a lifeline to the news of the day. There were private rooms to discuss those matters that were not to be publicly spread. Might the plot to kill Caesar have started in a bath?

At some point baths were no longer a privilege for the wealthy although even the cheapest public bath did charge a fee of 1 quadrans for about an hour of soaking and chatting, jogging, wrestling, meet friends or conduct business. One usually arrived shortly after midday. The balnatores (bathhouse operators who were usually freedmen) would keep the facility open until dusk. Over 1300 oil lamps were found in the ruins of one bath in Pompeii. As women gained more financial power and thus more stature, the baths were made available to them too. Woman either had separate facilities or were allowed to use the full establishment at a time earlier than men, generally from dawn to 1 p.m. but there might be mixed bathing in the large pools. The poor were sometimes allowed to use baths without a fee when some wealthy individual, perhaps seeking votes, would purchase the use of a bath for an afternoon and open without charge to the less fortunate.

Ottoman Empire

During the Ottoman Empire (founded in 1299) public baths were widely used in a form of Turkish bath, which is the variant of Roman Bath, sauna or steambath. The baths had both a religious and popular origin deriving from the Qur'an (ablution ritual) and the use of steamrooms by the Turks. The Turkish baths also known as the Hammam, was considered a place for social gathering in Turkish Culture. The process of Hammam is very similar to that of the Roman bathing.

Quick Facts

  • 3rd Millennium BC the first known swimming pool called “The Great Bath” has been built and used by ancient Indus Valley Civilization at Mohenjo-daro in Sindh, Pakistan

  • By 33 BC there Romans had 170 baths, public and private in Rome alone. As the empire grew bathing places became more and more luxurious. By the end of the first century Romans built huge private and public baths. Martial referred to them as thermae. The daily bath had become a social occasion. The increase in the numbers of baths in dramatic.

  • By 19 BC the first public thermae (large imperial bath complexes) had a rotunda 25 meters across, circled by small rooms, set in a park with artificial river and pool.

  • By 137 AD commemorates the opening of the bathhouse of the Hadrianic Baths that are among the most famous monuments of Lepcis Magna opened by the governor Publius Valerius Priscus

  • By 300 AD the Baths of Diocletian would cover 1,500,000 sq. ft. (140,000 square meters), its soaring granite and porphyry sheltering 3,000 bathers a day. Roman baths became "something like a cross between an aquacentre and a theme park," with pools, game rooms, gardens, even libraries and theatres.

  • By the end of the 4th century AD, there were 11 public baths and 926 private baths in Rome alone.


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