Roman Spa: The History

Although public bathing stems from Ancient Greek culture, it’s most commonly associated with the Roman era. In fact, public spas became a hugely significant element of Roman social life, with their presence expanding right across the Roman Empire.

Roman Spa

© bnoragitt / Adobe Stock

 

Early Roman spas

Bathing was a big part of life for every Roman, no matter what their status in society. Although the rich could afford private spas in their opulent villas, most Romans visited communal baths, or thermae, for this leisurely activity. Indeed, by 354 AD, there were over 950 spas of various sizes dotted around Rome, the largest of which could accommodate 3,000 bathers.

Many Roman spas were elaborate structures, often with a symmetrical facade, and housing several rooms of varying temperatures. There was often a separate entrance for men, women and slaves. Roman spas would often adorn frescoes on the walls and mosaic tiles on the floors and would be set amongst formal gardens.

 

Birth of Roman Bath

As the Roman Empire expanded, spas became a feature of the Roman colonies.

Britain was invaded by the Romans in 43 AD, and it was no surprise that they made a beeline for the natural thermal springs of Bath. These springs occur from rainwater gathering from the nearby Mendip Hills, that then flows under the limestone streets of Bath. The water rises to the surface along fissures and faults, reaching a balmy temperature of 46 degrees.

By 75 AD the Romans had created a religious spa site in Bath, called Aquae Sulis. Further building took place over the following 300 years to include temples, spas, courtyards and administrative buildings surrounding the natural springs.

Oak piles were used as foundations in the mud and a stone chamber lined with lead encased the springs. A wooden barrel-vaulted building covered the chamber by the 2nd century, giving the spa complex a hot, lukewarm and cold bath. Stone statues of the Tritons also flanked the Roman baths, as these were considered to be servants to Neptune, the god of water. Other statues of gods and creatures also featured.

The spas became incredibly popular, attracting bathers from far and wide, but when the Romans left Britain in the 5th century, the spas were abandoned and eventually succumbed to flooding.

 

Thermal healing

Although the Roman spa was a place of relaxation, worship and socialising, the hot thermal waters containing 43 minerals, including sulphate ions, chloride, calcium and sodium, have long been recognised for their healing powers. Indeed, Prince Bladud is believed to have cured his leprosy by bathing in Bath’s thermal waters in 836 BC.

During the 17th century, doctors encouraged sick patients to drink the thermal waters of Bath to cure a wide range of ailments. The first Pump Room opened in 1706, giving people access to a natural spring.

 

Excavations and conservation

The crumbling remains of the Roman spa complex were discovered by architect Major Charles Davis in 1878, with further excavations to follow over the years. The site was opened to the public in 1897 and continues to attract over a million visitors to this day. Bath has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status since 1987.

Although visitors can tour the baths and the museum with its many Roman artefacts, bathing of the waters has been banned since the 1970s, as it is not deemed safe. However, tourists can still drink spa water from the Pump Room, which is now a restaurant, and a new Thermae Bath Spa allows bathers to soak in the relaxing thermal waters.

Although the Romans have long since left Britain, spas continue to be a popular place to visit today for relaxation and rejuvenation. For spa owners looking to ensure bathers enjoy the best experience possible, Crown Sports Lockers provides a wide range of locker facilities for spas, to enable bathers to keep their possessions safe and secure during their visit.