Public Baths

Leisure time in cosmopolitan Pompeii

Several buildings show a bathing complex The Suburban Baths
Image: Rosaria Zarro
Source: Museum Victoria

Bathing in Pompeii was a public activity, not a private one, and the public baths were important social meeting places. They were so important, in fact, that Pompeii (which had only 12,000 residents) boasted three major bathing complexes: the Stabian baths, which were the oldest; the Forum baths, built after 80 BC; and the Suburban baths, built in the early first century AD. A fourth, the Central baths, was under construction, but was still incomplete at the time of the 79 AD eruption.

At the baths, men and women had separate areas; if there were no separate facilities, women bathed in the morning and men in the afternoon. In addition to the main bathing block, which had facilities for hot, warm and cold bathing, there was usually an adjoining gymnasium for exercise. After the aqueduct system was built and a plentiful water supply was assured, an open-air swimming pool was even added to the Stabian baths.

The procedure most Pompeians followed was to undress in the apodyterium, oil their bodies and then exercise in the gymnasium. After exercising, oil and sweat was scraped off with a curved tool called a strigil, then followed up with a series of baths, starting in the hottest pool and working their way via the warm pool to end with a bracing dip in the cold pool. Furnaces behind the hot rooms supplied the heat for the hot baths; it circulated under the hollow floors and rose up through cavities in the walls, finally escaping by means of chimneys in the vault.