Late Antique Baths

Two hundred years after his death, Galen's Rome no longer existed;it was a spent political force. The Empire was split and beleaguered, and outside the small world of medicine life had moved on. The baths yet again prove to be a sensitive barometer of social and economic change. For generations of fascinated historians, Roman baths have appeared as an extraordinary exercise in communal sensuality on a grand and public scale, and then—like the dinosaurs—they suddenly disappeared. At least it was thought they did: but the cataclysmic decline, it seems, only occurred in the western parts of the Empire, while the post-imperial period of Late Antiquity in the southern and eastern regions of the Empire remained, internally, a very old and fixed world.39

The aqueducts were the most obvious casualties during war. They were costly, difficult to maintain, and vulnerable. Very few remained intact in the western Empire. Many of the arched sections of the aqueducts supplying Rome were cut when the Goths laid full siege to the city in ad 537—some by the Goths to cut off water supply, some by the defenders to stop the Goths from using them to march into the city. Despite this, the favourites were almost always patched up or rebuilt. The real crunch came later, with the general failure of the aqueducts from the ninth century: 'it is not likely that any of them continued to be used in anything like their original form later than sometime between 900 and 1000'.40 Some of them came back: the Virgo aqueduct ceased operation in the tenth century, but was restored again after 1453, while the old conduits of the Marcia never dried up, and continue to send water into Rome. Elsewhere the infrastructural decline was more gradual. Londinium struggled to sustain its two public baths through the troubled 300-400s after the Roman retreat, but in the end the problems of maintenance were too great, and when the tiled roofs collapsed in ad 430, they were not rebuilt. The same story could be told in countless western provincial towns. Occupying a central site, the baths at Londinium were later covered by a growing town, and their stone reused for other purposes. The next time stone-built public baths reappeared in London was in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the eastern Empire it was a different story. Further east, and in the southern provinces, the baths habit had taken a much stronger hold, and the public baths were maintained or taken over by others. In Late Antiquity the most impressive baths were at Constantinople, which had almost as many baths as Rome, as well as the longest aqueduct. Throughout the Byzantine Empire the larger thermae ceased to be built after the fourth century, but were maintained until about the ninth century. Smaller local baths changed when the lives of their patrons changed, and they were maintained because they had become valued. Practical and inconspicuous, small baths were the bedrock of popular bathing culture, and in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria, Judaea, and Arabia, town baths continued in use for many centuries. More generally, however, the Graeco-Roman influence was retreating in the face of the mass religious movements of Christianity and Islam. The early Christian Church was ambivalent towards the public baths;but it was the breakdown of the ephebate Roman educational system in the mid-fourth century that helped destroy the classical gymnasiums and palaestras. The nudity and the public games were deemed offensive by ascetic clerics of all persuasions;for Romano-Christians especially the gymnasiums were a hated symbol of pagan ideals. Within a few decades of Constantine's official Christian conversion in ad 330, the gymnasiums had begun to disappear; the Olympic Games at Antioch struggled on until ad 520, the end of a thousand-year tradition.

The exercise yard did not feature in the magnificent bathhouses built by Islamic engineers who carried on where Rome left off following the Muslim conquests from the seventh century onwards. The town baths of the growing Islamic empire were turned into a very different type of social centre and grooming arena;in ad 900 there were 1,500 bathhouses in Baghdad. They contained eating and drinking areas, massage halls, and semi-private bath suites containing small baths in small annexes, where the Roman cold-water frigidarium was reduced to a fountain playing prettily in the hall while the occupants chatted—as in the eighth-century civic bath at Qasi al-Hayr, in Syria. More spectacularly they built large baths for the sporting aristocracy, like the luxurious painted and bejewelled hunting-lodge bath halls, way out in the desert, at eighth-century Qasr al-Amra in Jordan. The sultans also built more great bath halls in the desert for the caravanserai and other travellers to rest in and perform their devotions. Such desert baths literally became an oasis of talk and refreshment, cool and reviving in daytime yet warm in the cold desert nights; desert travellers used the baths like an inn or a hostel.41

Not long after the magnificent Roman buildings and engineering works had caved in, were pilfered, had crumbled and rotted or become covered by undergrowth, silt, or sand, the remnants of Greek and Roman classical learning were being absorbed into the eastern Byzantine and southern Arabic empires, while western Europe struggled to preserve precious scrolls from marauders in remote monastic and aristocratic libraries. During this same period the ancient culture of the desert was playing yet another historic role, as the solitary home of the ascetic hermit or holy man, and of the Christian Desert Fathers. The surge of personal asceticism in Late Antiquity is particularly crucial to the history of Christian cleanliness in Europe: it was a turning point—a change in the metaphysics. The sensual and simple pleasures of cleanliness that the Greeks and Romans so enjoyed were about to be condemned as a sin.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment