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Greek Baths and Bathing Culture: New Discoveries and Approaches

Greek Baths and Bathing Culture: New Discoveries and Approaches

Edited by Sandra K. Lucore and Monika Trümper (BABesch Suppl. 23). Pp. vii + 350, figs. 267, table 1. Peeters, Leuven 2013. €85. ISBN 978-90-429-8297-8 (paper).

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It has been more than half a century since the publication of Ginouvès’ seminal book Balaneutikè: Recherches sur le bain dans lantiquité grecque (Paris 1962). Since that time, as documented by Trümper in her introduction to the present volume (1–9), the corpus of known Greek bathing facilities has tripled (to 75 in total), all sorts of other evidence has come to light, and research on ancient baths in general has advanced in leaps and bounds. An updated study of Greek baths was sorely needed, and, although this book is not a monograph but a collection of essays generated by a conference held in 2010, it goes a long way to filling that gap.

Aside from the introduction (1–9) and a very useful catalogue of known Greek bath sites at the back, the 15 contributions can be grouped into four main categories. The first is eight field reports that document Greek baths newly discovered or currently under investigation. Of these, five come from the western Mediterranean (at Velia, Caulonia, Locri Epizefiri, Morgantina, and Monte Iato), two from Greece proper (Thessaloniki, Lemnos), and one from Egypt (the Fayum). A ninth field report from an Italian site—republican baths at Fregellae—joins a chapter by Yegül to form the second category of papers in tackling the intersection of Greek and Roman bathing practices, particularly as they pertain to the difficult matter of the “origins” of Roman baths. The third category comprises three papers—on the urban context of Greek baths, images of women bathing on Greek vases, and baths and bathing in Greek medicine—that add to the discussion about the role of baths and bathing in Greek culture, while the fourth and final category is represented by two papers addressing technical matters (architecture and heating systems). The papers are thus varied and disparate, as can be expected from published conference proceedings, but all contribute in interesting ways to the field. Particularly welcome is the presentation of new archaeological evidence in a field where the entire corpus is restricted to 75 known sites (70 of which are catalogued at the back of this volume). Especially noteworthy in this connection are the recently excavated North Baths at Morgantina, described in detail by Lucore (151–79) and analyzed convincingly in relation to other Sicilian facilities at Gela, Syracuse, and Megara Hyblaea.

Given restrictions of space, I can comment more closely on only a handful of papers. Stähli (11–21) examines images of women bathing at basins (louteria) on (mostly) Athenian vases and concludes that the representations are fictions, intended to present naked female forms in interesting positions for appreciation by the male voyeuristic gaze—most of the images are on symposiastic vessels. As such, they tell us nothing useful about the realities of bathing in the archaic and classical world. In her survey of baths and bathing in Greek medicine (23–32), Flemming traces the continuity of bathing injunctions from the classical Hippocratic corpus down to the Early Roman empire and argues that medical recommendations to bathe (or not to bathe) responded to, rather than drove, patterns of bathing across this whole period. While Flemming is undoubtedly correct that medical thinking is unlikely to have driven the formal development of baths, the power of medical superstars such as Asclepiades of Bithynia to popularize bathhouses as healthful places (see Plin. HN 26.13 on his immense fame and reach), alongside the arrival of immigrants from the eastern Mediterranean, seems to me to be a significant element in the story of the Roman bath’s growing popular appeal in the second and first centuries B.C.E., at least at Rome itself. Despite the paucity of evidence for Greek baths—75 facilities in toto, and most sites offering only a sample size of one facility—Trümper (33–72) surveys the urban context of Greek baths and concludes that they were located in marginal but high-traffic areas of cities (at gates or near harbors). More importantly, she demonstrates conclusively that neither the location nor the bathing program of facilities associated with sanctuaries suggests a specifically ritual use by their patrons.

The papers by Yegül (72–88) and Tsiolis (89–129) are best read in conjunction. Yegül reiterates his diffuse view of the origins of Roman-style bathing, which he sees as having roots in a variety of sources—including rustic Italic traditions of farmhouse washing; Punic, Greek, and Hellenistic influences; and pan-Mediterranean cultural practices—but he adds here two important modifications. First, the mere presence of sophisticated heating technology (as in numerous Greek-style baths) is not in itself a critical development, but the influence of that technology in shaping architectural form is, as manifested in the canonical Pompeian-style Roman bath. Second, he suggests that Rome itself likely played a key role in the emergence of this latter type, since the capital “in no way played second fiddle to Campania, and would have been the natural place for early experiments with public baths and bathing” (80). Central to his reasoning are the newly discovered early baths at Fregellae, which is located only 60 miles south of Rome and so may reflect Roman influences in bathing culture. Of course, also, Fregellae lies only 60 miles north of Capua in Campania, so who knows in what direction(s) the currents of influence were flowing. The detailed description of the Fregellae baths by their chief excavator, Vassilis Tsiolis—presented in English for the first time in these pages—is to be welcomed by all parties interested in the knotty problem of the Roman bath's origins. Identified in two phases, Tsiolis argues that the earlier phase was a Greek-style balaneion of the late third century B.C.E., overlaid by a more Roman-looking bathing block in 200–175 B.C.E. This latter block has the first full hypocaust known, predating by a half-century the example in the Stabian Baths at Pompeii, as well as readily recognizable caldaria and combined apodyteria/tepidaria for men and women. However, little about phase I suggests a Greek-style balaneion, and the absence of a characteristic tholos of hip-baths remains a serious problem for this interpretation of the structure. The debate, no doubt, will go on.

Two other chapters warrant notice. Napolitani and Saito (181–88) make the interesting suggestion that Archimedes, who is known to have frequented the public baths of Syracuse, may have been influenced by the barrel vaults and domes he saw there to postulate certain kinds of solids investigated in his surviving work. The alternative—that Archimedes inspired said vault domes—remains an intriguing but unprovable possibility. Fournet and Redon (239–63) restore the place of the eastern Mediterranean in the history of the hypocaust, principally by presenting the heating system of the Hellenistic baths at Taposiris Magna, west of Alexandria, and by relating it to the heating system of Greek baths in general, especially other sites in Egypt.

The book is handsomely produced, with dozens of apt illustrations, many in color, and very few infelicities or typos (e.g., “inexistent” for “nonexistent” [4], balanaion for balaneion [62], or regulae for tegulae [80]). Greek Baths and Bathing Culture is an essential addition to the library of anyone interested in ancient bath studies, and both editors and contributors are to be heartily congratulated, as are the publishers, for putting out such an excellent product.

Garrett G. Fagan
Department of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies
Penn State University
University Park, Pennsylvania 16802-5500

Book Review of Greek Baths and Bathing Culture: New Discoveries and Approaches, edited by Sandra K. Lucore and Monika Trümper

Reviewed by Garrett G. Fagan

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 4 (October 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1184.Fagan

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