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Bathing in the Roman World

Bathing in the Roman World

By Fikret Yegül. Pp. xiii + 256, figs. 104. Cambridge University Press, New York 2010. $28.99. ISBN 978-0-521-54962-2 (paper).

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Monographs on ancient Greek and Roman baths and bathing are rare, though studies by Nielsen (Thermae et Balnea. 2nd ed. [Aarhus 1993]), DeLaine (The Baths of Caracalla. JRA Suppl. 25 [Portsmouth, R.I. 1997]), and Fagan (Bathing in the Roman World [Ann Arbor 1999]) marked a period of renewed interest in the 1990s along with Yegül’s Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass. 1992), which remains unparalleled in achievement. If Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity (BBCA) was an ocean liner in its comprehensive scope and exhaustive detail, then Yegül’s latest book is a luxury yacht—polished, refined, and steered by a sleek narrative keen to elucidate the extraordinary Roman devotion to bathing.

Any author faced with the task of a concise narrative on a vast topic must tailor the text for expectations of experts within a framework broad enough for beginners. Yegül throws an appropriate pitch to an audience of “beginners and professionals alike” (xi). With sustained immersion in the universe of Roman baths and bathing guided by careful autopsy of ruins (e.g., recent studies on Cilicia, Isthmia, Antioch, Baiae, Sardis, and Constantinople), Yegül brings balance to his content and focus to his presentation. English-language readership has not known an accessible and jargon-free book like this one until now.

Readers familiar with BBCA will find the arrangement of topics similar. Likewise for the illustrations: among the 104 in Yegül’s latest book (many by Yegül himself), only 18 are new. This is hardly a criticism, since BBCA’s 506 illustrations remain an unrivaled collection of visual documentation for the study of baths. The book’s opening chapters quickly dispel any perceptions of redundancy. These aim to illuminate the unique world of Roman bathing culture. Deeper than cleanliness and hygiene, bathing was rooted in the life experience of Romans, involving rituals and routines, exercise and entertainment, sex and scandal, and dining and drinking. Yegül’s fresh reformulations of ethical and moral concerns as we know them from ancient literary sources include appreciation of the blurred line between nudity and partial nudity at the baths (28), women bathing in public (“might not have been rare”) and Roman perceptions of them (“less than comfortable”) (30), and baths as a refuge and cure for lovemaking (31–2). On the topics of class, status, and the inclusive social policies of Roman baths, Yegül maintains that the Roman public bath was democratic. At the baths, “one could tell who was who,” but bathing culture allowed for the display of what was attainable (37–9).

At the outset, Yegül acknowledges that some ground is retread and some viewpoints remain unchanged. If any part of the book betrays this sentiment (and most parts do not), it is the chapters on Rome, North Africa, and Asia Minor. For Rome, Yegül limits discussion to the imperial thermae of Agrippa, Trajan, and Caracalla. For North Africa, Yegül explains trends in design and function with examples at Lepcis Magna, Carthage, Mactar, Djemila, Dougga, Bulla Regia, Karanis, and Timgad, but not by means of a chronological development of plan types, for “there was none” (134). The chapter on Asia Minor, where a lifetime of fieldwork has informed Yegül’s fine-tuned presentation, especially rewards the reader. Sardis, Ephesos, and Miletos easily consume the allotted pages. A quick coda on baths of Lycia, Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Cilicia sets up an important interface between East and West that plays out in the book’s later chapters on Byzantine and Islamic baths. Throughout, Fagan and DeLaine bubble to the surface as scholars whose work Yegül has embroidered into his own. Some readers might have appreciated discussion of the East Baths at Leptiminus and the North Baths at Morgantina, an updated plan of the Gymnasium of Vedius at Ephesos, or more reflection on the meaning of the term Kaisersaal (“a soft form of imperial propaganda”) (167), especially given the recent discovery of imperial statuary in baths at Sagalassos. Others might find, contrary to Yegül, that the unadorned exterior of the Hunting Baths of Lepcis Magna continues to advise Wheeler’s notion that Roman fascination with interiors distinguishes Roman architecture from Greek (148). In fact, the distinction resounds in the myriad interiors Yegül artfully constructs for appreciation of the sensory experience the Roman bather enjoyed inside the baths.

The English-only archaeologist will welcome summary and interpretation of new discoveries at Fregellae in Latium (54–5) and Allianoi in Mysia (50–1), “the two most important additions to the archaeology and scholarship of baths” (xii). Allianoi, an impressive thermal spa northeast (not northwest) of Pergamon, must have drawn on the attraction of Pergamon’s Sanctuary of Asklepios. Until more is known about the site (unlikely, since the reservoir behind the new Yortanlı Dam will probably soon destroy it), however, readers may be unwilling to accept it as a challenge to “the supremacy of Baiae as the incomparable thermal establishment of the Roman world” (xii). Fregellae, dated to the early second century B.C.E., and possibly the earliest known bath with combined space for men and women, signals changing attitudes about gender and mores in the Late Republic. Its departure from designs of earlier baths at Pompeii and Herculaneum with separate spaces for male and female bathers may have influenced the combined spaces found in the Early Imperial baths of these very same towns. Its hypocaust with terracotta tubes also affords Latium a firm place in the history of the development of Roman steam bath technology.

Elsewhere, the reader will find concise articulation of problems concerning terminology (e.g., thermae and balneae) and forces that contributed to the development of Roman bathing culture, such as farm traditions of central Italy, health tourism on the Bay of Naples, and the fusion of Roman hot bathing facilities with Greek gymnasia and palaestrae. Yegül’s broad appreciation of the revolutionary technology for the hypocaust allows for possible origins in Greece as much as in Italy, but “no specific moment or agent can be identified as the source” (84). Historians of technology and enthusiasts of experimental archaeology will appreciate Yegül’s simulation of a hypocaust (the subject of a NOVA television special, “Roman Bath,” in 2000) for its proof that the system was an active (not passive) contributor to heating the baths (88–9).

Yegül’s final three chapters on baths from postclassical times to the 19th century demonstrate proficiency where classical scholars rarely tread. Yegül’s nuanced interplay of tradition and functionality between East and West chronicles the transformation of Roman bathing culture from Constantinople to Antioch, across Syria and the Near East, and then back to Europe through Anatolia. In the eastern Roman empire, smaller baths accommodated a new emphasis on political and cultural concerns for assembly and entertainment (192). An efficient excursus on the rediscovery of public bathing in postclassical Europe (213–30) employs western art and literature to explore Roman bathing’s legacy in a culture longing for fantasy, escape, and intoxicating sensuality (226).

Yegül has always probed the relationship between bath architecture and the human activity of bathing. This book is no exception. For Yegül, modes and practices of bathing were guided by personal experience and preference as much as they were by time, place, and policy. Yegül’s refined and updated treatment of Lucian’s Bath of Hippias (74–9) provides a vivid example of the role that anthropomorphic bath designs can play for exploration of Roman identity. But nowhere is Yegül’s notion of the Roman bather’s personal experience more convincing than in his appeal to Las Vegas, aptly employed to capture the “hyperreality” of the sensory experience of Rome’s imperial thermae (130–32). This book is an excellent example of how archaeology, art, and architectural history inform the study of social and cultural history.

William Aylward
Department of Classics
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Madison, Wisconsin 53706

Book Review of Bathing in the Roman World, by Fikret Yegül

Reviewed by William Aylward

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 2 (April 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1152.Aylward

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