Bathing in Pompeii: Stabian Baths and Forum Baths


Of all past peoples and civilizations, the Romans had the most extraordinary devotion to baths and bathing - and their devotion was the most thoroughly rooted in their life and culture; and presented in their architecture design and decoration of their public bathrooms. A detailed bathing ritual was devised for the people to enjoy their time at the bathing complex. The newly invented hypocaust system together, along with the carefully planned structures of the buildings, marked the significance of the Stabian Baths and Forum Baths complexes in the life at Pompeii. 


The bathing architectures were an essential part of the public space in Pompeii. In Yegül’s famous publication, Bathing in the Roman world, he emphasized the pivotal role that the public baths played in serving the functional and hygienic needs of washing. Bathing was a daily habit that was rooted in the rhythm and structure of Roman’s day and the community’s pride and delight in its baths were often reflected in the quality of the public baths. In Zanker’s book Pompeii: Public and Private Life, he viewed the public buildings as “a kind of performance space, a stage created by a society to meet its own needs.” Thus, the large public baths in Pompeii calls for the extra attention to the archeologists in understanding the ancient Roman life in the area, as they were a new form of public space that expressed the social characteristics of its inhabitants. The new technology, hypocaust system, developed and popularized by the Romans fostered the growth of the bathing cultural and technological importance. This article offers an archaeological, chronological, and structural analysis of the two large public baths at Pompeii - the Stabian Baths and the Forum Baths - and discusses what role did those baths play in the life of Pompeians.   

The invention of hypocaust system allowed the Romans to immerse themselves in the different temperature waters, elevating the function of bathing from the simple cleansing purpose to a leisure activity. This transition first came to the Romans from the Greeks’ heating baths system. However, the Greeks’ heating system was considered “primitive” by Yegül, when comparing to the central floor heating systems of Roman baths. In his book, Yegül described the Greeks’ baths: the clusters of tholos rooms with individual hip baths arranged around the perimeter of the walls - the hot waters would be collected before bathing and the bather would pour the water down to the body from a bucket.  By using Greek heating technology, the Romans improved their architectural techniques with heating technologies and heat distribution systems. 

The hypocaust system was designed to situate under the ground level of the building, supported by a network of the pilae under the pavement (fig. 1). The short brick pilae’s height varies from 0.7 to 1.4 meters and would be placed 0.8 meters apart with each other - through the spaces in between each column, the hot air flew and circulated under the floor to create the warm bathing environment. The space in between each pillar and the heights of each individual pillar were built high enough for a persona to work in easily in case of repairing or cleaning up. The actual floor would be built from brick blocks and other materials like - small stones and sand - covered with marble or mosaic. The hot air circulated under the floor usually came from the burning of wood or charcoal in a praefumium (furnace), where a large container made of bronze or copper would be placed above the fire to boil water. The floor of the praefumium was usually made of stone and built inclined; thus, the fire would be burned towards the direction of the interior, instead of blowing out of the building, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the hot air. This design showed the genesis of the Romans that utilized the hot air created by heating the water and directed it into the rooms to create the hot and warm rooms. 

The improvement the technology and the invention of hypocaust system fostered the cult of a pleasurable custom of bathing, since people started to enjoy bathing and a significant amount of time was spent in the bathrooms for relaxing and cleansing. Thus, a bathing ritual was developed. The essentials of the bathing routine as stated by Pliny the Younger were simple: “I am oiled, I take my exercise, I have my bath.” Yegül has a more detailed description of what a well-to-do Roman would bring to perform the custom of bathing.

A well-to-do Roman was accompanied to the baths by his slaves carrying his bathing paraphernalia: exercise and bathing garments, sandals, towels, and his cista or toilet kit- the last was a metal box, often cylindrical, that contained oils and perfumes in flasks, several strigils (curved metal blades like spoons to scrape the excess oil from the body), and a sponge.  (Yegül, 2010)

Based on this list of items that Romans brought with them for bathing (fig. 2), it was obvious that bathing was a serious ritual. After taking off all of their street clothes, they would go to a warm room and get oiled down and massaged by a slave. Then, they would march to the palaestra in some form of light exercise clothes to work up some sweat. Then, they would go back to the warm room and use the strigil to strip down everything on their bodies for cleansing. Lastly, they would enter the baths wearing wooden sandals that prevented heat from burning their feet. 

The idea of engaging in some form of athletic activity prior to bathing was considered a healthy thing to do; the indoor and outdoor amenities built for exercise was inspired and evolved by the Greek gymnasia and palaestrae. However, to accommodate the movement of the ritual from one to another, the structure of bathing buildings was devised, supporting the flow of crowds. According to Ward, the Roman baths were distinguished from their precursors by the emergence of a complex of bathrooms and facilities for communal bathing. The earliest evidence of such progression of improvement in bathrooms was provided by the Stabian Baths in Pompeii. 

Dating back to the third century B.C.E., the Greek-style hip baths was constructed on the north wing of now the Stabian Baths complex, which was located at the intersection of the Strada Stabiana and the Via dell’ Abbondanza - both of them are main roads that would attract a significant amount of traffic at Pompeii (fig. 3); and it was not until the second century B.C.E under the Roman influences, the hypocaust-heated bath block was constructed on the east wing and a palaestra for exercise was established next to the bathrooms (fig. 4). Later, the laconicum in the hypocaust-heated block was remodeled into the frigidarium by adding the enormously large cold bath in the center; and lastly, the reconstruction by the magistrates Vulius and Aninius added the rest of the building after the “Social War” in the first century B.C.E. This chronological development was supported by Eschebach’s six-phase theory of the Stabian Baths, in which he identified the development of the Stabian Baths complex in six phases; and each of the phases was backed up by the architectural evidence found in the site. However, scholars like Richardson questioned Eschebach’s theory with traceable evidence that the Tufa period door frames strongly suggested that the general organization of the whole complex was carried out in a single operation around 140 - 120 B.C.E. In addition, in his book Pompeii: An Architectural History, Richardson pointed out that the façade on the Via dell’ Abbondanza, though it was fine tufa blocks, it was not decorated with drafting or plasters and did not continue up the via stabiana. The columns of the palaestra were faceted rather than fluted. These were indications of construction in the second half of the second century. Thus, he concluded that the Stabian baths came into existence in the later Tufa period and the Greek-style bathing cubicles were preserved for having a special use. Despite the arguments and disagreements on the bathing cubicles, it was acknowledged by both archaeologists that the general structure of Stabian Baths was firstly constructed by the Greeks; then remodeled under Roman influences in second century B.C.E.; and lastly perfected under the Roman magistrates. 

It was reasonable to assume that the remodel of the complex was aimed at fitting the baths to the bathing ritual the Romans were accustomed to. When reading the plan of the Stabian Baths, it was obvious the two segregated bathing area for different genders shared one furnace and there were two sets of separate entrances for men and women (fig. 4). This segregation was also suggested by literary sources. Marcus Terentius Varro, writing in 43 BCE, stated that the first balneum “bath-room,” when it was brought into the city of Rome, was a public establishment set in a place where two connected buildings might be used for bathing, in one of which the men should bathe and in the other the women bathe. In De architectura, written early in the reign of Augustus, a few years after Varro, Vitruvius Polio noted, “we must also take care that the hot baths for men and for women are adjacent” so that the two may use the same furnace. This explained the reason for the separated entrances and the two sets of apodyterium, tepidarium, and caldarium.  

According to Yegül, the design of the Stabian Baths’ east wing marked a critical point in the development of Roman bath planning. The disposition of a number of functionally related rooms in a simple row in sequence reflects the proper order of usage - a direct and orderly progression from unheated areas to heated ones and a return in reverse order. The apodyterium, the changing room, was near the entrance of the baths. In the men’s apodyterium, there are two rows of niches on north and south walls for the bathers to store their belongings (fig. 5); beneath them are benches that bathers can sit on for changing their clothes. The palaestrae was the place where people exercise; on the west of it is a large swimming pool. After the exercise, people can go to the tepidarium, the warm room, where a hypocaust was under its floor (fig. 1). This room was used for oiling and massaging the body. The frigidarium was on the west side of the tepidarium. Since this cold bathroom with a huge central pool filled with cold water was later constructed (fig. 6), its disposition did flow with the ritual procedure. After passing through the tepidarium was the most important place - the caldarium. It was the largest bathroom in the Stabian baths. On the west side of the room was a basin filled with cold water; on the east side was a tub filled with hot water (fig. 7). The same order of rooms can also be found on the women’s side, only without the frigidarium. This plan represented the most common type in bath planning - the “single-axis row type.” It is an efficient organization or rooms shaped by the order of use and the technical needs of heat control, by situating the furnace in between the women’s and men’s caldarium, so that the heat can circulate to the hot and warm rooms on both sides easily. Note that based on the distance from the room to the furnace, the Romans were able to control the progression of room temperature as the bather was moving from one room to another. The Forum baths shared the same “single-axis row type” bath complex structure with a colonnaded palaestra on the north of the complex (fig. 8). It was dated firmly by an inscription to 80 B.C.E. and occupied the full insula north of the city’s forum. 

The decorations found in both baths indicated the different political power influences at Pompeii. In the Stabian baths, the vaulted ceilings of men’s apodyterium were covered by registers of plant-like stuccos, and each of the stucco motifs was framed individually in a circle. On contrary, the stucco paintings in the men’s tepidarium at the Forum baths was much more elaborated in designs and depictions of figures. Those decorations were added during the restoration work after the earthquake of 62 AD; two identifiable figures left after the excavations are Eros with his bow, and Ganymede captured by an eagle (fig. 9). The whole ceiling was divided by 3 registers - the molded plant-like stuccos in the bottom; figurative images framed by the boxes in the middle; and small organic motifs at the top. The form echoed the 4th style wall paintings, suggested the complicated work done to decorate the ceiling. The stucco work can also be found at the frigidarium at the Forum Baths, in which a running stucco frieze was placed around the ceiling, depicting biomorphic motifs, such as running animals (fig. 10). In addition, alcoves at the Forum Baths were decorated with terracotta giants holding up the architrave, which was more elaborate than the Stabian Baths, suggesting the importance people put on decorating the new baths. 

The final years at Pompeii were framed by two natural disasters: a devastating earthquake in 62 A.D., and the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. that destroyed and buried Pompeii. Quoted from Dobbins, the conjunction of circumstances that damaged and then destroyed Pompeii provided a unique opportunity for the historians to observe the nature and the degree of the Pompeian response to the disaster of 62 A.D. The repaired work at the Stabian Baths and Forum Baths was limited by the line of priority, as well as the construction of the new public bath - the Central Bath, which was still under construction at the volcanic eruption. Despite the limited amount of reconstruction, the public baths still were among the top priorities of reparation after the earthquake.    

The Stabian Baths at Pompeii showed a continuous evolution towards a larger-space “single-axis row type” - with the increased use of vaulted concrete and an efficient hypocaust system. Water cleansed and provided the basic condition for bathing; heat made the cleaning more effective and created the comfort and relaxation necessary for bathing and social activities associated with bathing under the Roman influence. The decorations in the Forum Baths suggested the direct change in taste after the Romans’ triumph at the “Social War.” Analyzing the development of the bathing ritual, planning of space and use of decoration helped the archaeologists to draw the connections between the utilization of space and inhabitants’ particular lives, habits, and needs. 








Figure 1: Hypocaust system in men's tepidarium. Stabian Baths. BU Cumulus. 

Figure 2: A strigil, oil and perfume flasks used in baths. Naples Archaeological Museum.

Figure 3: Map of Pompeii. 

Figure 4: Plan of the Stabian Baths. Figure 1 in Ward, Roy Bowen. Women in Roman Baths. Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 85, No. 2 (April, 1992).

Figure 5: Men’s Apodyterium at the Stabian Baths. Pompeii in pictures. Photo courtesy of Michael Binns.

Figure 6: Recesses on north side of frigidarium.  Pompeii in pictures. Photo courtesy of Michael Binns.

Figure 7: Looking west in men’s calidarium with remains of support for marble drinking water basin.  Pompeii in pictures. Old 19th century photograph by Giorgio Sommer. 

Figure 8: Pompeii. Forum Baths c. 80-70 BC. plan (Grant). BU Cumulus.

Figure 9: Forum Baths: Tepidarium. BU Cumulus.

Figure 10: Forum baths (VII, 5.2) Frigidarium: detail of frieze. BU Cumulus




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