Baths, Public

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Baths, Public

This entry contains the following:

Lee Fontanella

Hamid Bahri

Jason Prior


The Greek baths at Olympia date to the early fifth century bce. The first baths were pools of unheated water, but baths grew more complex technically and later were heated by coal fires or hot rocks. The region of Laconica gave its name to laconica, or hot-air baths. Men and women bathed separately or at different hours of the day. As Greek baths grew in sophistication, specialty bathing developed, including individual tubs, footbaths, and even showers. Customarily, exercise, often in the nude, preceded ablutions, and some baths grew into centers of intellectual activity. Most notably the baths were communal, not totally private.

Those more cultivated aspects of Greek baths were retained by the Romans, who by the second century ce sometimes added libraries and elaborate artistic decorations to their baths. Roman males probably did not exercise in the nude, and it is not certain what they wore while bathing. Communal bathing (thermae) was the norm for free Romans, and thermae came to occupy huge tracts of urban land. A few people owned private baths (balneae) that could be used by others for an entry fee. As in Greece men and women had distinct bathing areas or bathed at different times of the day: women before the early afternoon and men in the late afternoon before dining.

Roman state-owned baths (the thermae) were a logical by-product of the construction of water-supply routes into the urban center. By 19 bce Agrippa exerted sufficient control over the water supply to build an aqueduct and baths. Following the Greek style he combined pools for swimming with Turkish baths. Apart from Rome there is subterranean evidence of elaborate layouts for bathing at sites such as Bath Spa, Somerset, England, where architectural remnants point to the distinct stages of public bathing: perspiring heavily while exposed to steam, soaping and shampooing, and then massaging and cooling.

Nero (37–68 ce) ordered the building of the Thermae Neronianae, and emperor Titus (40–81 ce) built his baths on Nero's baths; later Trajan (52–117 ce) built the Thermae Suranae on the earlier baths. The later baths were enlarged under Vespasian, and all are said to have been highly elaborate in artistic decoration. In the second decade of the second century ce, Caracalla (188–217 ce) completed the baths that his father, Septimius Severus (146–211 ce), had begun: gigantic structures whose remains have been incorporated as a backdrop for performances of Verdi's Aïda. In 305 ce Diocletian (r. 284–305 ce) built baths even larger than those; his baths later were converted into the church Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Probably because the baths were so popular and so varied in terms of their social activities, they grew noisy, as the Roman philosopher and writer Seneca complained. Repasts were shared in some. They became locales plagued by petty thieves, and bathers' belongings had to be guarded by a servant in the changing rooms; some were said to become haunts for prostitutes.

Such elaborate processes of ablution, often in sumptuous surroundings, became the stuff of imaginative prose and the visual arts, especially in periods in which people indulged in prurience, possibly because outward social ethics and morality called for the opposite type of behavior. Most evidence suggests that in addition to the obvious hygienic benefits of the baths, their applications were highly varied, and they were used primarily for physical and intellectual cultural activities. In modern times the baths inspired writers and visual artists and were even used as movie sets, but in their time they were fundamentally practical, and their recreational aspects tended to be on a high level.


Cary, M., and H. H. Scullard. 1975 [1935]. A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine. London: Macmillan.

Lanciani, Rodolfo. 1979 [1897]. The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome. New York: Bell.

Yegül, Fikret. 1992. Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

                                        Lee Fontanella


Public bathhouses, or hammams, are predominant in the Arab-Islamic world. A hammam is made up of mosaic floors and three tiled rooms, each offering a different level of heat and steam. They are called steam baths in Arabic, or Turkish baths in English.

Aakand (1978), Dow (1996), and Ecohard and Le Coeur (1942–1943) have noted that although hammams were modeled on Greco-Roman baths, it is with the advent of Islam that hammams gained prominence and acquired a new significance. It was after the Prophet Muhammad's recommendation that hammams multiplied and became second only to mosques. The prophet's "Hadith," which means "hygiene is part of faith," played a great role in inscribing the ritual of cleanliness where the faithful performed their prescribed ablutions before prayers; therefore, frequenting hammams became a prelude to entering the mosque.

Dow (1996), Al-Ghazali (1999), and Ecochard and Le Coeur (1942–1943) agree that the first and oldest Islamic hammams were in Syria, capital of the Umayyad Empire at the time, where a number of Syrian bathhouses have been preserved as historic monuments (Kayyal 1986). Ibn Khaldun mentions the existence of thousands of hammams during the reign of the Abbassid Caliph Al-Ma'mun (Ibn Khaldun n.d.) who chose Baghdad as his capital.

Hammams have seldom been seen as a source of profit. Their owners are often considered altruistic people since they allow people to purify their bodies and souls after sexual acts, "wash their bones" as the expression goes, and prepare to enter mosques (Ecochard and Le Coeur 1942–1943). There are several maintenance workers for each hammam. Dallaak, or kassal, is the masseuse who scrubs and washes bathers' bodies.

During the early days, there was much emphasis on covering one's private parts and not allowing any masseuse to clean them or touch them (Al-Ghazali 1999). The dark rooms and hot water served two functions; they cleanse the body and remind the bathers of hell's heat and thus make them closer to their God (Al-Ghazali 1999).

At the dawn of Islam, women were forbidden from entering hammams unless they were pregnant, ill, or done menstruating for the month (Munawi 1987). On Muhammad's recommendation, men were not to accompany their wives to the hammam (Al-Ghazali 1999) lest they engaged in depraved sexual acts (Munawi 1987). In the early twenty-first century, the bride and the groom have to go to the hammam before their wedding day. It is also customary for women to bathe forty days after giving birth.

Throughout the Arab world, each small neighborhood has at least one hammam. Whereas men's main forums are cafes, women's forums remain the hammams, which have evolved into beautification centers and social clubs where women bond with each other whether or not they have previously known each other. Hammams have become crucial to women particularly because many laws have been established to curtail their movement. Women bathers socialize with their friends during entire afternoons and exchange secrets far from men's gazes. They bring with them dried fruits and sweets that they share with the tenants and workers of the hammam (Ecochard and Le Coeur 1942–1943). The hammam is also the best social forum where mothers scrutinize unsuspecting potential brides for their sons. Kayyal (1986) and Aaland (1978) have noted that the mother would provide a thorough visual examination of the likely bride and memorize the minutest details about her breath, walk, and even the smoothness or roughness of her skin.

Entering the hammam is a defining moment in a man's childhood. When he reaches the age of seven, he is no longer allowed to accompany his mother or other women to the hammam. He is then entrusted to the company of his father, uncle, or a close adult male. Men rush to hammams on the eve of religious holidays and on Fridays at dawn before the prayers. Hammams have been known to be a sanctuary for the homeless and the poor and certain individuals stricken by illnesses (Ecochard and Le Coeur 1942–1943).

In the 1960s and 1970s, a hammam site was shared by men and women at different times of the day. Women could use hammams generally after midday prayers and afternoons (Ecochard and Le Coeur 1942–1943). In the early twenty-first century men and women have their own hammams where they could bathe day and night. Sometimes, affluent men or women rent an entire hammam and invite their close friends and families for a celebration.

In the Islamic tradition, using hammams has been associated with healing and curing a number of illnesses, such as indigestion, exhaustion, and diarrhea (Munawi 1987). One of the main drawbacks to going to hammams is loss of appetite. Arabic poetry is laden with chanting the rewards of going to the hammam where steaming naked bodies arouse pleasure seekers. Some equated a trip to the hammam to a long day of lasting desire. It is attributed to Abu Jaafar, a poet from Seville, courting a handsome young man in the hammam (Munawi 1987).

Though the hammam is entrenched in the Islamic tradition, baths in modern homes have lessened the number of hammams' clients, particularly among the wealthy.


Aaland, Mikkel. 1978. Sweat: The Illustrated History and Description of the Finnish Sauna, Russian Bania, Islamic Hammam, Japanese Mushi-buro, Mexican Temescal, and American Indian & Eskimo Sweatlodge. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press.

Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid. 1999. Ihya' ulum al-Din [The Revival of the Religious Sciences]. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar-al-Fikr.

Dow, Martin. 1996. The Islamic Baths of Palestine. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Ecochard, Michel, and Claude Le Coeur. 1942–1943. Les bains de Damas; monographies architecturales. Beyrouth, Lebanon: Institut français de Damas.

Ibn Khaldun, Abd-arahman. n.d. Al-Muqaddimah [An Introduction to History]. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Fikr.

Kayyal, Munir. 1986. Al-Hammamat al-Dimashqiyah [Damascus Baths]. Damascus, Syria: Matba'at Ibn Khaldun.

Manderscheid, Hubertus. 2004. Ancient Baths and Bathing: A Bibliography for the Years 1988–2001. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archeology.

Munawi, Abdalrauf ibn Tajal Arifin. 1987. Nuzhah al-zahiya fi ahkam alhammam al-shari'yah wa-al-tibbiyah [Promenade/Excursion of the Vainglorious in the Rules of the Hammam'a Medical Jurisprudence], ed. and intro. Abdal-Hamid Salih Hamdan. Al-Qahirah, Egypt: al-Dar al-Misriyah al-Lubnaniyah.

                                          Hamid Bahri


Public bathing was strongly discouraged in the early Middle Ages by such Christian moralists as Jerome. Nevertheless, it remained a common practice. Medieval illustrations of people in public baths are not infrequent and bathing seems to have been a social activity, involving both sexes, who, at times, banqueted and exchanged intimacies. Some baths allocated separate bathing days to men and women; however, such a separation is not seen in all drawings. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, public baths were a common place for sexual encounters: men and women as well as men and men, women and women, and men and boys, although the last is rarely talked about in the early twenty-first century. Michael Rocke notes of fifteenth-century Florence: "Many men and boys consummated their sexual relationships … in the several public baths spread across the city" (1996, p. 160) in a sexual culture in which roles were based on a hierarchical model of male sexual relations strictly defined by age, in which boys were passive and those older were active. While the sociability of the public baths was distinctly different from the sociability of the brothel, the baths were often used for prostitution. A blurring of lines may have been facilitated in the fourteenth century, when cities such as London tried to segregate prostitution by banishing it to areas outside the city where "stews" and bathhouses were found. From the fourteenth century, the term stew—another word for a bathhouse with hot baths—also became slang for brothel, as did bagnios (similar to modern Turkish baths) in the sixteenth century.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, public baths as places of pleasure and encounter fell out of fashion until the nineteenth century when bathhouse culture experienced a revitalization among Western cultures, particularly in Australia, New Zealand, and North America. Several factors contributed to this boom: the discovery of germ theory in the 1880s; the building of baths for the poor that were often heavily policed, segregated, time-limited and aimed at safeguarding their health and improving their moral character; and the development of curative and regenerative baths which sought to revive the sociability of such establishments as the Turkish baths—hammams. Surveillance hampered, but did not prevent, opportunities for sexual encounters.

By the late nineteenth century, some bathhouses within such cities as New York and Sydney were known to tolerate sex between men. In the early twentieth century, when bathhouse patronage declined due to the emergence of private bathrooms, proprietors saw benefit in actively supporting the use of public baths as sites for furtive sexual encounters between men. These bathhouses were distinct from baths which just tolerated sex between men, in that their management excluded non-gay customers and safeguarded—rather than merely tolerated—homosexual activity.

In the later 1960s with the emergence of gay culture, a new generation of bathhouses became established as major gay institutions. In addition to standard cubicles and baths, other spaces such as theaters, restaurants, specialist rooms, mirrors, porn rooms, and mazes were introduced to foster sexual experimentation and exploration, as well as cultural and social activities. Such places as New York's Continental Baths and Sydney's Roman Baths were renowned for opulent interiors dripping with ferns—and men. Although designed for men, these baths would, on occasion, have women-only nights. In these new environments, Michel Foucault, among others, saw a potential starting point for the development of a culture that could invent new ways of relating, types of existence, types of values, types of exchanges between individuals that had been impossible within the world outside the baths at that time; a culture in which sexuality and pleasure were imbedded in sociability in a similar way to that which had existed in the Roman thermes.

The arrival of AIDS in the 1980s represented a possible crisis point in the acceptance of gay bathhouses, not only by authorities but by patrons themselves. Baths in the United States were closed in the belief that they spread contagion. Baths in other countries such as Australia and Belgium, however, continued to flourish and remained open on the basis that, if properly managed and designed, they could operate as venues for the practice of safe sex and dissemination of safe sex education. During the 1990s, this approach in Sydney, Australia, resulted in formal legal recognition of the importance of bathhouses to the city's sexual culture, and recognition of the distinct consensual environment they provided for male sexual encounters severing the blurring of lines between the sociability of the brothel and bathhouses that emerged in the Middle Ages.


Bell, Arthur. 1978. "The Gay Bath Life Gets Respectability." In Lavender Culture, ed. Karla Jay and Allen Young, 77-84. New York: Jove Publications.

Berube, Allan. 1996. "The History of Gay Bathhouses." In Policing Public Sex: Queer Politics and the Future of AIDS Activism, ed. Ephen Glenn Colter, et al., 187-220. Boston: South End Press.

Bolton, Ralph; John Vincke; and Rudolf Mak. 1994. "Gay Baths Revisited: An Empirical Analysis." GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 1 (3): 255-273.

Chauncey, George. 1994. "The Social World of the Baths." In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940, 207-227. New York: Basic Books.

Gallagher, Bob; Alexander Wilson; and Michel Foucault. 1984. "An Interview: Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity." The Advocate Los Angeles, California 400 (August): 26-30, 58.

Halperin, David. 1995. Saint Foucault. Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. 1996. Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England. New York: Oxford University Press.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. 2005. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others. New York: Routledge.

Prior, Jason. 2005. "Sydney Gay Saunas 1967–2000: Fights for Civic Acceptance and Experiences beyond the Threshold." Ph.D. dissertation, University of New South Wales.

Rocke, Michael. 1996. Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rumaker, Michael. 1979. A Day and Night at the Baths. Bolinas, CA: Grey Fox Press.

Styles, Joseph. 1979. "Outsider/Insider: Researching Gay Baths." Urban Life: A Journal of Ethnographic Research 8 (2): 135-153.

Weinberg, Martin, and Colin Williams. 1975. "Gay Baths and the Social Organization of Impersonal Sex." Social Problems: Official Journal of the Society for the Study of Social Problems 23 (2): 124-136.

                                               Jason Prior