Some not-that-ancient Romans in need of a bath, in front of some former Roman baths.
When we were little, our parents encouraged us to take a bath daily. But there’s a theory out there that taking a bath may have actually contributed to the fall of the Roman Republic and the slow decline of Rome as a country.
The Romans loved their baths. Bathing was a public activity (unless you were uber-wealthy. Then you could afford private facilities in your home).
Public bath houses (called Thermae) resembled modern day spas where Romans of all classes went to socialize daily. The largest Thermae, the Baths of Diocletian could hold up to 3,000 bathers.
A public bathhouse would be stuffed with amenities, including:
- separate men’s and women’s facilities
- both heated and cold pools for bathing and swimming
- exercise space
- elaborate gardens
- stalls selling food and perfume
- locker rooms
- musical and theatre performances
- lecture halls
There is even some evidence that medical procedures or dentistry might have been performed in bath houses, based on archaeologists finding scalpels and teeth in the drains of some ancient bath houses.
Because of all this, the bath house may have formed a social center for Roman communities. People may have dressed up just to be seen at the bath house the way ladies in Jane Austen’s time would dress up in the latest fashions just to go for a walk.
Unsurprisingly, bath houses were a major export to the hinterlands of Rome. Surviving Roman baths may be found from England to Algeria.
So how did a social activity as innocuous as bathing lead to the decline and downfall of Rome? If you asked a Roman senator at the time Rome started it’s downward slump, he might have said something about people losing sight of traditional Roman values and embracing decadence (which doesn’t sound too different than things that a senator might say now).
Roman Baths in England. Surviving Roman baths may be found across the former Roman Empire from England to Lybia.
But the actual reason may be more complex than that. Around the fall of the republic and the rise of the empire, Rome was experiencing a population slump. Fewer people meant fewer taxes, fewer soldiers and fewer shoulders to take on the responsibilities of caring for the country. Then the republic became an empire. And the empire was only as good as it’s emperor. One too many bad emperors in a row, and you had the empire in a downward spiral.
The population slump got so bad that by the time the republic rolled Into an empire, The emperors started giving tax breaks to people with children.
Now that we’ve put the decline of Rome squarely on the shoulders of the population slump, what caused it? There were diseases, such as the Antonine Plague in 165 AD, as well as women dying in childbirth and children dying young. Lead in pipes, eating utensils, plates and lead makeup also may have weakened immune systems and allowed disease to creep in (not to mention causing sterility in men).
Also there was some decline in population due to Roman birth control methods. The Romans had plants such as Silphium (which is now extinct) that were effective as birth control and abortifacients.
But another theory is that the declining population was a direct result of the Romans enjoying their baths too much. Most Roman baths could be heated as high as 170 degrees. Anyone who has ever tried to conceive knows to stay out of hot tubs because the heat (anything over body temperature hot) can cause infertility in men and birth defects or miscarriages in women.
So the decadence of the Ancient Romans may actually have contributed to their decline. Just, not in the way the senators believed.
I wish I’d known this story when I was a kid wanting to get out of bath time.