The Romans are remembered partly for their innovations that have influenced thousands of years of civilization. Did the Romans have swimming pools?
The Romans had swimming pools, which they called a “natatio”, as part of their large bathing complexes. There were numerous other types of pools available, used for bathing or relaxation, but the natatio offered space for swimming or having fun with friends.
For more on the Roman love of bathing and how pools were an important part of society, read on.
Thermae and Balneae
Facilities for bathing were widespread across the Roman Empire. They were usually given one of two names: thermae or balneae. Themae derives from the Greek “thermos”, meaning “hot”, and balneae comes from the Greek word “balaneion”, which related to baths and bathing.
The terms can be used interchangeably but they are often used to describe two different types of bathing facilities. Balneae usually refers to smaller bathing facilities, whether public or at the homes of wealthy Roman citizens.
Thermae were larger complexes, usually found in the most prosperous cities in the Empire. It has been estimated that there were more than 900 baths in Rome by 300 CE.
Public bath complexes varied greatly depending on the size and wealth of the local population. Generally, a bath complex would feature three main rooms.
The tepidarium was a comfortably warm room that was used for relaxing and socializing. People looking to socialize at the baths would have spent the majority of their time in the tepidarium.
The caldarium was a hotter room used for the removal of dirt and for skincare. People were rubbed with special perfumed oil designed to treat their skin, usually by slaves if they owned them. The oil would then be scraped off with a curved metal tool called a strigil, used to remove both the oil and any dirt or sweat that was present on the body.
The frigidarium was the aptly named cold bath, used to cool off after visiting the caldarium. If somebody was looking for an extended swim for fitness purposes, they would usually perform this in the frigidarium.
By visiting these three rooms in sequence, Romans would have opportunities to relax, socialize, be cleaned either by themselves or others, exercise, and cool off.
The Roman name for a swimming pool was a “natatio”, a long, warm pool which provided comfortable swimming and plenty of room for socializing with friends. The natatio was distinct from the tepidarium, which was a room for relaxing, so anybody looking to have fun and enjoy a comfortable exercise would likely have done it in the natatio.
Roman baths were utilized for both hygiene and social purposes. Washing was not a private act and it was often used as a time to socialize with others. The larger bathing complexes had more in common with a modern resort than a basic swimming pool, with restaurants, games rooms, bars, and, in rare cases, even libraries, serving as a complete social hub for a community.
The bathing pools themselves often displayed a great deal of artistry, lined with marble, with their floors decorated with mosaics. Baths were constantly supplied with fresh water, which could be fed into the pool from a number of sources.
In areas where a natural spring was available, such as the city of Bath in England, it was used to supply the water. In other regions, it might be taken from a river via pipework or an aqueduct.
Roman pools were heated, passing through a heating system called a hypocaust, which was similar to the innovative method of central heating that wealthy Romans used in their homes. The spring in Bath was a natural hot spring, making it ideal for use in a bath complex and meaning there was no need to heat the water.
To the Romans, a hot spring such as the one in Bath was more than just a source of warm water. They also believed that it provided a direct link to the Underworld, making it a site of religious significance.
When the site in Bath was excavated, archaeologists found numerous valuables such as bracelets and brooches, as well as more than 12,000 coins. These items were gifts for the Roman goddess Sulis Minerva.
Romans could ask Sulis Minerva for assistance if something was stolen from them. They wrote notes, usually back to front or mirrored, in order to prevent anybody but their goddess from reading them.