The Roman baths are often considered to be one of the clearest examples of Roman ingenuity and affluence; having been among the first to invent and develop the baths, they also became a cultural center and significant symbol of the Roman lifestyle. In Alex Scobie’s “Slums, Sanitation, and Mortality in the Roman World,” Scobie links the poor level of sanitation in the sewers, latrines and baths to the surprisingly low life expectancy of Roman citizens (around 25). Meanwhile, Veyne’s “Pleasures and Excesses in the Roman Empire” paints them as an increasingly-evolving center for both cleanliness and culture, painting them as the ideal places for Romans to go to let off steam. Despite the optimism of Veyne’s perspective, Scobie’s more pragmatic outlook is more convincing; cold hard facts and information are used to demonstrate the unsanitary nature of the public baths.
Veyne depicts the Roman baths in a positive light, looking mainly at their use within Roman culture. Right away, Veyne dismisses the claim that Roman baths were for sanitation purposes: “The baths were not for cleanliness. They offered an array of pleasures, rather like our beaches” (Veyne 198). Romans only bathed “once or twice a month,” as they did it when they felt it was pleasurable rather than when they needed to be hygienic, philosophers even taking it as a point of pride when they were dirty (Veyne 199). Veyne mentions the class structures inherent to the public baths, as rich men always had a bath in their home while all cities had a public bath. However, Veyne shows the public baths as a good thing, allowing the poor to bathe for free for several hours. This was a rare amenity provided to the poor, thus adding to the ostentatious and decadent nature of Roman cities.
Veyne sticks primarily to this study of the elaborate rituals and associations taken with Roman baths: “their role expanded from one of facilitating cleanliness to one of making life as pleasant as possible” (Veyne 199). Baths were often the place to stay warm even in the harsh cold, Veyne saying that baths continued to get more luxuriant with more amenities such as convection warming and climate control. With the addition of things like paintings and sculptures, Roman baths became a cultural center: “Life at the baths was like life at the beach in summertime” (Veyne 199).
Scobie, on the other hand, looks at the Roman baths from the perspective of the many early deaths that occurred. While he denounces them as being dirty, inadequately-maintained pits of disease, he admits that “the Romans achieved a remarkable level of standardization in the provision of certain basic facilities such as public latrines and baths” (Scobie 107). However, this does not help his case against the baths; despite their cultural importance, he believes that the lack of real water exchange, as well as the cultural norms of the time, made them dangerous to be in. “The inhabitants of Rome lived in an extremely unsanitary environment which was in many respects similar to that in large European cities [pre-Sanitary Report reform of industrial waste disposal]” (Scobie 110). By linking Rome to this specific historical example, Scobie stresses the danger that the Romans were in without even knowing about it.
Scobie states that the baths were associated with health, and so sick people would go to the public baths to heal themselves, only spreading their disease further. Diseases like typhoid and malaria were spread this way, and documents from Celsus indicate a late reversal of that school of thought. Unlike modern baths, no disinfectants were used in the water supply by Romans. Scobie also states that it is unknown just how often these baths were actually cleaned, adding further to his argument. Scobie concludes by stating, “Roman public baths might not have been as sanitary as is commonly assumed, and that the risks of becoming infected with a wide range of contagious and infectious diseases in such establishments would have been great” (Scobie 120). To his mind, this is more important to learn when viewing Roman culture through a historical lens, an outlook which is extremely convincing.
While Scobie paints an overly dark picture of the Roman baths, he provides a more detail and facts-oriented picture than the vague overview Veyne gives of the quaintness of the Roman bath concept. By exploring the factual aspects of the Roman baths, and linking them (among other factors) to the extremely low life expectancy of the Romans, the reader learns more about the truth behind this ancient ritual than Veyne’s vaguely sociological perspective. Scobie’s pessimism about the dark side of Roman amenities is a viewpoint that is not as often explored, in favor of wide-eyed amazement at the technical feats of Roman architecture, like Veyne provides. However, by understanding as much about the Roman baths as possible, even the unpleasant parts, Scobie provides a more comprehensive and challenging view of the baths that is more rewarding to engage.
Scobie, Alex. “Slums, Sanitation, and Mortality in the Roman World.” KLIO 38(2) (1986): 399-
Veyne, Paul. "Pleasures and Excesses in the Roman Empire." The Social Dimension of Western
Civilization. vol. 1 Ed. Richard M. Golden. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003. 107-122. Print.