How Clean Were The Romans?

Bathing

Most of us have heard the famous tales of the Romans enjoying large, group bathing sessions. Hundreds of people, or even whole communities all bathed together at the same time in the same water. Roman houses water was supplied through lead pipes. The pipes were taxed based upon size so many Romans chose not to have water piped to their homes, instead choosing to regularly attending the local baths and save themselves some money.  Bathing was seen as a social activity as well as a means of keeping clean.  Bath Houses popped up across the Roman Empire.  Some can still be seen even in the UK.

First they’d get changed and oil their bodies.  Then they’d take part in some exercise like weight-lifting, running, wrestling or swimming.  After exercise, the oil and dirt was scraped off them using a tool called strigil.  After this, the Romans would start in the tepidarium (a warm room), then move onto the caldarium (a very hot pool) and finish in the frigidarium (the cold room)

How Clean Were The Romans?

The Science

The Romans designed a heating system called the hypocaust. The grounds of the bath houses were built on pillars leaving a space below the floor and inside of the walls. The filled this space with hot air from a furnace and this heated the room.  The more fuel they added the hotter it would get.  In some of the hottest rooms people needed to wear special sandals to guard their feet from the burning hot floor tiles.

They used oil to remove grime which, unlike soap that forms a lather with water and is rinsed off, had to be scraped off. At first glance, the strigil looks a bit like a clasp-knife.  It has a handle and a gently curved blade (to accommodate the curves of the body). The handle was usually made of another material like bone or ivory. After bathing, the Romans often went walking in the gardens of the bath house, enjoyed some food and drink, or read in the on-site library. Bath houses were designed to be luxurious and relaxing places to spend time. They had tall ceilings, mosaics and they allowed in a lot of natural light to really make the surroundings pleasant and enjoyable.

Cleansers vs. Soap

Let’s remember that olive oil is fat, and if you really consider it soap these days is just processed fat. So the Romans were actually cleaning themselves in a sanitary way. Later on the invention of soap came from fat from slaughtered animals – so I’d say the Romans had the right idea!  I’d rather rub myself in olive oil when you put it like that! Soap soon became widely known in Roman times, but it’s unclear whether they learned about its use and manufacture from the ancient Mediterranean people, from the Celts or the inhabitants of Britannia.  Soap, or ‘saipo’ as it was named by the Celts was used for both washing and for cleaning surfaces and was initially made from either animal fat or plant ashes – imagine using those products for your office cleaning now!

Clothing

The people that cleaned Roman clothing were called fullers, washers or scourers of cloth and linen. They lifted the dirt from the clothes using urine!  They had wooden buckets outside houses that anyone could urinate into, and when the bucket was full the clothes would go into the bucket to soak. The Romans generally wore woolly dresses or togas that were light in colour.  They needed washing often, not just because of the colour but also because there was a hot climate across much of the Empire.

The clothes were first washed in large vats where they were trodden upon and stamped by the feet of the fullers. After they’d been washed, they were hung to dry in the street. Once dry, the wool was brushed with the skin of a hedgehog, or even a thistle plant. Then to finish the process, they put a fine white earth, called Cimolian, onto the cloth to increase its whiteness.