Friday, January 30, 2004

Roman bathing, naval battles and historical anachronisms

My son called me yesterday to ask about a reference to naval battles in the Colosseum. This surprised me a bit because his interest in writing has always focused on science fiction but I was, of course, pleased that he might be interested in a period of history closer to my own heart. I explained to him that yes, such battles were held and how they managed to flood the Colosseum. I was careful to point out, however, that mock naval battles sponsored by Caesar and later, Claudius were obviously not held in the Colosseum since it was not built yet. Then he asked me about a reference in a book he had read (hopefully fiction) that mentioned Nero stocked the flooded Colosseum with crocodiles. I told him that Nero was dead before the Colosseum was even built but that there were ancient sources that described the zoological gardens of Nero’s Golden House as having pools stocked with crocodiles. I then gave him a background on the Great Fire, the construction of the Domus Aurea and the resulting charges of Nero starting the fire to clear space for his palace.

Later, I was reading my e-mail and one of my news alerts about the Roman Empire brought an article to my attention about the history of spas and bathing which was part of a website of a Spa Manufacturer. Now, normally, you would think that if you are in the business, you would be at least somewhat authoritative about its origins, especially if you were going to post an article about its history. But there it was in bold black and white – the first public Roman bath was built by the Emperor Agrippa (what?!!!) in 25 B.C.. I was a little surprised by the lateness of the date as well so I thought I should check with Lacus Curtius (always a reliable scholarly source) and found the following reference:

It is not recorded at what precise period the use of the warm bath was first introduced amongst the Romans; but we learn from Seneca (l.c.) that Scipio had a warm bath in his villa at Liternum; which, however, was of the simplest kind, consisting of a single chamber, just sufficient for the necessary purposes, and without any pretensions to luxury. It was "small and dark," he says "after the manner of the ancients." Seneca also describes the public baths as obscura et gregali tectorio inducta, and as so simple in their arrangements that the aedile judged of the proper temperature by his hands. These were baths of warm water; but the practice of heating an apartment with warm air by flues placed immediately under it, so as to produce a vapour bath, is stated by Valerius Maximus (ix.1 §1) and by Pliny (Plin. H.N. ix.54 s79) to have been invented by Sergius Orata, who lived in the age of L. Crassus, the orator, before the Marsic war. The expression used by Valerius Maximus is balnea pensilia, and by Pliny balineas pensiles, which is differently explained by different commentators; but a single glance at the plans will be sufficient in order to comprehend the manner in which the flooring of the chambers was suspended over the hollow cells of the hypocaust, called by Vitruvius suspensura caldariorum (v.11), so as to leave no doubt as to the precise meaning of the invention, which is more fully exemplified in the following passage of Ausonius (Mosell. 337):—

"Quid (memorem) quae sulphurea substructa crepidine fumant
Balnea, ferventi cum Mulciber haustus operto,
Vovit anhelatas tectoria per cava flammas,
Inclusum glomerans aestu exspirante vaporem?"

By the time of Cicero, the use of baths, both public and private, of warm water and hot air, had become general (Epist. ad Q. Frat. iii.1); and we learn from one of his orations that there were already baths (balneas Senias) at Rome, which were open to the public upon payment of a small sum (Pro Cael. 25, 26).

The time of Cicero was the first century B.C.E. but an entire generation before Agrippa. I sometimes wonder if cultural icons like the Colosseum, gladiatorial games, and Roman baths are so representative of the Roman culture that authors (and people in general) just naturally assume they were always a part of Roman society so they never bother to check. Now days with the text search capability of the internet and so many scholarly articles on line, it does not take hours of digging through dusty volumes at the library to check out such things but I guess people have to realize the need for accuracy before they will expend even that much effort.

It can happen to scholars as well. I noticed that in the novel The Spartan, Manfredi wrote that Kleidemos (Talos) planned to attend a Persian banquet and was curious to find out how so-called "barbarians" actually lived. This casual comment would seem relatively unimportant unless you know that the usage of the word "barbarian" in ancient Greece only meant someone who did not speak Greek and did not connote crudeness or lack of "civilized" behavior. It appeared to me that Manfredi implied the modern connotation.