Bathing Culture and the Development of Urban Space: Case Study Pompeii

Topoi C-6-8: Bathing culture and the Development of Urban Space: Case Study Pompeii

Prof. Dr. Monika Trümper, Dr. Domenico Esposito, Dr. Christoph Rummel – in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Mark Robinson, University of Oxford, Dr. Clemens Brünenberg, TU Darmstadt

The development of a public collective bathing culture had significant impact on the formation of urban space as well as the socio-cultural function and perception of ancient cities. The existence, location, accessibility, and architectural context and infrastructure of public bath buildings reflect changing standards and priorities of urban planning and lifestyle. Thus, the first public baths (ca. 470 BC, and especially 4th century BC) provided only individual, cleansing bathing forms. In the Hellenistic period (from the 3rd century BC onwards), public baths were modified and extended to include luxurious, innovative, collective, relaxing bathing forms. Finally, in the 2nd century BC, bathing programs were focused entirely on providing facilities for social relaxing bathing pleasures. This final step is most significant from a cultural-historical point of view and required crucial innovations in technology and social concepts that are usually connected with Roman culture. Baths providing these new relaxing standards were often found in Latin and Roman colonies of the western Mediterranean. Consequently, such baths are identified as exemplary symbols of Roman identity and lifestyle.

The recent intensive scholarly debate regarding the development of a specific Roman urban bathing culture has largely neglected Pompeii although this city provides several large baths, which probably had been built before the Hellenistic Samnite city was transformed into a Roman colony in 80 BC (Republican Baths, Stabian Baths, Forum Baths). This project aims at reassessing the Late Hellenistic/Late Republican baths of Pompeii, analyzing them as key features of cityscaping. Focus is on investigating the history, development, function, and cultural and sociohistorical context of the Republican Baths and Stabian Baths.

Fig. 1 Pompeii Stabian Baths - Eschebach 1979, pl. 2

The Stabian Baths (fig. 1) received much attention in scholarship and were identified as a key area for reconstructing the history and urban development of Pompeii from the Archaic period to AD 79 and for reconstructing the development of ancient bathing culture. According to Hans Eschebach (1979), the area was first occupied by the Archaic Altstadtmauer and from the 5th century BC onwards was occupied by buildings, gradually transforming, in more than six phases, a Greek palaestra with individual cleansing bathing cells into a Roman-type bath, notably a refined, luxurious, relaxing facility for collective bathing (fig. 2). Recent research on the history of both Pompeii and ancient bathing culture requires comprehensive reassessment of this scenario, however. A series of targeted soundings and critical reassessment of the architecture will provide new insights and answers to the questions of the project.

Fig. 2 Pompei, Terme Stabiane 1-6

The Republican Baths (fig. 3) received very little attention after their excavation in 1950, although the area is central for the urban development of Pompeii. While the terrain was first built in the Archaic period, the first bath was probably constructed in the 2nd century BC, as part of the grand development of the area around the Foro Triangolare. In contrast to the Stabian Baths, the Republican Baths were abandoned as a bathing facility in the early Imperial period, when the terrain was used by adjacent houses. Comprehensive documentation (drawings, photogrammetry, aerial photos, 3D laser scanning etc.) and a series of soundings will allow for a much more precise reconstruction of the history and urban significance of this area.


Fig. 3 Pompeii Republican Baths - Maiuri 1950, 117, fig. 1

With its comprehensive reassessment of two key areas of Pompeii and its overarching focus on the multifaceted phenomenon of cityscaping, this project aims at contributing, beyond Pompeii and bathing culture, to current debates on the urbanization of Italy and the sociocultural, economic and political conditions, influences, and agents of this process. 

This project is carried out within the framework of the Excellence Cluster Topoi, group C-6 on “Cityscaping” and is generously funded by Topoi. Fieldwork on site is carried out with generous permission and support of the Soprintendenza Speciale Beni Archeologici per Pompei Ercolano Stabia.


First season: March 2015: cleaning and documentation of Republican Baths

 Male tepidarium and caldarium: before and after cleaning


Second season: September 2015: cleaning and documentation of Stabian Baths; excavation and comprehensive documentation (drawing, photogrammetry, aerial photos, 3D laser scans) in Republican Baths.

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