Public baths were a common feature in even the smallest towns in the Roman Empire. They were open to all social classes, including slaves, although men and women bathed separately. The baths served as a gathering point to exchange gossip and do business, as well as to wash. Before it was buried by volcanic debris from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Pompeii had three sets of pubic baths and a number of private ones.

Water Supply and Heat

The River Sarno and water wells initially supplied the water to Pompeii’s public baths. An aqueduct was built later to bring water into the city from surrounding hills. The water and rooms in the baths were heated by hypocaust. Invented during the 2nd century B.C., this was a combination of a furnace and a hot air circulation system. Hot air from the furnace circulated in spaces between walls and under the floors, which were raised on pillars.

Bathing Ritual

Bathing consisted of a progression through differently heated rooms. The visitor undressed in a changing rooms-- the apodyterium – and limbered up with gentle exercises in an outside yard, the palaestra. He then moved to heated rooms such as the tepidarium, which had an intermediate temperature, and on to the hot room, or calendarium. A bather finished in the cold room, the frigidarium. Other rooms included a dry sweat room and a wet sweat room; a cold water plunge bath; and an outdoor swimming pool. The route through these facilities varied depending on the establishment.

Stabian Baths

Named after their location on the crossing of Pompeii’s two main streets – Via Stabiana and Via dell’Abbondanza – the Stabian baths are the oldest public baths in Pompeii and the oldest preserved public baths from anywhere in the Roman Empire. They were built during the 2nd century B.C. above a previous construction dating from the 4th to 3rd centuries B.C. Alterations date from between 80 and 50 B.C. and after an earthquake in 62 A.D. Men and women had separate baths; the women’s baths were smaller.

Forum Baths

The Forum Baths were built during 80 B.C. at the crossing of Via del Foro and Via delle Terme, close to the Forum. They are the smallest public baths in Pompeii, and the most elaborately decorated, with a layout based on the Stabian baths. They also had separate facilities for men and women. There was a large marble cold water basin in the calendarium. The tepidarium was heated by a brazier donated by a Pompeii citizen, Marcus Nigidius Vaccula.

Central Baths

Located in the center of Pompeii with an entrance on Via di Nola, the Central Baths began construction after the 62 A.D. earthquake. They were unfinished when Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. These public baths had no separate male and female sections, meaning that men and women would have had separate bathing hours. The heating system had been installed, but there was no furnace.