History of Bathing
19 need-to-know facts from the rich history of bathing, and one reason you should take one today (even if you’ve only five brief minutes to spare)
What does it mean to bathe like a Samurai? To take to the tub like Emperor Tiberius himself? Or (if you’re after a slightly more modern example) to channel your inner Churchill, soaking and speechwriting all at once?
Here’s the truth: it takes nothing more than the willingness to step inside. Through 5000 years of recorded human history, great men like them (and you) have been dipping their toes to relax, to think, to heal. And much more besides.
You see, washing and bathing weren’t created equal. When you sink into the bath, you sink into history, immersing yourself in a rich, ancient tradition. Here’s but a sliver of it, from Greece to Rome to Japan, in 24 slippery stops...
- Homer (the Greek author, not the Simpson) loved to bathe so much, he was the first person to name the stone bath as we now know it. He even uses a word for bath – “asaminthos” – 11 times throughout his epics.
- The first Greeks to bathe regularly were Spartans. Makes sense: sweaty work, all those wars.
- Baths were a key part of Olympic training in Ancient Greece. In fact, the word “gymnasium” stems from “gymnos”, meaning “naked”. So, it turns out, you really can bathe your way to greatness.
- In Ancient Greece, it was rude to sing in the bath. Save it for the shower, we say.
- Bathing wasn’t just reserved for the living. Ancient Greeks also bathed their dead, in an effort to cleanse their souls. Perhaps also for the smell…
- Heracles (or Hercules, if you’re into Disney) was a staunch supporter of the soak. Not only did he deem it sacred, but medicinal too. Just as well – you try fighting a lion. Or a hydra.
- If Greeks dipped their toe into the world of bathing, Ancient Rome took it mainstream – all thanks to aqueducts. Harnessing gravity, these structures moved water from one place to another. More running water for cities meant more baths. A good thing, we say.
- In fact, by 300AD, there were over 900 public baths in the city of Rome alone. That’s ubiquity to make Starbucks blush.
- Roman bathhouses weren’t just for relaxing. They were also the home of political debate, putting a new spin on “having your best ideas in the bath”.
- For Romans, baths were a public service for the many, not a luxury for the privileged few. This meant that they were open to all, often for free.
- The largest Roman public bathhouse, the Baths of Diocletian, could house up to 3,000 people. They’re now a popular tourist attraction.
- Rome eventually overturned centuries of segregated bathing. By the 1st Century AD, most public baths let men and women enjoy the same spaces.
- The Roman Empire didn’t just keep bathing to themselves (although who would’ve blamed them?). Roman-style baths have been unearthed all across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa – monuments to the empire’s love of the soak. They even built the UK city of Bath especially for bathing and relaxing after a long campaign.
- Japan entered the organised bathing game much later than their Greco-Roman counterparts – but soon made it their own. It initially landed between the 6th and 8th centuries, flowing from their adoption of Buddhism – a worldview that prizes purity and cleanliness.
- Initially reserved solely for Buddhist monks, bathhouses (or sentō) were quickly made available to the sick, and then, later, the wider Japanese public.
- In Japan, baths are so revered that it’s customary to wash before you submerge. This helps keep the water – and the bather – clean.
- Some of Japan’s earliest baths were steam baths, called iwaburo. To keep the steam in, these had no windows, and doors measured less than a metre high. This left bathers in permanent darkness, and it was customary to cough on entry to avoid any awkward surprises.
- Beyond formal bathhouses, Japan also has a tradition of outdoor bathing in onsen – natural pools heated directly by the earth’s molten core. In fact, some of these get so hot that they’ve earnt their own name – jigouku. Translation? “Hell”. Naturally, these are reserved for only the bravest bathers.
To this day, you’ll often hear the phrase “Gokuraku, gokuraku” in Japanese bathhouses. It’s an expression of divine pleasure – an awakening to the fact that bathing isn’t just for the body or the mind, but for the soul, too.
Bathing your way to greatness
So that’s the whistle-stop tour of some of bathing history’s most storied sights. But we also promised you one reason to take a bath today – you might even have guessed it already. Here it is:
Your bath is more than a bath. Throughout history, it’s been a thinker’s paradise, an athlete’s refuge, and a hospital for souls. Who knows what it might be for you, today. Grasp history by the hand. Embrace tradition. Submerge.
And, if that sounds tempting, why not do it with the help of BAVE’s soaks and salts? For a braver way to bathe. And no bubbles.