The saint in the bath

Eleusis was a prosperous town during the Roman period. It benefited greatly from the popularity of the Eleusinian Mysteries among the Romans, as well as the benevolence of Roman emperors. The flat area to the southeast of the sanctuary was reorganized to accommodate a series of public buildings. Fountains and cisterns were added along the eastern section of the defensive wall that protected the temple of Demeter, while a large gymnasium (or perhaps an agora) was built to the south, near the stadium. The bathhouse was built in the 2nd century CE. Its operation was greatly facilitated by the construction of Hadrian’s aqueduct since it was only the regular supply of abundant water that enabled the architects to design such a large and impressive facility.

Saint George goes to the baths

The material prosperity of Eleusis is evident in the impressive ruins of the Roman bathhouse in Agiou Georgiou Square. The remains of this building had always been visible, but the excavations had to wait until the late 1880s, when the old church of Saint George was rebuilt here from its original site within the sanctuary. The construction of the new church enabled the archaeologists to study the Roman ruins in great detail. The foundations were not deemed important enough to necessitate another relocation of the church, so they were covered once more, with the exception of a wall segment that still stands among the trees behind the church of Saint George. The alternating courses of stone and brickwork is a typical feature of Roman architecture.

The Spartans don’t like warm water

Bathing in fresh and seawater was a practice familiar to the Greeks, who used to take two baths in succession; first came the cold and afterwards the warm. The Spartans were the exception, since they considered warm water as enervating and effeminate, preferring instead to spend some time in a room heated with warm air from a stove. After the bath the Greeks anointed themselves with olive oil that was often perfumed with herbs. Bathing seems to have been followed by eating as a matter of course.

Julius, did you wash your hands?

The Romans washed their arms and legs daily, and bathed their whole body once a week. In the earlier periods of their history, they did so in rivers. The wealthiest Romans enjoyed the relative comfort of a warm bath in small and dark rooms that had no hint of luxury. And yet it did not take them long to discover the pleasure of bathing by heating an entire apartment with warm air by flues placed under the floor. The first public baths were reserved for the lower orders, while the wealthier citizens had private baths in their own houses. By the time of Julius Caesar, though, it was common practice for people of all ranks of life to mingle in public establishments.

Aquatic excess

The baths opened at sunrise and closed at sunset; the price of a bath was a quadrans, the smallest piece of coined money, and was paid to the keeper of the bath (balneator). A bell sounded to notify the public that the water was ready; there were various opinions as to the best time to take a bath, but most authorities seem to reckon that the hours best adapted for bathing to be from noon until sunset. Some people indulged in the habit far too much. The emperor Commodus (161-192 CE) took seven or eight baths per day.

Changing rooms

The Romans went through a course of baths in succession, even though the precise order in which the course was taken probably depended more on the whim of the individual than any prescribed practice. After passing through the main entrance, the bather arrived at a covered colonnade that surrounded an open court (atrium). Here the young men exercised, while visitors paid the entry fee to the keeper, before proceeding to the apodyterium, a room for undressing. Slaves took care of their clothes, while the bathers entered the principal rooms: the warm bath (tepidarium), the hot bath (caldarium), and the cold bath (frigidarium).

Come hell or freezing water

The tepidarium did not contain warm water, but was heated with warm air of an agreeable temperature; it was a setting stage that allowed the body to withstand the heat of the caldarium that came next. This room had the most elaborate construction. The mosaic floor was above the hypocaust, a very expensive heating system that produced and circulated hot air below the floor and warmed the walls with a series of pipes. A series of pillars supported a layer of tiles, followed by a layer of concrete and the floor tiles. A furnace fed by wood produced smoke and hot air that circulated through this enclosed area and through clay flues in the walls, thereby heating the room above. Temperatures in this room could reach 50–55 °C (122–131 °F). Patrons applied olive oil on their bodies and used a strigil to remove dirt and sweat. The frigidarium was a large cold pool, usually located on the northern side of the building. The water was kept at a low temperature (wherever possible snow was used to cool it) and must have been a torture in the wintertime, but a most refreshing destination in the summertime.

The invisible bathhouse

The public bathhouse of Eleusis was large and covers two city blocks to the south of the church, towards the sea. It consisted of a central colonnaded atrium (beneath the paved courtyard in front of the church of Saint George) and a large circular room immediately to the south. This may have been the frigidarium, while the caldarium was probably located at the present corner of Pisistratou and Pagkalou streets. A pile of unexcavated ruins, lost among trees and dilapidated buildings, marks the spot where the Roman citizens of Eleusis enjoyed a hot and steamy bath.

Bibliography

Αλεξοπούλου-Μπαγιά, Πόλλυ (2005). Ιστορία της Ελευσίνας: Από την Προϊστορική μέχρι τη Ρωμαϊκή περίοδο, Ελευσίνα: Δήμος Ελευσίνας. [in Greek]

Kosso, Cynthia & Scott, Anne (2009). The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing, and Hygiene from Antiquity Through the Renaissance, Leiden: Brill.

Lancaster, Lynne (2015). Innovative Vaulting in the Architecture of the Roman Empire: 1st to 4th Centuries CE, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Papangeli, Kalliopi & Chlepa, Eleni-Anna (2011).Transformations of the Eleusinian Landscape: Antiquities and the Modern City, Athens.

Smith, William (1842). A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, London: Taylor and Walton.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The stories of Eleusis in your inbox!


Subscribe to our newsletter and read them before anyone else.

We’ll never share your email with anyone else.

Related Articles


The church of Agios (Saint) Zacharias in Eleusis

When Demeter left Eleusis for the last time, she entrusted her town and its people to a new patron saint, whose chapel is a precious ark that encapsulates the whole history of Eleusis.

The “Elaiourgiki” oil mill

The “Elaiourgiki” oil mill belongs to the second generation of industries that settled in Eleusis in the 1950s. Although the only building of this factory survives in poor condition, it remains an exciting testament to a time when Eleusis took its first brave steps towards industrialization.

At the seaside

The waterfront of Eleusis was once upon a time popular among locals and Athenians alike, who flocked here to enjoy the crystal clear water, the pristine sandy beach, and the fresh green mullet.