What Was Bath-Time Like for Roman Soldiers?
Chesters Roman Fort, Northumberland
NHLE entry: Listing details for Chesters Roman Fort
Chesters Roman Fort was built to guard the bridge that carried Hadrian's Wall over the North Tyne river. Called 'Cilurnum' in Latin, it was built in AD 123, just after the completion of the wall.
The surviving remains now comprise the fortress gates and headquarters, the commanding officer's house and barrack buildings that may have housed a cavalry regiment of around 500 men. The fort also has one of the best preserved Roman bathhouses in Britain - first excavated in 1897 - which shows the various ways in which Roman soldiers kept clean centuries ago.
Chesters bathhouse: a social space
During the 3rd century AD the soldiers on Hadrian's Wall were encouraged to stay fit, healthy and clean. In the grounds of the fort, the bathhouse contained 'sweating' rooms, (sudatoria), hot rooms (caldaria), cold rooms (frigidaria) and intermediate warm rooms (tepidaria) where the men could steam, wash and exercise. There is even evidence in the remains of an extensive flue, furnace and hypocaust system that provided under-floor heating in some of the spaces.
Soldiers did much more than simply bathe in the bathhouse at Chesters. Research suggests it was also a place for chatting, playing games and even praying, as there is an altar to Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck, in one of the rooms. Soldiers' families were allowed to bathe in some bathhouses, too, which we know from the ladies' combs, jewellery and children's toys found in the drains.
Belonging in the baths
Although we now call the troops in the Roman army 'Romans', many were not from Rome or even Italy. Soldiers came from all over the Empire, joining the army in the hope of gaining Roman citizenship. As a result, many languages would have been spoken and very different cultural traditions would have been followed by the soldiers in all the Roman military units, including the cavalry regiment at Chesters.
In fact, there are records of units from northern Spain and northern Germany being stationed there, and the garrison's population could have included individuals from as far away as Turkey and North Africa.
Going to bathhouses was considered a very important part of 'being Roman', and so soldiers were encouraged to use them not only for personal grooming but also to feel part of the wider community. Their collective identity as Roman soldiers was strengthened by the social inclusiveness found in the bathhouses, and it was hoped that this would ensure that the Empire remained cohesive and strong.
Discovering Roman relaxation today
Chesters Roman Fort is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and forms a significant part of the World Heritage Site of Hadrian's Wall. The remains of the bathhouse were once visible, but in 1987 we back-filled them to the surrounding ground level to avoid further deterioration. However, you can visit a full-scale replica of this remarkable bathing space at the Segedunum Roman Fort reconstruction in Wallsend, Northumberland.