The conjunction of warm water and flesh, the flesh being one’s own or that of others, inevitably has at least a splash of the erotic. After all, when we call an encounter or relationship steamy, it harks back to the ancient connection between the bathhouse and sex. Stew originally referred to the medieval bathhouse and its moist heat; by extension, via the sexual high jinks, often commercial, that took place there, the word bathhouse came to mean a house of prostitution.
Even so, when I set out to visit some bathhouses, it wasn’t in the hope of a skirmish with Eros. It was pure, disinterested research for a book I was writing about twenty-eight centuries of people washing—and not washing—their bodies. I wanted to understand the art of bathing in public. The ancient Greeks and Romans did it, the Finns, the Japanese, and those who live in countries where the Turkish bath flourishes still do, but for most of us, public bathing is a mélange of exhibitionism, voyeurism . . . and confusion.
Not all my baths were fun. Immersion at the Roosevelt Baths in Saratoga Springs, New York, alone in a tub of urine-colored water that was deliberately tepid (the better to preserve its mineral riches), felt almost punitive. Puritanical 1930s America had taken the makings of a merry bathhouse—the region’s abundant mineral springs—and created a compound of no-nonsense private bathrooms.
On the other hand, bathers in Baden, Switzerland, have been enjoying themselves for centuries: The mixed nude bathing there in the Middle Ages left visiting Italians pleasurably scandalized. The guests at the chic spa hotel where I stayed wore swimsuits in the mineral baths, but not in the sauna. When I stepped in and found myself in a small, hot space full of naked bodies, I backed out immediately, worried that I’d stumbled into a private party. This being Switzerland, I had been given a full page of spa rules, in English, but they made no mention of nudity. Later, I asked for the German version, which included clear regulations for the Nacktzimmer, the naked room. Were they trying to restrict nudity to German speakers? Had long experience with stupefied foreigners convinced them that English speakers can’t do nakedness?
There was even more ease with nudity at Baden-Baden, Germany, also a spa at least since Roman times. At the Friedrichsbad, a grand nineteenth-century pleasure palace of glittering mosaics and sparkling waters, nudity was compulsory for both sexes. And of course, the German spa keepers, like their Swiss counterparts, assiduously regulated our pleasure, with more than a dozen stations—dry heat, steam heat, cold plunge pool, et al.—to proceed through in strict order. For the first stages, before we joined the men in the majestic central pools, the sexes were separated. Somehow, every woman except me was statuesque, blond, and beautiful, even the occasional black or Japanese woman. Was I having fun yet? No.
The awkwardness increased when we joined the men. As it turned out, many of the women were connecting with boyfriends and husbands, so there were many PDAs (public displays of affection) in the pools. The only thing worse than PDAs by clothed people is . . . well, you see the point. While I was busy averting my eyes, a man entered with something that looked suspiciously like an erection. Missing the obvious explanation, as I often do, I thought, poor guy, he must have some unfortunate condition. The face of a blond, beautiful, etc., woman across the pool showed a different reaction—complete disgust. He was breaking an unwritten rule. Adapting Lady Hillingdon’s famous MO when confronted with sex, I closed my eyes and thought of my book.
There’s no bathing at Pompeii, but the Suburban Baths, built in the first century ce, still have a corner of rude vitality. Visitors to Pompeii, who’ve paid for a ticket to the whole site, have to line up for an extra, free ticket if they want to enter these baths, a fact that puzzled me until I reached the changing room. On the wall were several shamelessly bawdy frescoes—a woman, legs spread, flourishing a fish, and about to be penetrated by a man; women giving and receiving oral sex; a threesome, two men and a woman, closely intertwined; and other similarly frisky scenes. They may have referred to services available elsewhere in the bathhouse or in a nearby brothel (baths and brothels tended to be neighbors), or maybe they were simply part of the baths’ sensuous, libidinous atmosphere.
The frescoes, dashed off with skill and charm, were far from what we would consider appropriate decoration for a building used by men, women, and probably children. But the Romans felt differently about sexual explicitness, and baths were often ornamented with erotica. Musing at the little figures, I thought about Martial, the poet laureate of the Roman baths—the “hot-tub larks” he celebrated, the insistence with which he invited women to bathe with him, and the critical eye he cast on the nude bodies of both sexes:
It’s easy to tell
by the roar of applause
in which of the baths
Maron is bathing.
There’s more Pompeiian erotica, much of it salvaged from the baths, at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The museum is a kind of extension of Pompeii, half an hour away, since the early excavators deposited many of the ruined city’s best pieces here. No one knew quite what to do with the sizable cache of risqué pieces that had been unearthed, until the Gabinetto Segreto, the “Secret Rooms” of erotic art, opened briefly in the ’60s and again permanently in 2000. The ethos of these three rooms can be summed up by one of its pictures, of testicles and an erect penis, with an inscription that translates as “Here lives happiness.” The signs use a ten-dollar word—ithyphallus—to describe the tumescent penises that are everywhere, from clumsy pottery renditions to an elegant table supported by three bronze Pans with erections. (The table was owned by Julia Felix, a rare female owner of a Pompeii bathhouse.) I felt hemmed in at every turn by genial, bobbing phalli—they wanted to make friends, but there were just so many of them. The Romans thought sex was funny, among other things, but the museumgoers shuffled through as solemnly as if they were looking at ecclesiastical statuary, and a schoolmasterly Brit was giving a straight-faced tour to a few teenagers. Compared with this obsessive cornucopia of phallic worship, the frescoes in the Suburban Baths seemed even more appealing. At least they pictured more than one sex and one body part.
My most delightful bath experience was at Herculaneum, Pompeii’s smaller neighbor, also destroyed in 79 ce. In front of the Forum Baths, I was puzzling over a trench, and a man dressed in worker’s clothes said helpfully, “Toilette pubblico.” Aha—the latrine that bathers used before entering the baths. Not the most romantic beginning, but that was it. He was compact, in good shape, and knew Herculaneum like the back of his hand. Whatever work he was doing was apparently not too pressing that morning, and I was showing an unusual interest in the baths, so the man—whose name, I soon learned, was Salvatore—kept turning up at my elbow, pointing out a bellissimo mosaic here, a labrum, or sink, there.
Our common language was what I call bathhouse Latin, a roughly twenty-word vocabulary for the baths’ different chambers and accessories. We could talk frigidarium, tepidarium, and caldarium (the bath’s cold, warm, and hot chambers), with the occasional foray into palestra (the exercise yard) and strigil (the rake-shaped instrument with which the Romans scraped off their sweat). It was more than enough for us. Nor did we limit ourselves to public baths. When I asked Salvatore whether any bagni privati—private baths—had survived, he led me to the Casa dei Cervi. In a small, dark room, there was something that made my heart skip a beat—a slim bronze bathtub, oval, with a straight ledge around one end, to hold a sponge, perhaps, or a bottle of ointment. None of my guidebooks mentioned such a find, and I was thrilled. This man was un tesoro, a treasure.
Like a love affair that had reached its natural conclusion, after about forty-five minutes and a full tour of Herculaneum’s bathing facilities my relationship with Salvatore ran its course, leaving only fond feelings. I had to catch the train to Naples, but no matter how often I pointed to my watch and said “Treno,” he nodded and conducted me to new wonders—a fresco in a caldarium, the profile of a staircase, a mosaic of Neptune. Finally, with incoherent expressions of gratitude on my side, we parted. We never got into the water, and said good-bye with a handshake. The steam in Herculaneum ended abruptly almost two thousand years ago, but this felt like the real thing. Grazie tanti, Salvatore.
Katherine Ashenburg’s most recent book is The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007).