Have you ever really wanted a shower? Really, really wanted? Felt so gross that you try not to move around too much for fear that, say, raising your arm a little bit is going to make the stranger next to you on the subway faint because of the toxins you will release?
The last time that happened to me was when I was on vacation in Rome. If you learn one thing from this column, that thing should be: don’t go to Rome in August. It is hot. HOT. And there is no air-conditioning. I was my own little constant, mobile sauna of sweaty disgust. Every shower felt so wonderful, like the water was produced by angels crying tears of joy.
But as I was sudsing up with all my soaps and shampoos and conditioners and generally enjoying the heck out of the miracle of running water, I had to think about the ancient Romans. They, too, had to deal with August in Rome. And definitely no air-conditioning for them (besides maybe a slave with a fan). Did they get to at least enjoy sweet, sudsy, shower relief?
Turns out… not so much. The ancient Romans did pipe in water to the city of Rome, thanks to the aqueducts. However, only the super-wealthy had pipes running from the aqueducts to their own homes. Everybody else had to go to a fountain for water and to the public baths to get their body-cleansing on.
And even if you think a public bath is not so bad, you have to consider one very important additional item of information – the ancient Romans didn’t have soap. To get the dirt off, they would soak in the pools of the public bath, then rub olive oil all over their bodies to loosen the grime. Olive oil, soap, what’s the difference, you say. Well, soap rinses off. Olive oil… not so much. To get off the mixture of oil, dirt, and dead skin that the Romans ended up with smeared all over their bodies, they had to scrape it off with a stigil.