Sweat, steam and socialising - the West Range bath suite

Illustration of the West Range

The baths at the villa were an essential ingredient in the guest's experience in the Roman era, so to understand Chedworth a visit to the baths is a must.

Not for the likes of me

The first thing I try to remember when I visit the West Range bath suite at Chedworth is that this was a very special place, for invited guests only, of a high social status. Bathing together, in this private space, was an essential part of business and social networking. Although I can walk freely around now, I definitely would not have been welcome in the fourth century! This wasn't a loud public baths with ballgames, food sellers and hawkers. This was exclusive bathing for the elite.

Washed, polished, perfumed and groomed

For those invited in the baths were a sensual experience - the temperature of the air and water in the baths was highly controlled to send skin into shock and relaxation, opening and closing pores to sweat out dirt and grime.

The bath house: A luxurious space with mosaic floors
The bath house: A luxurious space with mosaic floors
The bath house: A luxurious space with mosaic floors

Servants might offer oils, massages, scrapings, cuttings and clippings to ensure the guests came out looking and smelling well groomed. The shared experience and the visual and aromatic evidence of the visit helped to strengthen social bonds.

A selection of tools for bath house grooming
A selection of tools for bath house grooming
A selection of tools for bath house grooming

The hard graft behind the scenes

The remains of the baths hint at the enormous work that others undertook to supply this service.

Hypocaust systems kept water warm for the honoured guests
Hypocaust systems kept water warm for the honoured guests
Hypocaust systems kept water warm for the honoured guests

Hypocaust channels flowed with hot air that was produced from burning huge amounts of wood. This wood had to be cut and prepared for burning, fires maintained, ashes cleaned. The mosaic floors needed moppin; drains clearing. All this work would have been largely hidden from the eyes of the guests.

Servants

So the baths lead me to think about the people of the villa. Firstly the servants. We don't know if they were enslaved, or free born. Or were they a mixed staff? There is little evidence in Britain in the fourth century to help us understand if slavery was still common.

Women

Secondly, the women of the villa, in particular those associated with the owner's family. Did they use the baths? Mixed bathing was frowned upon. Presumably the women came at a different time of the day to the men. Were moments of freedom and relaxation snatched here, from the restricting social duties of high born women?