Public Bathhouses as Cultural Hubs in the Roman Near-East

The Roman public bathhouse was an impressive architectural complex. It featured both hot and cold water installations as well as a wide range of other services – a sauna and massage parlors, swimming pools, open courts for recreation and sports, gardens, meeting rooms, food and oil stands, and at times even libraries and brothels. In addition to bathing, the bathhouse embodies many cultural facets of the Roman realm. Its space was suffused with sculpture and mosaics, representing local and imperial power as well as the mythological ethos of the time. Magic and medicine were frequently carried out there, along with an array of hedonistic experiences that cherished the human body – from athletics to nudity, from sex to the anointment of oils and perfumes. As it catered to people from all walks of life, the bathhouse became a social arena, a unique environment where social hierarchy was both determined and blurred, where the governing class and the elite blended with the lower strata of society, including the poor, women, and slaves. The emergence of the Roman bath significantly transformed daily habits and fostered far- reaching cultural consequences; ultimately, it became a vital entity that encapsulates romanitas, the Roman experience of life.

Yaron is currently in the midst of research towards a book-length monograph, provisionally titled A Jew in the Roman Bathhouse: The Poetics of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Mediterranean. See table of contents here. Utilizing methodologies that have been developed among cultural historians, in particular in the sub-field known as Material Culture, he treats the institution of the Roman public bathhouse as a laboratory that enables us to reexamine the cultural dynamics of Roman Palestine. This province, very much on the periphery of the Roman world, nevertheless offers numerous advantages to the cultural historian, mainly due to the rich literary output belonging to one of the large minority groups in the empire – the Jews. The corpus known as Rabbinic Literature, produced for the most part in Palestine between the second and fifth centuries CE, holds extensive references to every facet of life. The Roman bathhouse alone is mentioned in these texts some 5000 times, in discussions about every aspect of the abundant life experiences that transpired within its walls. This treasure trove has never been fully used by scholars of the period, mainly due to linguistic – most of the material is in Aramaic, a language which most scholars of the period do not master – and disciplinary barriers. Bringing rabbinic material into the public bathhouse discussion, and putting it in dialogue with the rich plethora of other sources – archaeological and epigraphic remains as well as other literary evidence from non-Jewish circles – will offer a fresh prospective on the cultural exchange that took shape in the Roman East. A few of the questions that this work examines: how did minority groups adapt to and adopt the Roman way of life? What mechanisms did they use to maintain their unique identity? What of their own heritage was brought into the public sphere, and what were the outcomes of such cultural mixing?

Previous Research that Yaron Published on the Bathhouse

  1. “Jewish Bath-Houses in the Roman Period: A Test-case of the Confluence of Archaeological Finds and Talmudic Texts.” Nineteenth Archaeological Conference in Israel (summaries), Jerusalem 1993, pp. 25-26. (Heb.)
  2. “Did the Jews at First Abstain from Using the Roman Bath-House?,” Cathedra, 75 (1995), pp. 3-35. (Heb.)
  3. Pylè – Puma – Sfat Medinah and a Halacha Concerning Bath-houses,” Sidra, 11 (1995), pp. 5-19 (Heb.)
  4. What Happened to Rabbi Abbahu at the Tiberian Bath-House? – The Place of Realia and Daily Life in the Talmudic Aggada,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore, 17 (1995), pp. 7-20. (Heb.)
  5. The Roman Bath as a Jewish Institution: Another Look at the Encounter between Judaism and the Greco-Roman Culture“, Journal for the Study of Judaism, 31 (2000), pp. 416-454.
  6. On Idolatry in the Roman Bath House – Two Comments,” Cathedra, 110 (2003), pp. 173-180 (Heb.).
  7. A Scary Place: Jewish Magic in the Roman Bathhouse,” in: L. Di Segni et al. (eds.), Man Near a Roman Arch: Studies Presented to Prof. Yoram Tsafrir (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2009), pp. 88-97.
  8. Bathhouses as Places of Social and Cultural Interactions,” in: C. Hezser (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 605-622.
  9. Entry on “Baths,” in: J. J. Collins and D. C. Harlow (eds.), The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 432-434.
  10. A Jew in the Roman Bathhouse: The Poetics of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Mediterranean. (in preparation).

Database

Yaron and his students (now PhDs in their own right) Justin Winger and Kate Larson have begun working on a database that would assemble all the archaeological material about Roman bathhouses in the Near East. The work is not complete yet. You can access its current state here.