Roman baths, recreation centers and recommitting to equal access

Photo of a recreation center
Stepheng3/Creative Commons

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During the Roman Empire, the bath institutionalized leisure. Typically found near the forum, the center of the town, the bath was a publicly-funded place for all citizens regardless of socioeconomic class to socialize, exercise, wash and relax after a day of work. Under the reign of emperor Diocletian, the entrance fee was two denarii, the smallest denomination of coinage one could pay. More often than not, however, the baths were free to use for all citizens.

For those with enough energy, the exercise room, the palaestra, offered a place for working up a sweat by running around and playing handball before heading to the frigidarium, the heart of the bath. Here, a smelly Roman could clean and cool himself off in the cold waters and talk trash with his fellow smelly friends about the hearty game of handball they had just played.

By institutionalizing leisure through the provision of the public bath, the Roman government recognized some critically important things about our shared needs.

Firstly, we all smell (some more than others) and need a place to wash ourselves. And secondly, we need a place to foster and engage with our community.

It is well known that personal hygiene affects not only our physical well-being, but our perception of ourselves; our self-esteem in large part depends on whether or not we feel presentable. As social beings, we find belonging and purpose in community.

Roman government officials understood these truths and, just as importantly, recognized that our shared physical and emotional needs do not change with our socioeconomic status. It follows that the provision of goods required to meet those needs should not discriminate based on what kind of toga one wears (or, in our case, whether one’s leggings are Lululemon or not).

Our modern equivalent of the Roman bath, the recreation center, is not quite as beautiful as its ancient predecessor. Faded stock photo prints of old men playing racquetball have replaced lavish mosaics and lofty domes. But at its core, the rec center still serves the same purpose and should be considered by its funders — typically city governments and universities — to be fundamental to a healthy community.

Unfortunately, the modern rec center has been reduced to a place for physical activity for those with the knowhow and resources to access it. A 2018 report from the Environmental Law Clinic at UC Berkeley, for example, finds that the state of California — including its counties and cities — is failing to provide water and sanitation to all of its residents. These are fundamental rights that are protected under both international law and California’s AB 685.

Another recent study finds that about 930,000 people in the United States lack access to basic sanitation facilities –– a proportionally low figure, but one that is unacceptable in a country as rich in resources as the United States.

Membership fees at supposedly public rec centers, although oftentimes discounted for low-income people, limit access to the supposedly public showers, sinks and toilets. Far from the Roman bath model of equal access to hygiene facilities, rec centers today focus too heavily on recreation services over access to resources for personal hygiene.

Just as importantly, we cannot pretend to be citizens of the same country when there is no place — no equally accessible institutionalized place — for us to engage in community. There is something so profound about fulfilling our basic needs together — bathing, eating, exercising and laughing. It is in those moments when we understand our shared existence most deeply and consequently come to value each other and ourselves even more. What is government for, anyway, if not to protect and value our shared existence?

It can be argued that the public bath model may not be feasible today. But in a country as rich as this one, there is no excuse for failing to meet the basic physical and emotional needs of its citizens.

It’s time that our universities and government at every level commit to remodeling the rec center with the Roman bath in mind.

William Cooke covers football. Contact him at [email protected].