Presentation on 'Nudity and Roman public bathing'

This is an embed of a presentation I gave a couple of months ago outlining some issues to do with nudity at the thermae and balnea of Roman society. A bit of the formatting / timings have been lost in the conversion to the Google Docs version unfortunately.



Abstract


With bathing a key feature of Roman social life and a trip to the baths a normal daily event, the issue of whether or not and where the Romans went nude takes on a clear significance. On the one hand it is important for a greater understanding of the social and symbolic expression of Romanitas, and on the other it enables us to repopulate the extinct ruins of Roman bathhouses, thereby developing our comprehension of ancient social realities and improving our (re)presentions of them. In a social context that equated public nudity with shame and depravity, and in which the term nudus had an ambiguous meaning, it is remarkable that nakedness and, moreover, mixed-sex bathing at the baths were both tolerated and expected. Specialised clothing was available but would likely have been localised to non-bathing and ancillary zones of the bath complexes. Roman bathhouses would have accommodated all stations of Roman life. As a point of contact for the multitude of Roman states of life, it was a location at which all nodes of the social graph would have had contact. Far from the admixture of classes precluding nudity due to loss of dignitas, nakedness and vertiginous social hierarchies coincided. Disrobing does not necessarily mean divesting oneself of dignity, and social standing could be expressed by other semiological means: conspicuous consumption, hangers-on, servile retinues, and the owning or commissioning of bathhouses would all mark status without the need for clothing. The mapping of social structure onto functionally defined architectural spaces developed a pragmatic need for somatic cleansing into an alternate moral mindscape. Consequently nudity became the de facto costume of Roman bathing culture.

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