Gymnasium, Palaestra and Bath

The ancients believed that the human body was a thing of beauty, and should be displayed and exercised regularly. Fitness was also required - in women for child-bearing, in men for war. In this sense, then, the use of the gymnasium and palaestra (and, indeed, the baths) was much more "programmatic" than the patronage of similar institutions would be today, the Olympics excluded.

The gymnasium, if originally for physical training only, soon became in classical Athens a space or building for educating the young, as in the current German use of the term. The palaestra, in origin a school for physical training, is generally subsumed as a part of the gymnasium, and set aside for wrestling and boxing. The form of both, as loosely defined in the structures of the classical Greeks, of a colonnade surrounding an open space, did not need to change, except to get more splendid. The typology was only elaborated in Hellenistic times, when large complexes for education and training were constructed, and given a prominent position within the city. In time, indeed, both were generally subsumed within bath complexes - a combination of Greek and Roman typologies that was largely restricted to Asia Minor. For obvious reasons, it was convenient to have running tracks close to water for bathing. By the Roman period, gymnasia and baths were as magnificent as palaces, ornamented with rare marbles and fountains; in many cases, they became veritable galleries of art (Yeguel 1986, 147-52 for an illustrated typology). Criticism of their magnificence is common. Seneca (Letters, 86, 4ff) writes that a bath is thought poor if the walls do not glisten with large round mosaics and if the following were lacking: Numidian marbles, a glass vault, Thasos marble silver taps, statues, and columns. Martial (Epigrams XII, 50) likewise fulminates about baths, columns, fountains and alabaster in private houses. Nor is this exaggeration: a gymnasium complex such as that at Pergamum rivals in both form and effect one of the great temple precincts, such as that of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina, near Rome - or, indeed, the sanctuaries further up the hill at Pergamum itself.

At Arycanda, then, the gymnasium is adjacent to the baths; at Pergamum, likewise. At Tlos, the large palaestra, located next to two sets of baths, was turned in Christian times into a great square for an adjacent church. At Sardis, the gymnasium has a grand palaestra of no fewer than 100 columns in front of it, and baths behind, with a splendid marble mosaic floor in opus sectile in the Marble Court (Yeguel 1986, figs 125f). At Aphrodisias, the palaestra outside the Baths of Hadrian (SB5.5) has a fine colonnade and superbly decorated pillars at either end. The palaestra, in other words, seems to have taken over the function of the Greek gymnasium, and been incorporated as part of the bath complex (Farrington 1987 for the typology of baths). On some sites, of course, there is a mixture of earlier and later manners. At Pergamum, three terraces hold three Hellenistic gymnasia, including temples, libraries and a theatre. Only the uppermost of which had baths added in the Roman period: lower down the hill, there simply was not the space for elaborate extensions (Delorme 1960, 171ff).

Monumental baths

If the concept of the gymnasium is Greek and Hellenistic, that of the monumental bath complex is specifically Roman. People certainly bathed in previous centuries, but they did so in hip baths (fine Greek survivals in Gela, Sicily, for example), but not as a social activity within a consciously splendid architectural setting. The gymnasium in Turkey was therefore transformed by the Romans into a mere part of a larger complex, but not until relatively late. Indeed, the first major bath in Asia Minor (at Miletus) appears to date from no earlier than the time of Claudius.

In the Roman world visiting the baths was a social activity rather than just a branch of hygiene, and every city had at least one set of public baths, as did Roman camps. The largest sets of baths are very big indeed. The Harbour Baths at Ephesus, for example, with their palaestra and the Hall of Verulanus (reconstruction of this in Ward-Perkins 1981, 294) enclose an open space of some 200 by 230 metres. Such vast complexes catered not just for bathing but for various sports as well; also for schooling, in the venerable Hellenistic tradition of the gymnasium. Because they were a focus for social intercourse, just like the agora or the temple, they often became repositories for works of art, and just as often provided luxurious settings for them. Generally made out of poured concrete, which would support vaults of often large spans, the classier examples would be clad in marble veneer and given stuccoed ceilings. Because of the building techniques used, baths were only the targets of robbers for any columns (often very large indeed: cf. Ephesus) which they contained, or for marble wall veneers and floor tiles. Consequently, and because poured concrete is inherently strong, there are few Turkish sites without at least some bath remains; and most sites have imposing structures. At Anamurium, for example (SB6.1, 2), not only can the baths be explored, with their hypocausts, internal piping and stoves, but also the aqueducts and water channels which feed them, and which range over the whole of the hillside.

We may perhaps think of grand baths as a distinguishing characteristic of the ancient world, especially that of Rome. Through archaeology we can trace their decline, susceptible as they were to problems of water supply and sophisticated maintenance. By the 7th or 8th centuries, the grand ones seem to have gone out of use completely. This certainly has to do with the complex of factors associated with the decline of the ancient world (discussed below, page 000), but also with a general mediaeval prudishness which viewed the human body not as a thing of beauty but rather as a temptation. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, people certainly washed, but not much (hence in part the premium placed on perfumes); and public baths in any shape or form were rare (although not unknown) until the 19th century produced powerful medical reasons for hygiene.

Of course, bathing is a social activity amongst the Turks - a passion they probably caught from the Byzantine world they conquered. Consequently, plenty of their baths are Byzantine if not Roman in origin, and many of the techniques used to build later ones stem from the same tradition. Perhaps the finest early bath in Turkey which can illustrate the continuity of such traditions is at Cekirge, on the outskirts of Bursa. Here a bath from the time of Justinian, complete with tiled domes and marble columns, has recently been joined to an uncompromisingly postmodern hotel by a stainless steel escalator - two examples of the continuing vitality of the classical tradition.

From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Building for Splendour, Town Planning, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Funerary Art & Architecture, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey