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Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity.

From Caerleon to Dura Europos on the Euphrates the stumps of Roman baths punctuate the landscape. Some were Leviathan buildings: each of the great imperial baths at Rome covered 25 acres, the area of a large village. Yet although these ubiquitous ruins are amongst the most lasting signs of Roman civilization, it is hard to reconcile their rough concrete and rubble remnants with their original function as places of relaxation, leisure and sensuality, and all too easy to short-circuit to the Victorian fantasies of Alma Tadema. FIKRET YEGUL's Baths and bathing in Classical antiquity (i+501 pages, 506 figures. 1992. New York (NY). Architectural History Foundation; ISBN 0-262-24035-1 hardback |pounds~58.50) sets out to reconcile the physical remains with ancient practices. As an architect, architectural historian, and native of the one part of the world that has inherited public baths directly from antiquity (in the form of the Turkish hamam), YEGUL is uniquely suited to make this link. Woven together here are an exploration of the significance of bathing as a social institution and a beautifully illustrated technical and architectural study of the bath house as a built structure and space. Baths emerge as foci of both stylistic and social change. Vaulting, domes and concrete found early application here, whilst responses to the social practices within were central to changing Late Antique attitudes to the human body. Baths seem to have weathered the latter revolution, albeit with a shift in role and design (exemplified by the withering of the Classical emphasis on exercise, represented by the attached palaestra). Despite St Jerome's pungent comment, 'He who has once bathed in Christ has no need of a second bath', there were still in his day 856 baths in Rome alone, and bathing survived to became a feature of the first Islamic societies; the future Caliph Walid II's frolics in a pool of wine equal anything in Suetonius. This book has its flaws. In its treatment of Classical sources the scholarship could at times be heavier-weight, and there are some notably unfortunate errata (placing the Umayyad baths at Khirbat al Mafjar, near Jericho, in Syria seems politically tendentious). But overall this is a remarkable book, and a pioneering one.
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Author:Broodbank, Cyprian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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