Berkeley universities

Roman baths, leisure centers and re-engagement for equal access

Under the Roman Empire, the bath institutionalized leisure. Usually located near the forum, the center of town, the bath was a publicly funded place for all citizens, regardless of their socio-economic class, to socialize, exercise, wash and relax after a day’s work. During the reign of Emperor Diocletian, the entrance fee was two denarii, the smallest monetary value that one could pay. Most often, however, the baths were free for all citizens.

For the more energetic, the weight room, the palestra, offered a place to warm up by running and playing handball before heading to the frigidarium, the heart of the bath. Here a smelly Roman could clean up and cool off in the cold waters and chat with his smelly comrades about the handball match they had just played.

By institutionalizing recreation through the provision of the public bath, the Roman government recognized certain things of crucial importance concerning our common needs.

First, we all smell (some more than others) and need a place to wash. And second, 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 largely depends on whether or not we feel presentable. As social beings we find belonging and purpose in community.

Representatives of the Roman government understood these truths and, just as important, recognized that our common physical and emotional needs do not change with our socio-economic status. It follows that the provision of goods necessary to meet those needs should not discriminate based on the type of gown one is wearing (or, in our case, whether one’s leggings are Lululemon or not).

Our modern equivalent of the Roman bath, the recreation center, is not as beautiful as its ancient predecessor. Faded photo prints of old men playing racquetball have replaced the lavish mosaics and tall domes. But at its core, the recreation center still serves the same purpose and should be seen by its funders – usually city governments and universities – as essential to a healthy community.

Unfortunately, the modern recreation center has been reduced to a place of physical activity for those who have the know-how and the resources to access it. A 2018 report from the Environmental Law Clinic at UC Berkeley, for example, found that the state of California, including its counties and cities, does not provide water and sanitation to all of its residents. These are fundamental rights that are protected both by international law and by AB 685 California.

Another recent study found that about 930,000 people in the United States lack access to basic sanitation facilities – a proportionately small number, but unacceptable in a country as rich in resources as the United States.

Membership fees for supposedly public recreation centers, while often reduced for low-income people, limit access to supposedly public showers, sinks and toilets. Far from the Roman bath model of equal access to hygiene facilities, leisure centers today focus too much on leisure services rather than access to resources for personal hygiene.

Equally important, we cannot claim to be citizens of the same country when there is no place – no equally accessible institutionalized place – to engage in the community. There is something so deep about meeting our basic needs together: bathing, eating, exercising, and laughing. It is in these times that we understand our common existence most deeply and therefore come to appreciate each other and ourselves even more. What is the government for, anyway, if not to protect and enhance our common existence?

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

It is time for our universities and governments at all levels to commit to renovating the recreation center with the Roman baths in mind.

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


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