In December 1307, Patriarch Athanasios I of Constantinople wrote to Emperor Andronikos II (1282–1328), known for his straight and narrow Orthodox piety, to ask him “that the offering of good deeds not be neglected, and especially … that all the baths and taverns in the capital will be closed by an imperial command from Monday morning to Saturday morning, and that men, women, and children should spend their time in the holy churches and stop eating fish ‘which is sold’ by the old women at the seashore.” Athanasios expressed his worries for the spiritual well-being of his flock: Christians were to avoid all those places and practices distracting them from their duties and responsibilities toward God and the Church.
Athanasios’ letter attests to the great popularity of baths and bathing in the Late Byzantine period. Written and archaeological sources confirm the spread of bath buildings in the cities and the rural and military sites of the Empire in the Middle and Late Byzantine period (9th–15th centuries). If there was a general decrease in the construction of public baths from the 7th and 8th centuries onward across the entire Mediterranean basin, it was mainly the larger public baths (thermae) that suffered from the inability of the imperial administration to maintain the vast, complicated, and expensive water and heating systems during this period of economic hardship and military instability. The fate of ancient baths was tied to that of aqueducts for the public distribution of water. Hence, contrary to what is generally believed, the disappearance of the great baths has more to do with financial restraints than the Christian attitudes toward bathing. While condemning the licentiousness and sexual misbehaviour often associated with them, Christians were not hostile to baths per se. The Church did not take a consistent stance against such a popular institution, which had become a deeply ingrained part of daily life. The “bathing culture” was kept alive throughout the Middle Ages, even though baths and bathing as broadly-based social institutions were never quite revived in the proper “classical” manner.
Byzantine baths were smaller and simpler in design than their Roman counterparts. The reduction in size of bath buildings becomes evident from the 4th century onwards, and Late Antique baths usually belong to the so-called “row-type,” with domed or vaulted rooms arranged in sequence along a single axis. This arrangement is exemplified by the bathhouse excavated in the lower city at Amorium in central Anatolia. Dating to the end of the 5th or early 6th century, the bath originally displayed a domed apodyterium (a sort of changing room) and was surrounded by a court and auxiliary buildings. However, sometime in the 8th century, the apodyterium was abandoned and stripped of its architectural elements and marble-revetments. At the moment of its destruction in the Muslim attack of 838 CE, the bathhouse was reduced to the caldarium and tepidarium.
Throughout the Byzantine period, many cities were able to maintain public, ecclesiastic, and private bath establishments, albeit much reduced in scale and with considerably less water than ancient examples. An outstanding example of a public establishment is offered by the double bath from the 14th century in Thessaloniki (Odos Theotokopoulou). Rectangular in plan (12.5 x 15.7 m), the building consists of an antechamber, a tepidarium, and a caldarium and is provided with a water tank and a hypocaust system. References to baths in aristocratic mansions indicate the existence of private baths: the inventory of the Palace of Botaneiates (13 October 1202) describes a sprawling, walled complex that included gatehouses, two churches, courtyards, reception and dining halls, residential units, terraces, pavilions, stables, a granary, cisterns, and a bath, while a rural domain at Baris, close to the mouth of the Meander estuary near Miletus, given to Andronikos Doukas in 1073, comprised a domed church, a domed cruciform hall (trikilinion) with four chambers (kouboukleia) opening off it, and a marble-clad bathhouse (loutron).This description finds parallels in the complex excavated on the acropolis of Pergamon, installed on the remains of the stoa of the Temple of Athena Polias. Hypothetically identified with the residence of the local bishop or military commander (dux), the complex, dating to the Comnenian age, has the character of an aristocratic residence, as it comprises a house with frescoed walls, a domed church, and a cruciform bathhouse. Finally, a large body of evidence shows that baths were also quite commonly included as part of a church or a monastery, as also demonstrated by the examples excavated at the monasteries of Kaisariani, Daphni, and Dervenosallesi in Greece.
This brief survey of the evidence denies the gloomy picture drawn more than a century and half ago by the French historian Julius Michelet, who characterized the Middle Ages as une mille ans sans bain ! Hence, what can a history and an archaeology of baths and bathing habits in the Byzantine period teach us? Well, among other things, they tell us about changing theories of the body and bodily needs, fads in health care and personal hygiene, and evolving views of public and private life. The study of Byzantine baths and bathing remains a largely unexplored area of research, and much remains to be done. However, the sifting of written sources and the analysis of material remains will certainly provide a new appreciation of the “watery” landscape of medieval Byzantium.