If in the Odyssey they already washed themselves with warm water prepared on fire, why didn’t the athletes in the loutrons of the palaestrae do the same? They used cold water, which is ineffective for cleaning themselves from the oil and dust.

  • Heating water for a bath can be a non-trivial luxury in ancient times. Fuel isn't free. So just because it was possible to heat water up doesn't mean everyone would've had a warm bath. And then there's ideological factors where taking cold showers were a sign of masculinity.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 12:32
  • 1
    What are we classing as "heating apparatus"? If I run a pipe from a hot spring to my bathing pool/tub would that count? Or does it have to heat the water from cold?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 12:46

1 Answer 1


To answer the question in the title about the earliest bathing in heated water, this almost certainly goes back in some form as long as people could boil water, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of hard evidence before the middle of the first millennium BCE (around 500 BCE).

The Wikipedia page Greek Baths mentions the Greeks had heated baths from the 6th or 5th century BCE, and while its sources aren't very good that time period seems to be agreed upon as when the Greeks had heated baths (they used hot springs before). Ancient Roman bathing on Wikipedia also has some info on Greece.

Baths and Bathing in Ancient Greece, Angelica G. Panayotatou, Proc R Soc Med. 1919; 12(Suppl): 107–121 is an old but authoritative article. It mentions that cold baths were considered by the Greeks to strengthen the body, while hot baths gave tone and vigor (this may have influenced athletes). The oldest mention of heated baths is apparently from the Odyssey, although aside from myth it's not clear when they were used, and historians must rely on pictures on vases as well as archaeological evidence. Herodotus (who wrote in the 5th century BCE) mentions Scythian steam baths (using steam not hot water).

The Development of Bathing Customs in Ancient and Medieval China and the History of the Floriate Clear Palace, Edward H. Schafer, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1956), pp. 57-82" offers a brief run-through of bathing habits, noting that steam and sweat baths were common among "primitive" societies for ritual purposes. It mentions that there are records of the Chinese bathing in hot water by the middle of the first millennium BCE, but the lack of literary sources means historians can't tell what they did before then.

Ultimately, since water has been heated for many purposes (cooking, ritual, washing things, as well as bathing), it's hard to tell if people bathed in hot water (and it's particularly hard to know if this was for ritual purposes or for cleanliness) unless you have literary sources describing what was going on. But in situations where water was scarce and it was expensive or difficult to heat what water you had, you wouldn't expect heating water for bathing; the Romans seem to have been the first to build a large-scale infrastructure for it. (It's worth noting that before soap and hot baths, people had other ways of keeping clean - the Greeks used oil in Homeric times and strigils from the late 5th century BCE, and the Romans also used them widely.)

  • First of all thanks for the reply. There’s just one thing I still don’t understand. Take a look at the excerpt in the next comment from the 8th book of Homer‘s Odyssey, which we believe describes the time around the 1st millennium BC. How come they already bathe in WARM water. I came up to this question while reading „Bathing in the Roman world“ by Fikret Yegül, who sees the effectiveness of warm water for cleaning of oils and dust from the bodies of athletes during the 3rd-4th century BCE as the main reason why people started developing „early hot-water washing facilities“(Page 43)
    – Yoel Z.
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 14:17
  • At this, Arete ordered her maids to place a large cauldron on the fire, for the bathwater. They filled it then piled firewood underneath. Flames licked around the cauldron’s belly, and the water was heated. Meanwhile Arete had a strong coffer from the treasure chamber brought for the stranger, and filled it with the Phaeacians’ fine gifts of clothes and gold. She added a lovely tunic and cloak herself then spoke to Odysseus winged words: ‘See to its lid, and knot the cord yourself, now, lest someone rob you on the journey as you lie in sweet sleep aboard the black ship.’....
    – Yoel Z.
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 14:18
  • Attending to her words, noble long-suffering Odysseus quickly closed the lid, and tied its cords with a subtle knot that Lady Circe had taught him. Then the housekeeper invited him to take his bath, and the sight of it delighted him, since comforts like these had been scarce once he’d left the home of Calypso of the lovely tresses, where he’d been cared for like a god. When the maids had bathed him, and rubbed him with oil, and had clothed him in a fine tunic and cloak, he left the bath and joined the men at their wine.
    – Yoel Z.
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 14:18

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