Roman sunbathing

August 26 2010

The Victorians kept out of the sun altogether; the Edwardians sprawled a little on beaches, still well-clad. But nobody had ever wanted a tan, because that was the mark of a labourer. Then Coco Chanel came back from the Riviera with one and started a revolution. Sunbathing was a twentieth-century invention.

Seventeen magazine, December 1959; Flickr credit: sugarpie honeybunch

Wrong. The Romans knew about sunbathing and had a word for it, at least as practised by men: apricatio. Christopher H Hallett in The Roman Nude, Heroic Portrait Statuary 200 BC-AD 300, OUP, 2005, chapter called Attitudes towards Nudity at Rome, section called Nudity in the Roman Public Baths:

“We learn from Seneca that sunbathing (apricatio) was also popular; and provision may have been made in some baths specifically for this purpose. Persius imagines himself (or ‘one’) sunbathing after an oil-rub, presumably at the public baths, when he is unexpectedly upbraided by a complete stranger, a boorish moralist, on account of the disgracefully effeminate appearance of his depilated body. The graphic anatomical description of the poet’s now hairless groin and buttocks which follows makes it plain that the poet had been sunning himself completely naked. Seneca tells us that professional ‘depilators’ made themselves available at the baths, and Martial offers some remarkable descriptions of the results of their work. Even if the instances listed here are extreme cases, it seems probable that many Roman men now felt the need of cosmetic depilation or a healthy sun-tan partly because they were putting their bodies on public show at the baths; communal bathing had become a part of their way of life. [Footnote: On the popularity of sunbathing: Seneca, Brev. Vit. 13; Ep. 86.8; for the high esteem in which a good sun-tan was held: Martial 10.12.7-12; Persius sunbathing: Persius 4.33-41; professional depilators available at the baths: Seneca, Ep. 56.2; the results of their work: e.g. Martial 7.82; Seneca’s sententia at Ep. 114.14 rests on the assumption that respectable Roman men usually depilate their armpits; for the nudity of those undergoing depilation, cf. Juvenal 11.156-8: the poet claims that the cup bearer [the son of a shepherd] who serves wine at his table is not a young ‘stud’ (draucus) who makes a show of himself at the baths, nor does he have his armpits depilated ‘as he timidly conceals his huge member with an oil-flask’; on the importance of the baths to the life of ordinary Romans under the empire, cf. Carmina Epigraphica 1499: ‘Baths, wine, and love ruin our bodies; but what makes our lives worth living – is baths, wine, and love.’]”


Let’s look at those references.

John W Basore, translator, Seneca, De brevitate vitæ, Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann, 1932:

“It would be tedious to mention all the different men who have spent the whole of their life over chess or ball or the practice of baking their bodies in the sun.”


Richard M Gummere, translator, Seneca, Ad Lucilium epistulæ morales (Lucilius is described as governor of Sicily, but is known only from Seneca’s writings), Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann, 1925:

“In this bath of Scipio’s [he is staying in the villa at Liternum on the coast of Campania which had been the home, in retirement, of Scipio Africanus] there are tiny chinks – you cannot call them windows – cut out of the stone wall in such a way as to admit light without weakening the fortifications; nowadays, however, people regard baths as fit only for moths if they have not been so arranged that they receive the sun all day long through the widest of windows, if men cannot bathe and get a coat of tan at the same time, and if they cannot look out from their bath-tubs over stretches of land and sea.”


Anonymous translator, The Epigrams of Martial, Bohn’s Classical Library, George Bell and Sons, 1897:

“You who are going to visit the people of Aemilia, and of Vercellae dear to Apollo [god of light], and the fields of the Po, renowned for the death of Phaeton [son of Helios], may I perish, Domitius, if I do not cheerfully allow you to depart, although without your society no day is tolerable to me. But what I greatly desire is this; that, if for only one summer, you would relieve your neck of the yoke imposed upon it by a residence in town. Go, I pray you, and inhale the fervid rays of the sun at every pore. How handsome you will become during your journey! And when you return, you will be past recognition by your pale-faced friends, and the pallid crowd will envy the colour of your cheeks. But Rome will soon take away the colour which your journey gives you, even though you should return as black as an Ethiopian.”


For Persius, we need to go to a modern translation (the other excerpts here may have been bowdlerised; I haven’t checked). Niall Rudd, translator, Persius, Satires, Penguin, 1973:

“But if, after a rub, you relax and focus the sun on your skin, a stranger appears beside you, digs you with his elbow, and spits abuse: ‘What a way to behave, weeding your privates and the recesses of your rump, displaying your shrivelled vulva to the public! On your jaws you keep a length of rug which you comb and perfume; so why is your crotch plucked smooth around your dangling worm? Though half a dozen masseurs in the gym uproot this plantation, assailing your flabby buttocks with hot pitch and the claws of tweezers, no plough ever made will tame that bracken.’”

This is a verse translation; I have set it out as prose.


Gummere, op cit:

“Beshrew me if I think anything more requisite than silence for a man who secludes himself in order to study! Imagine what a variety of noises reverberates about my ears! I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummeling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score [the word is pilicrepus and seems to mean ball-counter; I am not sure why this is translated as “professional” or what score he is calling out]; that is the finishing touch. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roysterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, – for purposes of advertisement, – continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cakeseller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.”

The 1897 translation tactfully leaves out the second Martial passage. I can’t, on a quick search, find an uncensored translation online, even through Kindle (and am nowhere near a bookshop).


Gummere, op cit:

“Many orators hark back to earlier periods for their vocabulary, speaking in the language of the Twelve Tables. Gracchus, Crassus and Curio, in their eyes, are too refined and too modern; so back to Appius and Coruncanius! Conversely, certain men, in their endeavour to maintain nothing but well-worn and common usages, fall into a humdrum style. These two classes, each in its own way, are degenerate; and it is no less degenerate to use words except those which are conspicuous, high-sounding, and poetical, avoiding what is familiar and in ordinary usage. One is, I believe, as faulty as the other: the one class are unreasonably elaborate, the other unreasonably negligent; the former depilate the leg, the latter not even the armpit.”


We do not need more of the Juvenal.

The inscription quoted at the end, about baths, drink and sex, was on the tomb in Rome of a first-century freed slave, Tiberius Claudius Secundus. The stone was put up by his female companion (it doesn’t say wife), Merope.

The modern bikini was invented in 1946 by Louis Réard. But that had a Roman precedent, too, as the mosaics at the early fourth-century Villa Romana del Casale of women playing sports clearly show.

Similar pose, but not quite a sunbather: the head of the Barberini faun

5 Responses to “Roman sunbathing”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Tiberius Claudius Secundus appears to have belonged to the Imperial household and on manumission took his first two names from his master Tiberius Claudius. He was fifty-two when he died. The inscription refers to Merope as a freedwoman. There may be no implication at all in the Latin that she was not, in fact, his wife.

    How could baths ruin one’s body? Or sex, come to that? Unless she is referring to sexually transmitted diseases. I assume that the Romans had a conception of them.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Romans bathed in something like infinity pools at Hierapolis:

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Dorothy King writes on PhDiva: “I remember a passage from I Claudius where walnut juice was used as fake tan, but cannot find a source for it.”

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Stephen Marsh writes by email:

    “A few comments on the post; there is also a reference in Suetonius to a much earlier historical figure, Julius Caesar, arousing suspicion because of his practice of depilation, and a less relevant obscene poem by Catullus about a perverted attraction to hairy buttocks manifesting itself at the baths.

    “In the period you quote from, the ‘moralists’ liked to have it both ways. If you had yourself depilated all over, you were obviously effeminate, but men who affected ancient hirsuteness were ‘hairy fairies’.

    “Most of the references to sunbathing by men are associated with what they do at the baths: I know of no reference to men sunbathing on the beach, although seaside visits were popular with more affluent Roman pleasure-seekers, and associated with sexual naughtiness by Cicero, the famous resort of Baiae having the same associations as Brighton in the first six decades of the last century.”

    He adds:

    “By a.h. I meant the lack of shaving prevalent in ancient times – this was regarded by Juvenal and others as a tiresome affectation of the antique. It’s somewhere in the Second Satire, will send ref. and trans.”

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Check Celsus, Cicero, Galen, Herodotus, Hippocrates, Philostratus, Pliny the Younger.

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