The History Of The Spa

by : Flash Gordon

For the western world the earliest proponent of the spa for therapeutic purposes was Hippocrates (460-370 BC). Before that time bathing was used mainly for cleansing and hygienic reasons. However Hippocrates put forth the idea that the cause of all diseases centered around an imbalance of bodily fluids.

Considered the "Father of Medicine," suggested perspiration, walking, massage and bathing important to maintain balance in ones physical body. Consequently, baths were often combined with sports and education. If he were alive today the doctors of the world would be hogging all his time but in fact he more likely would be at home as a fitness guru selling health club memberships.

It was this influence of the Greeks that caused the Romans to build thermal baths at mineral and natural hot springs. These spas were used for the recuperation of injured soldiers as well as recreation centers. Differing from their Greek predecessors the Romans felt that the baths themselves were more important than the gymnasiums. Whereas the Greeks liked to partake of the spa after a vigorous workout, the Romans focused on the relaxation, socializing and medical treatments. I like to think that the reason the Romans lasted as long as they did was because of they placed such importance on the spa.

More than just coming clean, the Romans made the spa experience a part of their society for medical treatment, worship and social gathering. Asclepiades, a Greek physician who worked in Rome, prescribed hydrotherapy for both therapeutic and preventative purposes. There were others that attributed healing and health to taking the waters such as Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) and Galen (131-201 AD). Galen preferred cold water in his treatment of diseases so as Americans we would consider his therapy sessions, "fun impaired."

From Rome we have three separate types of bath. Baths at home (balnea), Private Baths (balnea privata), and state funded public baths (balnea publica). The aqueducts provided enough water so that every person in Rome could use 1400 liters per day. At the height of the Roman bathing culture these public bathing facilities grew into huge complexes with the capacity for thousands of people.

This focus of the bath was such an important part of the Roman society that everywhere the legions went they built their own in every land they conquered. We can find examples all over Europe as a testament to value they gave water therapy.

Eventually the Romans became more focused on the bath for relaxation and pleasure. Not that pleasure is a bad thing but if you don't get out of the spa once and a while to take care of business we know from history that it could lead to the collapse of your empire.

Believe it or not the rise of Christianity was also the decline of the bathing culture. You can't really blame the Christians though since by this time the baths had fallen from their place of the healthy lifestyle to true dens of iniquity. The Dark Ages were not only dark, they also smelled pretty bad.

With the fall of the Roman Empire bathing was officially banned. Spiritual cleansing was deemed more important than the medicinal bath. Some of the bath complexes themselves were converted to churches while some of the elite aristocrat class could still take advantage of taking the waters. The general population became adverse to going anywhere near the water. It was not uncommon for people to go for years without bathing. Makes you glad you didn't live back then doesn't it.