Cathedrals of the Flesh

Cathedrals of the Flesh by Alexia Brue

Book: Cathedrals of the Flesh by Alexia Brue Read Free Book Online
Authors: Alexia Brue
can deduce its purpose.'
    'What did the Romans do inside the bath?' I asked Dr Christopher, hoping he might detail Roman habits and lifestyle and not
     just their brilliant engineering.
    Dr Christopher informed us that they had found strigils inside the bath. Strigiling, in addition to sweating, was the main caldarium activity. The strigil was an odd device used for cleaning the body that the Romans copied from the Greeks. A strigil, usually
     wrought in iron so it wouldn't bend, looked like a cross between a sugar spoon and a meat hook. After working up a healthy
     glow, the bather would rub a sand-and-olive-oil mixture onto his body. Rubbing this gritty substance on the body exfoliated
     all the dirt and dead skin, then the bather would start scraping the sand mixture off his body using the strigil. The sand
     and olive oil scooped up by the strigil was then flicked onto the walls, where it was believed to add a curative effect to
     the surroundings. Even though modern medicine might tell us otherwise, I would have preferred ancient levels of sanitation
     to the present-day bathrooms of the Rooms Marinos.
    We walked through the banquet room, covered by a protective tarp weighted down with pebbles, and stepped over the fifteen-inch
     remains of a wall into room one. The archaeologists have assigned numbers to each room. 'Everything must have a name,' Dr
     Christopher would repeat six times daily. If you had no idea what an object was used for, it might become 'piece five found
     in basket four of trench two.' Rather than make any assumptions about what a ceramic shard or a room was used for, everything
     was classified according to location. Archaeology is an art that doesn't allow for editorializing.
    Room one, Dr Christopher explained, was probably the apodyterium. Athletes and Poseidon's pilgrims — Isthmia's main customers would pass into this room after paying the balneatorzt the door, who, if he was a nice guy, would bid them the customary bene laves (bathe well!). In the apodyterium, a large rectangular room with benches and overhead cubicles, street tunics or competition garb (unlike Greek athletes, Roman
     athletes did not compete in the nude) were replaced with lighter cotton bathing tunics and wooden sandals to protect feet
     from the hot marble floors. Bathers would deposit their valuables, street sandals, and sesterces in the cubicles. Rich customers
     could afford to leave slaves to watch their belongings, but most people had to take their chances, and theft was common.
    This Isthmian bath was surprisingly grand and ornate considering its backwater location. Yes, it lacked the epic proportions
     of the Roman imperial thermae (the Baths of Caracalla in Rome were a thirty-acre palatial waterworld!), but Isthmia wasn't Rome after all, it was an Olympic
     outpost used every two years as well as a destination for Poseidon-worshiping pilgrims. Like the three other Olympic sites
     - Olympus, Delphi, and Nemea - Isthmia had to have a large bath complex for athletes, spectators, and pilgrims alike. But
     where the Isthmian baths surpassed the other Olympic baths, and raised so many questions among archaeologists, was in its
     enormous banquet hall with a magnificently wrought monochromic mosaic, the largest and most accomplished in the eastern Mediterranean.
    Tomorrow we would be indulged in our only 'digging' responsibility. We would shovel away the pebbles, remove the protective
     tarp, and water down the mosaic to reveal the enormous rectangular nautical tableaux. Depicted in tiny black-and-white squares
     were a small army of Nereids riding Tritons. In the center, Eros drove a dolphin while other dolphins playfully leapt about
     with eels, lobsters, squid, and octopi. The subject matter was standard stuff for a bath situated next to a Temple of Poseidon,
     yet the execution and scale were quite sophisticated. More romantic theories suggest that after Herodes Atticus' younger lover
     drowned, Atticus was looking for

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