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date: 06 May 2021

baths and bathingfree

  • Fikret Yegül


In Homer’s world, bathing in warm water was a reward reserved for heroes. Ordinary Greeks bathed at home or in public baths characterized by circular chambers with hip-baths and rudimentary heating systems. Public bathing as a daily habit, a hygienic, medicinal, recreational, and luxurious experience belonged to the Romans. The origins of Roman baths can be traced in the simpler Greek baths and the bathing facilities of the Greek gymnasium and palaestra, as well as the farm traditions of rural Italy. The earliest Roman baths (balneae), which show the mastery of floor and wall heating, and a planning system based on controlled and graded heating of spaces, emerged in Latium and Campania by the early 2nd century bce. There is little doubt that bathing as an ultimate luxurious experience was epitomized by the imperial thermae first developed in Rome and spread to the provinces. These grand bathing palaces combined exercise, bathing, recreation, and quasi-intellectual activities in vast, park-like precincts, as best exemplified by the Thermae of Caracalla in Rome. The tradition of public bathing and baths passed on to Early Christian, Byzantine, and Medieval Islamic societies across Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean.

Updated in this version

Text and bibliography updated to reflect current scholarship. Keywords and summary added.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, featuring the Emperor Hadrian’s generosity to an old soldier who was rubbing his back against the marble wall of a public bath because he could not afford to pay an attendant to massage him. The emperor gave him slaves and money. Next time in public baths, Hadrian was treated to the sight of a row of old men scraping themselves against walls; the witty emperor disappointed them by advising them to rub each other (S.H.A. Hadrian 17.5). This politically inspired story underlines Hadrian’s sharp wit and modesty in visiting public baths and washing with his subjects. The pleasures of the Roman bath, indeed, attracted people at all levels of the society in an inclusive, popular, quasi-democratic setting.

Physical and archaeological evidence testifies to the popularity of public baths and bathing. By the beginning of the 4th century ce, Rome had 856 small baths (balneae) and 10 thermae, the latter designated by name (Notitia Urbis Regionum and Curiosum Urbis Romae Regionum). Constantinople by the end of the 5th century had 8 thermae and 153 small baths, twenty-six of whose sites can be identified (Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae).1 Other centers, such as Antioch-on-the-Orontes or Timgad, had dozens. To be deprived of bathing privileges was one of the harshest punishments that could be meted out to a community: such a fate was suffered by Antioch in 387 ce (John Chrysostom, On the Statues 13.2–6; Libanius, Orations 22.2–7). The privilege of owning public baths was not restricted to urban centers; even in distant villages, baths were considered as a basic necessity of life. At the height of the Empire, arguably, there were more baths in the ancient world than any other type of building, including temples.

What can explain this extraordinary popularity of bathing in the Roman world? The social momentum bathing achieved as a daily habit may be one way to explain it. The sheer pleasure of bathing must be another. In viewing the Roman concepts of work and leisure, negotium and otium, bathing belonged the latter. Yet, while otium as typically enjoyed by the likes of the Younger Pliny at their various villas was an aristocratic privilege, the leisure and serenity offered by public baths was open to all. The physiological nature of bathing in warm water, total immersion, invoked the awakening of the senses and a feeling of lightness and freshness, a state of enjoyment the Romans called voluptas.

The sense of pleasure and luxury associated with public bathing was enhanced by the luxury of the setting. Although some of the smaller baths located in poorer neighborhoods were no doubt old, decrepit, and gloomy, the archaeological record from three continents bears out that their praises, on the whole, were well deserved. Marble floors and walls, intricate glittering mosaics, stucco-decorated vaults, polished metal spigots, clear, clean water, and copious daylight were increasingly common for the baths of the late Republic and the Empire. The Baths of Etruscus, a private luxury establishment in Rome, were described with colorful metaphors and poetic exaggeration (Martial 6.42; Statius, Silvae 1.5). In the larger baths, especially the state-owned, imperial thermae, the Empire’s wealth and power were on display. The wonder and attraction of public baths and bathing was rooted to a large extent in their necessity. With the exception of the houses and villas for the very rich, dwellings of ordinary Romans had surprisingly simple, practical bathing facilities, if at all—often a small, dark chamber next to the kitchen and sharing with it a stove for heating water. Public baths not only served the functional and hygienic necessities of washing, but they also made the experience a pleasant one.2

A more factual incentive for the acceptance of the Roman daily bathing habit was the belief in the ancient world that bathing was good for health. In a world where effective ways of fighting disease were primitive and mortality overpowering, bathing as a therapeutic preventive measure received full support of the medical profession. Following the rigorous method of exercise, diet, and bathing advised by Asclepiades of Prusa (Bursa, Turkey), a Greek physician of the Hippocratic School who practiced in the second half of the 2nd century bce, Celsus (1st century ce ) and Galen of Pergamon (mid-2nd century ce), introduced a bathing sequence starting with exercise, moving from cold to warm to hot areas, sweating, massage, and a final plunge in a cold pool (Celsus, Med. 1.4.3; Galen, Opera Omnia, 6.4). Interestingly, this regimen reflects the architectural order of a typical Roman bath: apodyterium (room for disrobing); palaestra (a colonnaded courtyard for exercise); tepidarium (a warm room, or a set of warm rooms leading to the caldarium, massage); caldarium (main hot water bathing room); laconicum or sudatorium (dry or wet steam sweat rooms); frigidarium (cold room with cold pools) and a large, communal cold pool, natatio, for a (cold pool for a cold plunge that terminated bathing).3

An institution that owed its popularity to an unabashed love of luxury and leisure was also bound to attract criticism and censure. Throughout their history, many viewed the world of public baths with varying degrees of distaste and reprobation. Some conservative writers, such as Seneca (first half of 1st century ce) deplored the accustomed luxuries of the baths of his day, begrudging even the sun that penetrated through wide windows and unfairly moralizing “now that spick-and-span baths have been devised, men are really fouler than of yore” (Epistulae, 86). Roman baths were criticized for the entertainment they offered, for being excessively heated, for the uncouth behavior they encouraged (singing, shouting, splashing into pools, showing off wealth), and the excessive eating and drinking they tolerated (Seneca, Epistulae, 56).4 Modern scholars have also pointed out that “general conditions even in the well-maintained and finely appointed (bath) buildings may well have fallen short of modern hygienic expectations.”5 Naturally, with hundreds of baths spread over Rome’s (and other metropolises’) neighborhoods, there would be baths that were rundown, cheap, and unclean. In Rome’s communal pools, the purity of water is likely to have been low, and cleaning at best irregular. Public baths were also the primary option for the poor sick, but small neighborhood baths normally did not have special suites for such medicinal uses. Still, the emperor Marcus Aurelius’ cynical view of baths (“What is bathing when you think of it—oil, sweat, filth, greasy water, everything loathsome”) is likely to have been exaggerated: it represents not the Stoic emperor’s assessment of Roman baths, but his assessment of material life in general.6

Baths provided a convenient place for exposing the naked body in public. Although it was customary to wear some kind of short bathing tunic or wrap, these probably revealed as much as they concealed, and nudity must have been tolerated or even expected in the swimming pool (Martial, Spectacula 7.67, 4.19). It appears that during the Republican period, as shown by numerous baths in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Fregellae, men and women bathed in separate zones that shared services. Varro, writing around mid-1st century bce, informs us that the first public baths in Rome were designed as two separate but connected buildings (Ling. 9.41–68) and Vitruvius, a few decades after Varro, laid down the architectural rule for the separation (de Arch. 5.10.1). Still, mixed bathing must have been tolerated up to a point, as we know from satirical accounts by Quintilian (Inst. Orat. 59.14), Pliny (HN 33.153, 36.121) and Martial (Spectacula 3.51), who referred to the habit as an indication of sexual indiscretions. Most vehemently censured were the lax life styles encouraged at popular thermo-mineral centers, such as Baiae, in the Bay of Naples. Such questions might have moved Hadrian to place a ban against mixed bathing, which was ratified under the Antonine emperors (S.H.A. Hadrian 18.10; Marcus Aurelius 33.8). These rules, no doubt, varied by place and time, but ultimately one’s own sense of morality, modesty, and wallet determined whether one bathed in mixed company, how much skin one showed, what kinds of baths one frequented, and of course what one really did there.7

Among the various ways Romans came to know and appreciate bathing in public, the role of Greek baths—despite significant differences in planning, technology, and usage—remains paramount. Through the 4th and 3rd centuries bce, Romans had ample opportunity to observe and experience the Greek baths in southern Italy and Sicily. It was also a time when, at least in Rome, “the arrival of large numbers of people from regions [Greece and eastern Mediterranean] where public bathing had long been practiced” that might have contributed to the acceptance of baths among urban populations.8 Given this background, it is surprising that Vitruvius, who devoted nearly a chapter on Roman baths and baths in the context of the Greek gymnasium, is silent about Greek bathing proper (balaneutike). Greek baths were characterized by their informal planning, frequent use of circular chambers with hip-baths (tholoi, sing. tholos) and limited heating technology (de Arch. 5.10–11). To take one well-documented example, the North Baths at Morgantina (c. mid-3rd century bce) where an unheated central tholos with hip-baths, surrounded by a matrix of loosely set orthogonal rooms, is entered from a small rectangular chamber heated by a simple “channel hypocaust” (not a regular hypocaust with raised floor), served by a furnace located in a service corridor. A larger, rectangular room features a long, communal pool heated also by a channel hypocaust. Unheated tholoi, connected to small chambers heated by simple (“bottle-shaped”) hypocausts, heated pools, and primitive forms of wall heating by flues, are fairly common features of Greek baths, such as those at Caulina, Megara Hyblaea, Syracuse, Gela, Velia, and many others far afield in Egypt.9 None of the Greek “tholos baths” developed an advanced, hollow-floor hypocaust nor a full intercapillary wall heating system.

Another important line of Greek influence on Roman baths comes from the bathing facilities of the Greek gymnasium or palaestra. In the beginning, housing only cold water washing facilities (loutron), by the end of the 1st century bce, many traditional gymnasia were renovated to include a separate bath suite with hot water wash-rooms and a heated laconicum, the change giving rise to a confusion in terminology between gymnasion and balaneion, the two terms often designating the same building (Vitruvius, de Arch. 5.11.2).10

Figure 1. Schematic floor and wall heating systems (hypocaust and tubuli).

Source: Yegül.

The development of heating and water supply technology was the decisive factor in the creation of Roman baths. The floor heating system, known as the hypocaust, describes a floor raised on short brick (or stone) pillars (pilae) under which hot gasses generated by a furnace (praefurnium) are circulated (figure 1). The furnace (or furnaces), located in an indoor or outdoor service area, could also heat water in bronze boilers as well as heat hollow walls. The space inside the thickness of the walls was created by sheathing them in terracotta tiles with raised corners (tegulae mammatae), or in more advanced applications, in hollow, box shaped bricks (tubuli). The most remarkable aspect of this arrangement was the ability to deliver graded levels of temperature to different spaces depending on the extent of the floor or wall heating, which is what ultimately characterizes a Roman bath. The sheer technology of heating is not the issue: the use of this technology in shaping the architecture of the bath is.11

Figure 2. Plan of Stabian Baths, ca. 80 BCE, Pompeii.

Source: Yegül.

Dating to the 4th century bce, the north wings of the Stabian Baths in Pompeii was built as a proper Greek bath with a row of small, unheated chambers with hip-baths (figure 2).

Only in the 2nd century were these baths furnished with a proper hypocaust and a row of barrel vaulted rooms that can clearly be identified as the apodyterium, tepidarium, and caldarium separated into men’s and women’s zones. A large, colonnaded courtyard next to the bath block is the palaestra for exercise. A major renovation in 80 bce introduced wall heating, a circular laconicum (later made into a frigidarium), and a swimming pool (natatio) on the west side of the palaestra. The planning of the Stabian Baths, identified by its functionally related rooms in a simple row sequence designated as the “single axis row type,” represents the most common planning type in Roman baths.12 Perhaps, the honor for the earliest application of the row plan and a technically advanced heating system should go to the early 2nd century bce baths at Fregellae, a Republican colony near Rome in Latium (figure 3). Divided into men’s and women’s sections, these baths are composed of a row of vaulted apodyterium/tepidarium and a caldarium with a heated pool. A small laconicum has a true hypocaust and tubular wall heating.13 Once established in Italy, the “row type” bath was disseminated across Rome’s Mediterranean provinces with many regional varieties and adaptations. Among the notable examples of such adaptive planning that straddles regional types are the Hadrianic Large Baths in Italica (Spain), which display a near-symmetrical, “half-axial” plan with a slipping axis.14 Other outstanding examples include: Italy (Herculaneum, Velleia, Ostia); Gaul (figure 4, Glanum, Derventum, Lugdunum Convenarum, Cemenelum); Portugal (Mirabriga, Conimbriga); Britain (Isca); Switzerland (Vindonissa); North Africa (Cherchel, Volubilis, Timgad)

Figure 3. Plan of the Republican Baths, mid-2nd century BCE, Fregellae.

Source: Yegül.

Figure 4. Plan of Second Baths, Derventum (Drevant, France).

Source: Yegül.

The grandest of the baths were the “imperial thermae” (a modern designation), which offered the most sumptuous bathing experience. Mainly the creations of the imperial era, where no expense was spared to create a sumptuous setting, they typically occupied a whole city block, or were set in a park-like precinct, offering, besides the usual pleasures of bathing and exercise, a setting for socializing, entertainment, and some quasi-intellectual activities in their club rooms, lecture rooms, and even libraries.15 Not surprisingly, the largest and most luxurious of these complexes were in Rome, some ten or eleven, distributed throughout the city over three centuries following the practical precepts of availability of land and water and, to a certain extent, local need. Earlier examples, such as the Thermae of Agrippa and the Thermae of Nero (later known as Thermae Alexandrianae), were located in the heavily built Campus Martius. Thermae Agrippae, which appears to have been a part of the great urban park and waterway system (Stagnum, an artificial lake, and Euripus, a canal connected to the same and to the Tiber), probably had a partially axial plan. The formal, cross-axial symmetry typical of the great imperial thermae gained momentum with the Thermae of Trajan located next to the much smaller Thermae of Titus, north of the Colosseum, both on the grounds of Nero’s Golden House and intentionally obliterating it. The former, created by Trajan’s master architect Apollodorus, with its internalized palaestrae, projecting caldarium, immense natatio, and a wide precinct enclosure articulated by great apsidal projections, can be considered as the first mature example of imperial thermae. Following the same system, but even larger, were the Thermae of Caracalla and Thermae of Diocletian, covering fairly sparsely populated areas as large as the original colony city Timgad, defined by its four-square boundary (figure 5). A valuable study of the cost of building and decorating the Thermae of Caracalla shows that an estimated cost of 12–14 million kastrenses modii (an approximate value unit)—which was 3–3.5 times the expense for the annual corn needs for Rome—clearly a state undertaking beyond the capacity of even the wealthiest individuals.16 The imperial thermae with their immense triple cross-vaulted spaces and multiple terraces were in the forefront of concrete technology. At the same time, by combining dynamic, curvilinear vaults with the linear praxis of the Greek orders, they helped to create a new, hybrid architectural aesthetic merging the column with the arch and vault. The influence of the Roman imperial thermae in the provinces can be followed, among others, in the Antonine Thermae in Carthage, Hadrianic Thermae in Lepcis Magna (figure 6), West Thermae in Cherchel, and the Barbara Thermae in Trier.

Figure 5. Plan of the bath block, Thermae of Caracalla, Rome.

Source: Yegül after Krencker.

Figure 6. Restored perspective of the frigidarium of the Hadrianic Baths, Lepcis Magna.

Source: Cecil C. Briggs, 1929. Yegül collection.

In Asia Minor, home to the Greek gymnasium and its athletic, agonistic traditions, the situation was different. The traditional gymnasium with its colonnaded palaestra was combined with the great vaulted halls of the Roman bath, producing an architecturally and programmatically hybrid institution commonly referred to as the bath-gymnasium.17 The larger of these, displaying formal, axial-symmetrical plans, can properly be thought of as imperial thermae, such as the harbor Bath-Gymnasium and the Vedius Bath-Gymnasium in Ephesus, Imperial Bath-Gymnasium at Sardis, and the Imperial Thermae at Aezane—all dating from 2nd century ce. Like the imperial thermae of Rome, the plans of these buildings follow recognizable compositional principles and an architectural parti to the extent that the last named three projects could well be the work of a central design office (if such existed).18 Within the well-established gymnastic traditions of Asia Minor, it would be natural to expect a close association between professional athletic associations and bath-gymnasia. A recent discovery of a marble “hall of honor” (a club room, Curia Athletorum), decorated with twelve statues of victorious athletes with dedicatory inscriptions in the Roman Baths at the Sanctuary of Apollo Smintheus at Chryse (Turkey), demonstrates the important link between athletes, games, cult ritual, and baths.19 It also reveals the origins of this tradition as exported to the West: based on the testimony of a group of inscriptions there was a “Club of Champion Athletes” (Curia Athletorum) from Asia Minor, headquartered in the Thermae of Trajan, whose statues were proudly displayed in the complex (CIL VI, nos. 10153 and 10154; CIG III, nos. 5906–5913).20 Combining bathing with agonistic activities, the Smintheion baths, like their many counterparts in Greece, represents a special category of bathing and baths in the context of sanctuaries.21

The waning of Roman baths and bathing traditions occurred across a long period of time and a very broad geography. The political upheavals and economic hardships of Late Antiquity, the transition from pagan to Christian, and subsequently Islamic cultures, were no doubt important factors in the waning of public bath tradition but not ending it. Likewise, widespread Christian prejudice against nudity and athletics placed a certain curb on many establishments although the Early Church never implemented a strict and theologically based ban on bathing, nor was it consistent in whatever opposition it offered. The basic Christian objection centered on the conception of bathing as a luxurious and indulgent activity. Hygienic and medicinal aspects of bathing were tolerated, even encouraged. Furthermore, operating small baths was lucrative business.22 The many ways in which the Roman bath was adapted to the needs and pleasures of a post-Classical world can be illustrated by a growing preference during the late Roman, Christian, and early Islamic eras for what has been loosely named the “hall type” bath. These “social halls” in question were multi-purpose spaces for social, recreational, and sometimes, ceremonial use. In Antioch in northern Syria and eastern Cilicia, they sometimes appear as semi-detached units, inns, or hostels offering safe overnight accommodation for traveling businessmen and traders.23

The avenues by which the baths and the bathing culture of classical antiquity passed on to the Byzantine, Islamic, and Turkish communities were numerous and complex, with overlapping and repeating web of influences. In Christian West, bathing as a broadly based cultural-social institution came to an end by the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In the East, especially along the geographical and cultural divide marked by northern Syria and Asia Minor, the stability offered by the Byzantine Empire provided the suitable conditions for an almost seamless continuity in public bathing between the classical and Christian communities and found expression, albeit in some significantly altered forms, in the traditional Arab, Islamic, and Turkish public baths.


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