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Lauacrum: just another word for baths? How the terminology of baths may have reflected changes in bathing habits
By Sadi Maréchal
Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, Volume 93, Number 1, 2015
Introduction: Bath houses were undoubtedly one of the most characteristic public buildings of a Roman town. Yet, there does not seem to be a single agreed Latin term for them, as was the case for other public buildings such as theatrum or basilica. Instead, several terms have been identiﬁed to denote bath houses in both epigraphy and literature. Most common are thermae and balneum (pl. balnea), but other terms include lauacrum, balinea, balneolum and thermula.
Of these alternatives, lauacrum is a special case. Appearing in both textual and epigraphic evidence, it is often simply translated as ‘bath house’ or ‘bathing’. However, a close inspection of the numerous attestations reveals a more context-speciﬁc use of the term.
This article will ﬁrst assess how research dealt with bath-related terminology and in particular with the term lauacrum. Next, the term will be framed in its historical context by examining when and how it was introduced into Latin literature and epigraphy and how it related to the existing bath-related terminology. Finally, an attempt will be made to explain why the term was introduced by approaching the written evidence through the contemporary archaeological evidence of Roman baths.
Starting from the principle that the ground plan reﬂects the route taken by the bathers and hence bathing habits, it will be argued that the word lauacrum may have been introduced as a result of a change in these bathing practices and only afterwards evolved into a more general term.