24. Seneca Letter 86

My dear Lucilius,

I write to you from a couch in the villa of none other than Scipio Africanus [Rome's most successful general. His era preceded that of Seneca by some two and a half centuries]. I paid my respects to his spirit and to the altar that I suspect is the tomb of this great man. I am convinced that his soul returned to the heavens whence it came, not because he lead great armies (for so did mad Cambyses [king of Persia in the 6th century BC], and with great success, too) but because of his remarkable self-control and sense of duty. This quality of his showed itself more admirably when he left his country than when he stood guard over it. It had come to this: if Scipio remained in Rome, Rome would not be free. "I have no desire," he said, "to undo the laws or our constitution. The law must be the same for all citizens. Enjoy what I have given you, my country, but do it without me. I was the source of your current freedom; I will also be its proof. If I have grown so great that it harms my country, I will depart. ... And so he yielded to the laws and withdrew to Liternum, exiled by his country in much the same way Hannibal was.

The villa I have seen is built of squared stones. A wall surrounds the woods, with towers to defend the villa rising on both sides. There is a cistern big enough for an army beneath the buildings and greenery, and a pinched little bath-house, dark and old- fashioned. To our ancestors a hot room had to be dark. I took great pleasure in contemplating Scipio's standards and our own. In this little nook the man called "Carthage's bane," the man to whom Rome owes the fact that it was captured but once in history, washed a body tired out with farm work. He got his exercise by working, and turned the soil himself (as our ancestors used to do). He stood here beneath this unlovely ceiling, this poor pavement supported him. Who now would put up with a bath like this? A man thinks himself poverty-stricken or cheap if his walls don't gleam with large expensive insets, if his Alexandrian marbles aren't set off by Numidian veneers, if the intricately worked and shaded marbles aren't spread with a protective varnish, if his vaulted ceiling isn't topped with glass. We want the bathing pools into which we lower bodies filthy with sweat to be lined with rock from Thasos, which used to be a wondrous rarity even in a temple, we want our water poured from silver spigots. And I'm only talking about plebeian fixtures--what can I say about the baths of freedmen? How many statues, how many columns that hold nothing up but just serve as an ornament to attest to expense! How much water tumbling down a noisy waterfall! We have reached such a pitch of luxuriousness that only gemstones are good enough for us to tread on.

In this bath of Scipio's the windows were actually slits cut in the stone walls, designed to let light in without reducing the building's strength. But now a bath is said to be fit only for moths if it is not fitted out to let in sun all day long through generous windows. We want to get a tan at the same time as a bath, and to be able to see fields and sea from our seat as well. Baths that were admired and crowded when they were first dedicated are spurned as old hat as soon as luxury surpasses herself with some new discovery. It wasn't long ago that there were only a few baths in existence, and these not decorated at all. Why should one decorate a facility that could be enjoyed for a nickel and that was intended for use, not pleasure? Water was not piped into these, nor was it always fresh or hot--it didn't seem to matter how clear the water was in which one washed off dirt. My heavens it is good to enter those dark bath-houses with their walls of common plaster, where you know that Cato was the aedile in charge, or Fabius Maximus, or one of the Cornelii! It used to be the case that our noblemen as aediles had the duty of visiting the facilities open to the public and of seeing to it that they were clean and heated to a functional and healthy temperature, not the heat of nowadays, which is more like an inferno, appropriate only for "bathing" a slave convicted of some crime or other. It doesn't seem to make any difference to me now whether the room is called a warm room or a hot room.

People now consider Scipio a bumpkin for not having broad windows to admit daylight into his hot room, for not stewing in a well-lighted room, and for not wanting to be stewed at all in his bath. O unlucky man! He didn't know how to live. He didn't wash in filtered water--it was often murky, and if it had rained a lot, even muddy. Not that it mattered much to him if this was the case. He used the bath for washing off his sweat, not his unguents. What do you think people will say? "I don't envy Scipio; anyone who bathed here was truly living in exile." In fact, if you want to know, he didn't even bathe every day. Those who have studied the customs of our early history tell us that people washed arms and legs every day--these got dirty in the course of their work--but washed the whole only three times a month.