Why Seneca hated Diocletian’s Baths

At the T-junction of the present-day Via Nazionale and the Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlando in Rome, lies the Piazza della Republica. Glancing up from your Café Latte you will see a large but somewhat nondescript Romanesque building – part ruin, part cathedral and part museum. This is what remains of the largest civic bath house in ancient Rome – indeed the largest in the Roman empire. In fact, Baths of Diocletian is probably a bit of a misnomer, because they were actually built by Diocletian’s co-emperor, Maximian, though Diocletian was the senior of the two and pulled the political strings for both of them.

Diocletian baths

The baths were in part a response to a series of public health crises that regularly brought Rome to a standstill. Rome was built on a drained swamp, and mosquito and water-borne diseases were rife. Previous emperors had recognised that hygiene played a role in disease control, and so, in addition to running water, and an enormous sewer system – the Cloaca Maximus – a series of public baths were built for the general population. And it became part of the daily routine to socialise at the public baths before returning home to dine, or before eating at one of the many restaurants and fast food outlets along the Roman streets.

Little did the Romans realise that while their intentions were sound, their knowledge of sanitation engineering was flawed. The sewer water and the stormwater ran through the same system, so any blockage meant that raw sewage flowed down the streets – which particularly in Summer, must have stunk unbearably. In addition, the system of baths with their flow-through of hot, tepid and cold water provided the perfect breeding ground for water-borne bacteria, leading to a series of deadly epidemics, which decimated Rome’s population. These included malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid fever, as well as various forms of gastroenteritis.

Diocletian baths

Frigidarium of Diocletian’s Baths, Rome

Seneca, for his part, was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist – and was known for writing quite bluntly about life in Rome. He had a fashionable apartment overlooking or perhaps above the Diocletian baths complex – which included a gymnasium, sauna, the baths, two libraries and doubtless a brothel. The complex was built to cater for the rapid population growth in that part of Rome, so it was a busy new centre just up the road from the Forum. And Seneca hated them. It wasn’t that he was averse to taking a bath – hygiene was important to all Romans, but he was often disturbed by the noise. The equivalent today would be having an inner-city apartment next door to a large fashionable hotel which hosted a loud rock band every night.

In a letter to Lucilius (number 56), Seneca observed:

Beshrew me if I think anything more requisite than silence for a man who secludes himself in order to study! Imagine what a variety of noises reverberates about my ears! I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones.

Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional (sports commentator) comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch.

Add to this the arresting of an occasional roisterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, – for purposes of advertisement, – continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cake seller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.

I’ve no doubt we can all relate to the weight-lifting poseurs, the loudly broadcast sports channels and the bathroom singer, and I can just imagine all that being magnified as they try to out-do the raucous din of late-night drinkers and spruikers!

Of course, all that has passed into history, and now a majestic Catholic cathedral designed by Michaelangelo occupies what was once one of the libraries, thereby turning a profane place of excess and debauchery into a sacred and tranquil space.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

In addition to the interior, Michaelangelo was also commissioned to design the accompanying cloister and Charterhouse. The cloister was likely entrusted to a pupil, Giacomo del Duca, as Michaelangelo died in 1564, and work commenced on the cloister a year later. It was completed in 1600. It is likely that Giacomo de Duca was involved at least at the beginning, though it is unclear if he saw the completion. In the end, it was an extraordinary piece of architecture.

Diocletian baths

Diocletian came closest, perhaps, to wiping out Christianity in ancient Rome, through persecution and torture of Christians in an effort to reinstate the old pantheon of gods. So it is with some irony, that the very religion that Diocletian tried so strenuously to suppress, now occupies a building intimately linked to Diocletian’s name.


Hands-free trekking umbrella

What the…?

This post is my solution to using an umbrella hands-free. Sometimes when hiking, or walking with trekking poles, it can be useful to use an umbrella. Now, before I get shouted down by the ultra-lightweight hikers, it is, of course, a personal choice. The problem with an umbrella –aside from weight – is that it requires a means of support, usually a hand, but this is incompatible with using trekking poles, or indeed dealing with using a camera, a phone, or just about anything else.


umbrella mount


Why use a trekking umbrella?

So why use one at all? Walking the Camino in 2016, I found I was walking sometimes in warm weather, sometimes in rain. In terms of heat, I was walking West in the mornings, and hence the sun was almost always at my back. Despite a hat, and the shade of the backpack, I found I was getting a sunburnt neck, and there were times when it would just have been nice to have a shady tree to walk under. There are not many of those on the rolling plains of the Meseta in Spain, so some form of shade is a good idea. It was too hot for a hood, and it was nice just to be able to take advantage of whatever light breeze might be available.

I did carry a lightweight umbrella last time, but had no way of attaching it to my pack, so it was always a choice between using the poles or using the umbrella – so it got very little use.

As I prepare for my next Camino, I thought I’d sort this issue – and researched hands-free umbrellas for trekking. I wound up buying the ‘Dainty’ model of the Euroschirm trekking umbrella [this is not an affiliate link, and my opinions are my honest response] – it was the lightest one (195g/7oz) that folded down to the smallest package. And it was reflective silver, and UV treated so it can be used equally as a sunshade or against the rain.

Alas, it didn’t have any mounting system, so it was time to devise my own.

How to attach it

My backpack has two loops on each of the front straps – designed to run the hydration tube down either side. The umbrella did not have a loop of any kind, so I drilled a small hole in the plastic handle to take a keyring ring from a $2 shop and threaded the keyring loop through so it was permanently on the umbrella. I then bought a set of four velcro cable ties – called ‘One-wrap’ from Officeworks – $7.30 (NOTE: this is also not an affiliate link – just there to show what I used). The reason I chose these is that they can thread back through themselves, so I could attach it to the backpack loops making them always available for attaching the umbrella. The free end of the velcro is then wound around the umbrella and attached to itself. When you undo it, the velcro remains on the pack and the umbrella can be easily put away for another time.

I threaded one velcro loop on one pack loop and another on the other pack loop on the shoulder strap. I then used these to secure the keyring ring to the lower one and the upper one around the shaft of the umbrella. This gives a secure hands-free mount which can be used on either strap depending on which side the sun is shining. It works like this:

umbrella mount

This system will work with any manual or automatic umbrella and does not require any specialist fasteners (or a specialised umbrella).


The result is I can have my own personal shady tree equivalent regardless of the presence of any shade. And the umbrella has the added bonus of keeping the rain off the top of the backpack too, so is suitable for light rain. Does it work? I took a daypack with me sketching on a clear mid-summer day in Australia with a temperature approaching 40C/104F and deliberately sat out in the full sun while I sketched for an hour and a half. The umbrella performed brilliantly and kept me cool enough to focus on my sketching, rather than on the way the bitumen was melting. With the UV protection and the silver reflective covering, it was like sitting under a shady tree. It felt several degrees cooler than the ambient temperature. From this test, I have decided the umbrella is well worth its 190g/7oz weight and will be coming with me on my next Camino.

Just a small aspect of my Camino preparations for our 2018 walk across Spain.

Why not have these posts delivered to your in-box? Just enter your email address and click the ‘subscribe’ button in the left margin, and don’t forget to respond to the confirmation email in your in-box 🙂 And of course ‘like’, share and subscribe using the buttons below!

Travel sensationally!

Have you noticed that when you eat certain foods, taste certain wines, smell certain smells, you are instantly taken back to your memories of a place, perhaps distant in space or time from now? For example, I recently baked.a tarta de Santiago – an almond cake common in Galicia in northern Spain. The sense of taste took me straight back there. It was one of the great tastes of the Camino de Santiago.

Tarta de Santiago

Papua New Guinea smells strongly of vanilla – it permeates all the food and of course their famous coffee, but it is also on the air too.

When we travel, at least part of why we travel is to experience new places, new sights, new sounds, new tastes. Indeed, one reason that travel is so exhausting is that we are literally on sensory overload. So much is new to us: the rhythms and sounds of a new language, the smell of dust and spices and markets, the sights of ancient buildings, the touch of a Roman wall or the feel of the cobblestones beneath our feet. These are all part of the sensations of travel.

Aristotle told us we have five senses. But the reality is that we have many more. As British philosopher Barry Smith has pointed out, science has long moved on from Aristotle’s five elements that make up the material world, yet we still cling to his categorisation of five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.

School of Athens

Today, scientists believe we have between 21 and 33 senses and possibly more. Part of that is a more nuanced version of our five senses, but there are a few surprises. It turns out that our body is full of sensors each designed to keep us healthy, away from predators and poisons, and able to appreciate our environment in extraordinary ways. And most of these senses also help to enrich our experience of new places.

Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

For example, I often wondered why I would get misdirected in Australia where I have lived most of my life, yet in London which I barely knew, I always knew my orientation in the city. The answer appears to lie in magnetism. Well, it turns out that we have magnetoreceptors – an ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, in the way that birds have an innate sense of direction. And these sensors seem to be related to the iron in our nose – we literally follow our nose! Our sense is much weaker than that of birds, but is well documented. And yes I was born in the UK, but came to Australia as a child. How is your sense of direction affected by travel?

We also have a sense of time – not only are we aware of our circadian rhythms (which get disrupted by jet-lag) but we also have a surprisingly accurate sense of time and duration.

Clock in Paris

And of course, our senses work together to build layers of experience. I have spoken elsewhere of recording the sounds of a place – whether the dawn chorus of birds, or a hubbub of a street with the sound of street sellers. One thing I love to do, is to sit in a foreign cafe and listen to the rhythm and cadence of the local language – especially where I am unfamiliar with the language. It is like the music of a country.

I have heard the mellifluence of Korean, the staccato syllables of Indonesian, the soft gentle sound of Khmer, the distinctive French, the expressive Italians and so on. Try closing your eyes and just listen to the sounds of language without trying to understand what they are saying, just the flow of speech.   

Food stand in Kuching, Malaysia


Then there are practical things, such as we wouldn’t get far without a sense of balance, and we would have a hard time drinking coffee or eating sushi without our proprioception – the sense of knowing where your limbs are – to guide the cup to our lips.

Our sense of temperature will tell us to dress warmer or cooler and this is an aspect of where we are and how we experience a place. It also helps to signal to our body that we need to regulate our temperature in some way, and to stay hydrated in warm or dry places.

Our taste is probably around 80 percent smell, and the rest is divided among senses for sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami (the taste that responds to the amino acid glutamate, found in meats). So they work in combination to give us the rich world of flavours wherever we travel.


Sight appears to be two senses – cones for colour and rods for brightness – again these work in concert to bring to life the colours and visual textures of our travels.

Being aware of how we sense a place, also helps to stitch that place into our idea of who we are as well as who we are becoming. As Barry Smith points out:

“Once you have a multi sensory view of perception, you have a better chance of explaining how you are in touch with the world and how we know about ourselves.” – https://aeon.co/videos/aristotle-was-wrong-and-so-are-we-there-are-far-more-than-five-senses

Each place has its own pace, its own feel, its own light. So here’s an exercise for you – can you describe a place in one sentence or paragraph, using a more nuanced description of how your senses responded to it? Don’t you just love the gravity in Paris?

Dancer sculpture seen in London