How to keep cool like an ancient Roman

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A centurion crosses the road. Photo: Filippo Monteforte
09:46 CEST+02:00
As the mercury rises in Italy and the days and nights get unbearable, we look to the ancient world for tips on staying cool.

The Romans were no strangers to the summer heat. In fact, the modern term: "the dog days of summer”" actually comes from the Latin 'dies canincula', the Roman term used to describe the stuffy, hot period of weather between July and mid-August.

The name comes from the fact that Sirius (the dog star) rises with the sun at this time of year, –and Romans thought it was responsible for the increase in temperature.

But what advice can the Romans give us about how to deal with the heatwave?

Go to the Frigidarium

An ancient Roman Frigidarium. Photo: Mattias Hollander.

The frigidarium was a large cold pool at the Roman baths where Romans went to cool down. For the Romans, a daily visit to the baths was an essential social event as much as it was an exercise in personal hygiene.

The cold water of the frigidarium was a great place to freshen up after a hard day's toil and was also considered a good way to close your pores after bathing. The waters of the firgidarium were kept chilly in the summer months thanks to the addition of snow and ice that had been imported from the Alps. Brrr.

Modern alternative: Head to your nearest outdoor swimming pool. Toga optional.

Leave work early

When in Rome...leave work early. Photo: Tiziana Fabi

The Ancient Romans did not do a nine-to-five day. In fact, the average Roman only had a six-hour workday, from sunrise until noon. This stopped them from having to labour during the hottest part of the day and left them with plenty of time to go to and sit in the frigidarium with their friends.

Modern alternative: Create an excuse to leave work early. Carpe diem!

Eat snow

Granita - a delicious way to keep cool. Photo: Lutoma

While the rich patricians and Roman nobility would often have huge stores of imported snow at home to keep them cool, citizens had to visit the snow shop. At snow shops, mountain ice was kept in underground pits and could sell for more money than wine.

Modern alternative: Visit the ice-cream shop and and have a granita -– much tastier than snow and mercifully cheaper than wine.

Turn on the air conditioning

The Romans were big fans of air conditioning. Photo: Günter Fenne

The Romans were master architects and kept their homes cool during the summer months by employing a series of architectural tricks that provided ancient forms of air conditioning.

For example, some rich residents pumped cold water through the walls of their homes to freshen their dwellings during the summer months. Obviously, this was only for a select few and the average Roman homes, or insulae, were probably very stuffy indeed.

Modern alternative: Turn on the air conditioning. Alternatively, if you don't have air con, get someone to fan you with ostrich feathers. 

Leave the city

A Tuscan villa. Photo: Velq1958

Many wealthy Romans escaped the heat of the summer months by going to their country houses in the hills outside Rome. With its restricted airflow, and masses of heat-storing marble, –Ancient Rome was a furnace in summer and the city's wealthy patricians were fully aware of what is known today as the "urban heat island effect”".

Urban centres are one to three degrees Celsius hotter during the day than the surrounding countryside, while at night the difference can be as much as 12 degrees Celsius. That's the difference between a good night's sleep and a sweaty night spent tossing and turning.

Modern alternative: Modern day plebs can book a weekend away in the countryside, while modern day patricians can just visit their country houses.

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