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How to keep cool like an Ancient Roman in Italy's summer heat

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How to keep cool like an Ancient Roman in Italy's summer heat
A man dressed as a centurion in Rome. Photo: Gabrile Bouys/AFP
08:46 CEST+02:00
As the mercury rises in Italy and the days and nights get close to unbearable, it's worth looking to Ancient Rome for tips on keeping your cool.

The Romans were no strangers to the summer heat. The modern term: "the dog days of summer" 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. Romans thought this was the reason for the increase in temperature.

While they may not have been experts in meteorology, the Romans did know a few practical ways of coping in a heatwave - so what advice can they give us? 

1. Go to the Frigidarium


An ancient Roman Frigidarium. Photo: Carole Raddato/Flickr

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 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, or even better, a lake.

2. Leave work early


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

The Ancient Romans did not do a nine-to-five day.

In fact, the average Roman only had a six-hour workday, toiling 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: Find an excuse to leave work early... or at the very least, try to get a long pausa pranzo to avoid working through the lunchtime heat. Tell your boss it's been proven to boost productivity, too.

3. Eat snow


Granita - a delicious way to keep cool. Photo: Alt Altendord/Flickr

Before the gelato was invented, Romans hoping for a cool snack had to use what nature offered them. 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. There, mountain ice was kept in underground pits and could sell for more money than wine.

Modern alternative: A granita. Tastier than snow and cheaper than wine. Bonus: granita and ice cream are considered perfectly acceptable breakfast foods in an Italian summer, accompanies with a brioche or pastry.

4. Turn on the air conditioning


Photo: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos

Air conditioning in ancient Rome? Yep. 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 (and unfortunately it's no guarantee in Italy), get someone to fan you with ostrich feathers. 

5. Leave the city

Villa Adriana in Tivoli near Rome. Photo: santirf/Depositphotos

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", meaning cities often feel hotter than they are.

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 12C. That's the difference between a good night's sleep and a sweaty night spent tossing and turning.

Modern alternative: Take a trip out of the city, to a lake or countryside escape.

READ ALSO: Escape the heat at one of these beautiful Italian lakes

Photos: (L) Seldon Vestrit and (R) Umberto Salvagnini.

Article first published in 2016 and updated in 2018

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