Thermae Romae

If you could go back to ancient Rome, what would you do? Visit the tourist sites (the Colosseum, the Golden House of Nero, the Iseum Campense), meet famous people like Cleopatra, Apuleius or Augustine, attend games in the circuses, watch lost dramatic plays in the theatres or religious ceremonies in the early churches (as your tastes take you)?

Rome has been the source of many important references which have permeated through history. It feels like the beginning of so much that has defined humanity, for better or for worse. Wars, deaths, revolutions, gods have all crossed the paths of the eternal city.

Would you visit the great baths in their heyday?

This is the premise of Thermae Romae by Mari Yamazaki. The manga tells the tale of Lucius Modestus who can travel in time and space from second century Rome to modern Japan via the magic of baths. He observes Japanese bathing culture first hand and brings back what he observes to the delight of the ancient Romans. It is a delightful story, charmingly told, beautifully illustrated and packed with the right balance of erudition and invention.  

The series has influenced two live action movies (in 2012 and 2014) and an anime series on Netflix (in 2022). An English translation has just been re-released in a massive omnibus edition: a gorgeous book of nearly 1,100 pages.

For readers in the ‘west’, the books and series offer an unparalleled insight into both Japanese and Roman societies.

Lucius is a member of the middling sort. Educated and trained as an architect by his family. His main customers are richer Romans. He has some snobbishness towards the flashy freedmen (formerly enslaved people) of the Augustales, but works quite happily for the senatorial elite.

As his reputation rises, thanks to the ideas he takes (with some qualms) from Japan, he comes into contact with the emperor Hadrian mourning the death of Antinous. He becomes Hadrian’s personal architect, designing baths to help support Hadrian’s political and military agenda, and an important person in the Emperor’s life.

The series does not hide about the coercion at the heart of the Roman Empire. In one chapter Lucius travels to Jerusalem in the train of the Emperor as he brutally quashes the Bar Kokhba Revolution. Cassius Dio, writes that the most of Judaea was made desolate by Hadrian (History of Rome, 69.14.1-2). Slavery is also acknowledged. On his time travels Lucius experiences the wonders of Japanese toilets, thinking at first that slaves are operating the bidet and piped music system. Indeed Lucius initially thinks the Japanese are slaves, before realizing they are an advanced culture. 

Lucius’ attempted translation of things created by modern technology in the context of ancient Rome is one of the sources of humor, which makes it such a fun read.

The copying of other cultures was an important phenomenon within the Roman Empire. In one story, Lucius brings back a stuffed hippo toy from a Japanese spa town and places it on a small domestic shrine as a presiding deity. We know from Pompeii that Egyptian gods were placed on domestic shrines. Indeed, an ivory statuette found in Pompeii shows evidence that Indian art forms were received within Italy. So the adoption of Japanese artistic styles and bathing innovations makes perfect sense within the logic of the narrative.

“Over nine hundred years, Rome has grown exponentially by learning from the culture of the Etruscans, Carthaginians and Greeks… So how does one explain the incredibly high culture of this civilization?”

Yet the book fails what I would call the Hogwarts Test: that is in a fantasy story, are the characters willing to enter a new world, which while on one level is more ideal, is also ethically far worse than that which you left. In Harry Potter, the heroes leave an imperfect world to enter a magical school literally serviced by slaves. In the most recent outing of this franchise, in the video game Hogwarts Legacy, you can lead the racially pure wizard generals in destroying a slave revolution. 

Lucius’ actions in Thermae Romae are of one piece with his position as a Roman, blinkered in that world view. His travels to Japan do not necessarily inspire him to question the world he returns to. This is perhaps fair given the brutal ways that Roman power was enforced. Yet, what about a modern Japanese person returning to Rome to live, how could they countenance the slavery which would create their life? 

It is, to be sure, a difficult question, but one that contemporary readers would want answering.

The book makes us think a fresh the culture and society of Rome, an empire bathed in blood and cleansed by the sweat of slavery.