Balneotherapy Overview

History of Balneotherapy

Would the Romans find the Caracalla Therme spa in Baden-Baden, Germany, refreshing?
Would the Romans find the Caracalla Therme spa in Baden-Baden, Germany, refreshing?
Slim Aarons/Getty Images

Using water to soothe and heal is an ancient practice. Archaeologists have found remains of bathing rooms in the palace of Knossos that date from 1700 B.C., indicating that the Greeks appreciated the effects of a good, long soak. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) also wrote extensively about the healing power of water. He advocated the use of saline baths and regularly immersed his patients in seawater to cure several ailments, including aching muscles and arthritis.

Ancient Egyptians embraced water-based therapies just as enthusiastically. Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.) visited the Dead Sea to soak in its mineral-rich waters and may have established pharmaceutical and cosmetic factories near its shores. But it was the Romans who took bathing to a new level of sophistication. At first, Roman baths were small, private and unobtrusive. Then came larger neighborhood baths, which were followed by massive public baths. The Baths of Caracalla represented the pinnacle of the Roman bathing experience. Constructed between A.D. 206 and A.D. 217, the Baths of Caracalla covered 27 acres and could accommodate 1,600 people at a time.

Eventually, the Roman Empire collapsed and, with it, interest in balneotherapy. The last Roman baths were abandoned by about A.D. 537. By the time the Black Death swept through Europe in the 1340s, public bathing had all but stopped. In addition to fears associated with disease transmission, the strict moral code of the Roman Catholic Church discouraged people from visiting public watering places.

Then, in the 1800s, came a renaissance. Vincent Priessnitz, an Austrian peasant, used cold-water therapy to heal wounds he obtained when a heavy cart rolled over him. Word of his recovery spread, and thousands of people came to him. He treated 1,600 patients in 1840 and, three years later, published "The Cold Water Cure," a book that spread his treatment philosophies to thousands more. Sebastian Kneipp, a German priest, picked up the baton and continued to advance balneotherapy. He improved some of Priessnitz's techniques and began to add herbs to the water.

Priessnitz and Kneipp gave rise to the rebirth of spas in the Victorian era. Hot springs were found and developed, often at mountain retreats with breathtaking views. Medical practitioners often staffed these spas and dispensed various water-based treatments. Americans treated in European spas returned home with stories of water's healing effects. Soon, similar spas emerged in the United States. As they became more popular, the spas evolved into spa resorts, featuring world-class restaurants, entertainment and recreational facilities.