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When in a Roman bath


Azarion
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Early December, 76AD

Even though Azarion had been living inside the city for more than a year, there was still a staple of Roman urban living that had eluded him so far: the baths. Sure, he knew how to bathe, and kept himself clean using the facilities that belonged to the stables. But if everyone else could be believed, that was a far cry from the bathing culture the Romans invented. In the eighteen years of his life, Azarion had only been familiar with washing, first in the rivers and lakes of Sarmatia where he learned to swim, and then more or less improvising as much as slaves were allowed.

Now that he was a charioteer, slowly rising out of the masses of slaves in the city, Marcus kept reminding him that he was allowed to go to actual thermae if he wished. A real Roman bath house. Azarion avoided the issue as long as he could, but eventually Tiranes found out too, and somehow now here they were, in the doors of the part of the thermae that was open to slaves, and the freedmen of the nearby faction stables. Azarion frowned, but very enthuastic about the visit. He looked at his cousin, shrugging. Do we have to?

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"Anyone would think it's a prelude to drowning you or something," Jason commented, elbowing his cousin in the side. He managed to come to see his cousin on a relatively regular basis, although not quite as frequently as he would like, and on being informed that Azarion hadn't ever sampled the wonders of a Roman bath, had determined to take him when he could manage to visit next.

"There are some benefits to living in a city. Maybe not many, but some, and baths are one of them," he added. "I won't let them drown you, if that's what you're worried about."

 

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Midwinter was getting closer and he’d been in Rome more than a year now. Not that it meant he got very much further than when he got here, not with the reason why he was here. He still worked at the warehouse at the great market, he still had his somewhat small insula to live in and he still had not managed to get along very well with his actual father. The only relative he really seemed to be getting along with was Teutus, but that was about it.

Luckily, Rome had many other things to offer and since he’d be staying until springtime next year, he better make the most of it, so he did. He’d taken Teutus’ advice, gone to the theatre and also the races, although it was mostly the latter he found interesting. He didn’t quite understand the theatre, even if it was fascinating to watch. But the races he could understand. Sure he’d seen horses in Rome and many too, but so many in one place, that was beyond anything he’d ever experienced. Where he came from, horses were highly valued and only the wealthiest chiefs and kings had them. Like his own grandfather.

But it wasn’t only the thing with the horses that was very Roman and very little Chatti. There were the baths and those, he fully understood too. He was used to swimming and bathing in streams and lakes at home, he’d even been to the ocean once, but a bathhouse, with running water and heated rooms and steam, and massages… that was something he might miss at home. It felt so luxurious and he’d never been so clean before in his life. So he liked them. And went there.

Like today. There were many of these bathhouses in Rome, thermae as they were called, and today seemed a good day to get clean. So he approached a bathhouse he’d never been to before, seeing two men standing just by the entrance, talking. One of them talking about the other being drowned? That was worrying.

“I hope no one will drown here.” Wulfric said to them, his Latin grew more fluent, but he couldn’t get rid of the accent, “You are going in?”

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"Anyone would think it's a prelude to drowning you or something," 

I can swim, Azarion scoffed, eyeing the building. He knew what the baths were like, in theory. He was not afraid of drowning in them. He was afraid of the whole thing being ridiculous, which he was.

"There are some benefits to living in a city. Maybe not many, but some, and baths are one of them. I won't let them drown you, if that's what you're worried about."

I am not worried, Azarion insisted, but then he folded his arms tightly. He knew that the people in there would be other slaves and freedmen, but still...

He jumped as someone else spoke up next to them.

“I hope no one will drown here. You are going in?”

Azarion glanced between the newcomer and his cousin. Tiranes would have to do the talking. I go in. But I don't swim.

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"You're not worried? Not much, you aren't," Tiranes said. "And you just - never mind." Either he could swim (and would) or couldn't (and wouldn't) - though most of that depended on whether this thermae had a proper sized pool or not.

If they wanted a proper swim, there was always the Tiber, of course - very firmly upstream from the Cloaca Maxima, naturally.

"Nobody's going to drown here," he said firmly, moving out of the newcomer's way. The Latin was as accented as his own, though in a different way, and the man who'd spoken looked... Well, he didn't look Roman. "We're going in," he added, though he half expected his cousin to bolt, as though he'd never seen water before.

Well. He'd probably never seen a proper Roman bath before. Jason had, of course, accompanying his master, although the thermae his master regularly used was a much grander affair than this - not that Jason got to partake of the full experience when his master went, of course, but at least he had some idea what to expect. Azarion looked almost as if he half-expected to be eaten, or something.

 

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The younger of the two men did not speak to him, but merely made a gesture he didn't know. Then the other, older one - couldn't be much older than Wulfric though, maybe they were about the same age? But it was hard to tell in Rome, since they all shaved their beards away, so it was impossible to tell if a man was old or young. You had to judge by hair color and wrinkles, and even mature men could have dark hair and few wrinkles, it just depended on their lives. But he assumed they were the same age. And he said no one would drown here and that they were going in.

"Good, so am I." Wulfric said, hoping he was using the right entrance to the thermae, "I hope this is good thermae? You know?" He asked the two, just in case, since he'd already spoken to them once. Hopefully they wouldn't mind.

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"Nobody's going to drown here,"

How do you know?

"We're going in,"

"Good, so am I. I hope this is good thermae? You know?" 

Azarion looked at the stranger again. At first he had just assumed they were in his way going in, but now it seemed like he wanted to... have a conversation? He had an accent, and did not look exactly... Roman. Azarion shrugged, glancing at his cousin, and they all walked in together.

The place was... stunning. Not the best thermae in the city by far, not even in the regio, but it did not compare to anything Azarion had ever seen before. All tiles, and marble, and water, and steam, and... very naked people. He frowned, folding his arms again, before realizing he needed them to talk.

What do we do?

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Tiranês rolled his eyes. "It's a bath, you generally start by taking your clothes off," he said, and glanced at the man who'd come in with them. He didn't look Roman - but he didn't look like someone from any of the regions he was familiar with, either.

"I don't know if it's a good thermae," he said in answer to the other man's question - he didn't know if he was familiar at all with the Sarmatian trade signs that Azarion used to 'talk' with him, but he'd been included in the query just as much as Azarion. Although judging by Azarion's own question, he didn't know the answer to that either.

Great.

 

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It was strange that the younger of the two men didn't speak to him, just gave him strange looks. But they all walked in and Wulfric naturally wondered on the way, if this was a good thermae. He'd been to a few of the others, and some seemed to be more for the ordinary people of Rome, while others were for the higher classes. These two here didn't seem to be of a high class though. In fact, according to what he knew about Rome now, they were probably both slaves. They wore those signs around their necks. It didn't matter so much to him though - they weren't his slaves, after all. They were just two men, also walking into the same bathhouse as Wulfric.

It was a beautiful place though, but they all were. Think, that the Romans made such beautiful places... just for bathing. At home, you'd just use the nearby lake or a stream. His people didn't have special buildings or rooms for bathing in. 

The older of the two said you should start with taking your clothes off. Wulfric knew this much. This wasn't his first visit to a thermae. But judging by the looks and expressions by the younger man, maybe it was his first time? The older said he didn't know if this was a good place.

"We will learn, then." Wulfric said with a friendly smile and began removing his clothes to put onto a shelf. At least he was used to nudity and he'd gotten used to the Roman way of looking at it too. He easily and quickly finished undressing and moved towards the entrance to the tepidarium.

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"It's a bath, you generally start by taking your clothes off,"

Azarion swore without words and looked around. Indeed everyone seemed to be naked, except for some slaves that no doubt worked there, running up and down; those were wearing loincloths. A few people had towels wrapped around their hips, but most didn't bother.

He should have been used to it by now because no one cared, but Azarion hated undressing in front of people. And he especially did not want to in front of his cousin.

"I don't know if it's a good thermae," 

"We will learn, then." 

The stranger undressed, and Tiranes started taking his clothes off too. Azarion frowned, folding his arms. Stupid Romans. He took off his sandals, so that he'd be doing something at least. Maybe he could just dip his feet in the pool. I'm fine.

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Azarion seemed rather reticent about undressing, and Tiranes sighed. If the marks and brand on his arm were any indication of what might lie under his tunic, he could understand why - though it wasn't as if Tiranes didn't have scars of his own. He had been as wild as any Sarmatian in the early days after his capture (well, kidnapping or whatever it was when hostages were enslaved), though he'd also been suffering shock and despair over Azarion's presumed death. Coupled with the nightmares he'd had every night, he'd probably broken rather fast - but he'd suffered more than one whipping on the way. He just didn't have any scars that showed when he had his tunic on.

He shrugged and pulled his own tunic off. His past didn't seem to bother his master - well, his recent past since his capture; Tiberius had only recently enquired any further into his history.

He spoke quietly to his cousin in their own tongue. "I don't care what it looks like under your tunic, you're still you, and the Romans are still bastards."

 

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The older of the two slaves easily undressed, while the younger seemed quite stubborn, or at least, that's how he came across to Wulfric. When Wulfric had undressed and the other had too, more or less, the younger had only taken off his sandals and nothing more. And he still stood there with a frown and folded arms. The older of the two spoke quietly and Wulfric didn't understand a word, it was low anyway. But he worried.

"Are everything... alright?" Wulfric asked from the entrance to the tepidarium. To him it didn't seem like everything was alright. He just wanted to make sure.

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Tiranes noticed his hesitation. He spoke in their own language as he leaned closet.

"I don't care what it looks like under your tunic, you're still you, and the Romans are still bastards."

Azarion looked away. He didn't like it that Tiranes was right, but he was right. He did not want him to see how he had changed since they last met. At home, he would have had tattoos, maybe battle scars by now... but instead, he just had scars. He sighed. Don't say anything.

He took off his clothes, avoiding his cousin's eyes. He had many scars the tunica could not cover up - his arm and his tongue among them - but under it was worse. He had been beaten and lashed many times for running, or trying to run away; burned, branded, broken. Most of the scars were lash marks though, some faded, some deeper, crisscrossing each other, punctuated by other kinds of injuries. Some new ones too, from training, and from the attack in the alley. It was a whole story, and not a good one to read.

"Are everything... alright?"

Oh. The other guy was still there. Azarion quirked an eyebrow at his cousin, grateful for the distraction. Who is he again?

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It wasn't strictly true that Jason didn't care what had happened to his cousin, it was more that he couldn't do anything about it and his cousin was still Azarion despite it all.

At least it looked as if Azarion was starting to join in with them now, which was something.

"Are everything... alright?"

"Yes, I think so, thank you," he said, giving Azarion an equally speaking look. I don't know, I thought he was one of your friends!

He didn't want to push the other man out but he wasn't sure he wanted to include him, either. Awkward wasn't the word!

 

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Wulfric had barely looked at the bodies of the other young men, why should he? He'd learned that you didn't do that. Unless you were into that sort of thing - other men - and he wasn't. Although he'd heard it was a common thing in Rome. Not so much at home. It was there, but you didn't really talk about it. Men took women for wives, to have children and continue their legacy. That's how it was done. What happened besides that was private. 

But the younger man was hesitating, although he noticed he didn't seem too happy about being here. He just wanted to make sure everything was alright, so he asked. The youth had many scars on his body. He tried not to look. Well, the youth was a slave. Still, that many scars? Poor guy. The Romans had not treated him very well.

The older said everything was alright and Wulfric nodded, looking at the youth. They were both slaves, but had the older one forced the younger to come here, against his will? That wasn't very nice at all. He decided to keep an eye on them, just in case. 

"Good. He seems... not happy. But, do not mind me." Wulfric then added and turned to leave again. He had no business talking to them anyway. Soon enough he found a bench in the tepidarium and enjoyed the heat. He'd miss this once he went back home.

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Azarion avoided his cousin's eyes, but there was really not any other good place to look either. In the tepidarium, people sat, or stood, or walked around in the warmth, and Azarion felt exposed, being naked among naked people. Gods, Romans were so weird to do this indoors. In groups. Yikes. The stranger was looking at them funny.

"Good. He seems... not happy. But, do not mind me." 

Azarion looked around, then up at Tiranes, with a questioning look. Where is the water?...

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"Do you honestly not know about all this?" Tiranes asked, slightly astounded that his cousin had managed to live among the Romans for eight years and not learn how they bathed, with the sweating and the hot water and the scraping down and all.

"You can have a towel, if it'll make you feel a bit better." It probably wouldn't because the problem was more likely the scarring and all (bastard Romans! Tiranes would like to treat them the way they'd treated Azarion!) rather than the outright nudity.

He led his cousin through to the tepidarium.

"The water comes at the end - trust me, all right? You'll like it, if you relax a bit."

If he even could!

 

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"Do you honestly not know about all this?" 

Do I look like I know all about this?

"You can have a towel, if it'll make you feel a bit better."

Yes. A towel was good. It did not cover up any of the scars, but at least Azarion felt a bit less like everyone was sizing him up. He had had enough of that at the weird patrician parties. He wrapped the towel around his hips as he followed his cousin.

"The water comes at the end - trust me, all right? You'll like it, if you relax a bit."

Azarion followed. He knew people were looking, but there was really no way out of this now. What do you like about it?

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Do I look like I know all about this?

"No, you look like you need to know about all this - you've been here eight years, after all. People think it's relaxing and Tabiti knows you need something nice in your life."

The only spaces left in the tepidarium were near the man who'd come in with them. Wonderful.

"I like it because... Well, it's a nice experience and very refreshing - you'll see."

They probably shouldn't talk in Sarmatian while they were here, but that was a small price to pay to see Azarion begin to unwind. If he even could; he was wound so tight that Tiranes would be honestly surprised if he could relax.

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"No, you look like you need to know about all this - you've been here eight years, after all. People think it's relaxing and Tabiti knows you need something nice in your life."

Azarion sighed. He did. He was not complaining, his life being eons better than it had been a few years before, but it also... lacked most things people did for fun. Not that he was seeing the fun element in communal bathing just yet. They took seats next to the man he had come in with them earlier.

"I like it because... Well, it's a nice experience and very refreshing - you'll see."

And I thought people bathed because they were dirty. He smirked a little. The warmth in the tepidarium was nice, at least. It did work wonders on sore muscles. Azarion rolled his shoulders. He glanced over at the stranger on Tiranes' other side. Tell him we are alright. Before he thinks you are forcing me or something.

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"I'm glad you don't think I'm forcing you," Tiranes said dryly. "I was worried for a moment there..." He rolled his eyes and turned to the other man, who definitely didn't look Roman but looked far more at home here than Azarion did. "He's my cousin, it's his first time here and he's worried you might think I, uh, bullied him into coming here."

He held his hands out to Azarion, palm up. There.

"Do you want a massage?" he asked, thinking that might be a step too far for his cousin who was only just starting to relax as it was. He thought Azarion might startle like a frightened deer if pushed too far too soon, though he wouldn't say no to a massage himself; his shoulders felt somewhat tight.

 

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The two slaves he'd spoken to when he entered the thermae came to sit next to him. The younger one still seemed uncomfortable and Wulfric wondered why. He wore a towel. Not everyone here did that. Wulfric didn't. He tried to do as the Romans did, attempting to fit in. Though his beard was a giveaway that he was not Roman, because they would have shaved it off. He just kept it short, but it was there. 

They had some sort of conversation, although the younger still hadn't spoken a word. Then Wulfric got it. He couldn't speak! That's what was with all the gestures. It was his way to talk. He'd seen it before, they had something like it at home too. They'd use their body language, both for that and it was also handy for any kind of fight, where you wanted to talk without alerting the enemy. He just didn't know these signs. 

The older one looked at him then, saying the other was his cousin and he'd never been here before. And wanted Wulfric to know he was not being bullied. Wulfric was glad to hear that.

"Good. He is new in Rome, maybe?" He could only imagine that was the reason why he was new to the thermae. Wulfric wasn't, not anymore. He'd visited the thermae plenty of times.

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"He's my cousin, it's his first time here and he's worried you might think I, uh, bullied him into coming here."

Azarion rolled his eyes. Technically, Tiranes had said what he wanted him to say.  

"Do you want a massage?" 

He looked at his cousin. A massage. His muscles would have loved that, but this whole situation was already weird enough. Are you offering?

"Good. He is new in Rome, maybe?" 

Azarion shook his head. He gestured at himself, with all the obvious scars, and then the place around them. Not new just... not exactly used to luxuries.

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Tiranes caught the eyeroll and elbowed Azarion in the side in return.

"I'll do it if you insist but it'll be weird - anyway, I'm pretty sure the attendants here have seen it all before. They're not likely to say anything."

Azarion was strung taut, like a too-tight bowstring. Something had to give, and Tiranes just hoped that it wouldn't be his cousin this time, though being a slave, it was more likely to be Azarion who got hurt than anyone else.

"We've been in Rome for... a while. We just can't always get to do things like this," he said in response to the stranger's question. He'd probably worked out that they were both slaves - if he hadn't figured it out already, he surely would soon.

"What about you?"

Well. It seemed as though they were having a conversation now. While sitting here naked with Azarion practically writhing in embarrassment next to him.

They couldn't possibly have met at the market, haggling over thyme and rosemary, could they!

 

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When Wulfric asked if the younger of the two men was new in Rome, the youth shook his head and gestured to his body. Wulfric had noticed the scars long ago, but he didn't want to mention them. But now he nodded. The youth wasn't used to this place. Maybe not used to showing off his scarred body like that? 

The other one then said they'd been in Rome for a while, but didn't always get to go to baths. Then naturally asked the same question to Wulfric, and his story in Rome.

"I have been here a small while also. We do not have baths like this, at home." He explained, "I am from North, from Germania. You?" They must be related or very good friends or something, Wulfric thought, since they were together here. He didn't think it so odd to have a conversation here though. He'd seen the Romans do it too and in fact, the baths seemed to be quite common meeting places for conversations and even sometimes more shady plans. 

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