Ancient Roman Heating: Hypocausts

Ancient Roman heating techniques were ingenious. The ancient Roman heating technique known as hypocausts were developed by Hipparchus, a mathematician and astronomer, who invented this first underfloor heating system. Learn more about hypocausts in our guide to ancient roman heating techniques below.

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Natasha McLachlan is a writer who currently lives in Southern California. She is an alumna of California College of the Arts, where she obtained her B.A. in Writing and Literature. Her current work revolves around insurance guides and informational articles. She truly enjoys helping others learn more about everyday, practical matters through her work.

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Laura Walker graduated college with a BS in Criminal Justice with a minor in Political Science. She married her husband and began working in the family insurance business in 2005. She became a licensed agent and wrote P&C business focusing on personal lines insurance for 10 years. Laura serviced existing business and wrote new business. She now uses her insurance background to help educate...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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The hypocaust heating system is the invention of the Romans and this form of heating was used in public bathing houses as well as public homes. They were especially used by the elite or upper class when they socialized or came together to mingle. It is a type of radiant floor heating that is still popular in some buildings throughout Europe.

The man behind the idea of supplying more efficient heat was Hipparchus, a Roman mathematician, and astronomer. With his invention, the hypocaust system could generate and circulate an ample supply of heat, being the first underfloor heat system. This would allow heat to come up through the floors and provide central heating to enclosed spaces.

How was the hypocaust designed?

The important technology behind the heating system in Ancient Rome came about because of the cold temperatures in Rome during that time period, and not having efficient and comfortable heating resources to heat homes. When the first hypocaust heating system was created, it required quite a few items for it to operate sufficiently.

A hypocaust requires a furnace, which was kept in a separate area, underfloor chambers, support and bridging tiles as well as hollow box tiles and stone pillars. Another requirement, the heating room had to have a floor to heat. In most Roman bathhouses, the designated area was a huge one. It was developed with underground tunnels that let hot gasses escape through wall chimneys.

A bathhouse was constructed with the bottom floor being held up by pillars, set two feet off the ground. Air ducts between the floor spaces controlled the airflow. A hypocaust area could be turned into a sauna by adding a pool of water to the room which was heated.

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How were hypocausts used in public baths?

Today, when it comes to bathing, people make it a personal and private activity behind closed doors as they pamper themselves in soapy water. However, in Ancient Rome, it was customary and the norm for people to flock to public bathhouses when it came time to clean the body and visit with friends and neighbors. Roman bathing was a ritual involving a complex process before stepping into the waters of a public bath. You could not just arrive and jump in as if you were at a pool.

Although the baths were held in a public forum, men and women did not bathe together. Males and females had separate times of the day to bathe. Bathing was not a free commodity either; you had to pay for the pleasure of using the public bathhouse and it was common for females to have to pay more for their bathing pleasure than the males.

Each public bathing facility was operated with a hypocaust system heating the floors and the rooms. When bathing, these public bath areas had dressing rooms, a cold bathroom, and several other rooms with varying temperatures. As mentioned earlier, socializing was entertainment in the public bath area. You could also do other things, like enjoy reading a book at the library, enjoy taking a stroll through various gardens, buy food and sit down to eat it in the arena around the public bath. You could also enjoy the entertainment of watching street performers while at the public bath. In other words, there is more to a public bath area than a pool of water. With the hypocaust systems heating the floors, people were able to congregate more in places like this.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of hypocausts?

Although the idea of providing heat output to floors and bathing chambers was a great invention with the concept still being used today in our modern society, it does have its drawbacks as well as its positive aspects for more efficient heating, especially during the Roman period. One of the main concerns of this heating system was the dangerous effects of carbon monoxide, which took the lives of many Romans enjoying the public hot baths. When this happened, the poisonous vapors from the fumes would escape and poison the bathers who were unaware of the harm of carbon monoxide. Another problem with the hypocausts was the presence of lead in water tanks and broilers.

The advantage of this Roman invention is the fact that it gave today’s modern society the concept and technology of developing radiant heating for the floors, a system that is cheaper, safer, and more efficient than the methods of heating that the Romans first developed. It is also safe to heat floors than walls or to depend on a small furnace to heat a larger area that may not be enclosed with walls. Instead, the furnace can heat the floors from underneath.

For more information about this heating system, please see the following links.

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