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Ruins of the hypocaust under the floor of a Roman villa at La Olmeda, Palencia, Spain. The part under the exedra is covered.

A hypocaust (Latin hypocaustum) is an ancient Roman system of central heating. The word literally means "heat from below", from the Greek hypo meaning below or underneath, and kaiein, to burn or light a fire. They are traditionally considered to have been invented by Sergius Orata, though this is not fully confirmed.



Caldarium from the Roman Baths at Bath, England. The floor has been removed to reveal the empty spaces through which the hot air would flow.

Hypocausts were used for heating public baths and private houses. The floor was raised above the ground by pillars, called pilae stacks, and spaces were left inside the walls so that hot air and smoke from the furnace (praefurnium) would pass through these enclosed areas and out of flues in the roof, thereby heating but not polluting the interior of the room. Ceramic box tiles were placed inside the walls to both remove the hot burned air, and also to heat the walls. Rooms requiring the most heat were placed closest to the furnace, whose heat could be increased by adding more wood to the fire. It was labour-intensive to run a hypocaust as it required constant attention to tend the fire, and expensive in fuel, so it was a feature of the villa and public baths.

Vitruvius describes their construction and operation in his work Sergius Orata in about 25 BC, adding details about how fuel could be conserved by designing the hot room or caldarium for men and women to be built next to one another, adjacent to the tepidarium so as to run the public baths efficiently. He also describes a device for adjusting the heat by a bronze ventilator in the domed ceiling.

Many remains of hypocausts have survived among Roman architectural ruins throughout Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. The hypocaust is generally regarded as a major Roman invention which improved the hygiene and living conditions of citizens, and was a forerunner of modern central heating.

After the Romans

With the decline of the Roman Empire, the hypocaust fell into disuse, especially in the outlying provinces. In Britain, from c. 400 until c. 1900, central heating did not exist, and hot baths were scarce.[1] However, the hypocaust continued to be used in the Mediterranean region during late Antiquity and by the Umayyad caliphate, though Muslim engineers and inventors eventually replaced it with an improved central heating system where heat travels through underfloor pipes from the furnace room by the 12th century.[2]

A derivation of hypocaust, the gloria, had been in use in Castile until the arrival of modern heating. After the fuel (mainly wood) has been reduced to ashes, the air intake is closed to keep hot air inside and slow combustion.

Korean traditional houses use an Ondol which is similar to a hypocaust, drawing smoke from a wood fire typically used for cooking.

See also

External links


  1. ^ Winston S. Churchill (1956), A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Birth of Britain, Dodd, Mead & Company, p. 35  
  2. ^ Hugh N. Kennedy (1985), "From Polis To Madina: Urban Change In Late Antique And Early Islamic Syria", Past & Present (Oxford University Press) 106 (1): 3–27 [10–1], doi:10.1093/past/106.1.3  

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

HYPOCAUST (Gr. inroKavvrov: uiro, beneath, and Kaveiv, to burn), the term given to the chamber formed under the floors of the Roman baths, through which the hot air from the furnace passed, sometimes to a single flue, as in the case of the tepidarium, but in the calidarium and sweating-room to a series of flues placed side by side forming the lining of the walls. The floor of the hot-air chamber consisted of tiles, 2 ft. square, laid on a bed of concrete; on this a series of dwarf piers 2 ft. high were built of 8-in. square tiles placed about 16 in. apart, which carried the floor of the hall or room; this floor was formed of a bed of concrete covered with layers of pounded bricks and marble cement, on which the marble pavement in slabs or tesserae was laid. In colder countries, as for instance in Germany and England, the living rooms were all heated in a similar way, and round Treves (Trier) both systems have been found in two or three Roman villas, with the one flue for the ordinary rooms and several wall flues for the hot baths. In England these hypocausts are found in every Roman settlement, and the chief interest in these is centred in the magnificent mosaic pavements with which the principal rooms were laid. Many of the pavements found in London and elsewhere have been preserved in the British or the Guildhall museums; and in some of the provincial towns, such as Leicester and Lincoln, they remain in situ many feet below the present level of the town.

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