Dog Days of Summer in Italy

The Dog Days of Summer in Italy

Summer is the most popular time for many to visit Italy, but as the temperature rise, how does one best beat the heat? We can look towards ancient Rome for some answers.

The term ‘the dog days of summer’ comes from the Latin ‘dies canincula.’ Romans used the term to describe the hot period during the middle of summer, but how did the name originate? During that time of the year, Sirius (the Dog Star) rises with the sun and Romans believed that this was the cause for increase in temperature.

So how did the Romans effectively ‘beat the heat?’ One way was to go to the local frigidarium. It was a large cold pool located at the Roman baths. Not only was it a social event and very important for personal hygiene, it was a wonderful way to cool down. First the Romans would bathe in the hot baths to cleanse themselves from the daily grime of the day and then immerse themselves in the cooling waters of the frigidarium. The waters were kept chilly in the summer months thanks to the addition of snow and ice that had been imported from the Alps. Today, our modern equivalent is to take a dip in a swimming pool.

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Another Roman concept was to avoid working during the hottest times of the day. The Romans did not have a 9 to 5 work schedule. In fact, researchers believe that the average Roman only had a six-hour workday; from sunrise until noon. This stopped them from having to labor during the hottest part of the day and left them with plenty of time to go to and sit in the frigidarium with their friends. The modern alternative – create an excuse to leave work early, or at the very least, try to get a long pausa pranzo (lunch break) to avoid working through the unbearable lunchtime heat – tell your boss that you read a study that it is been proven to boost productivity.

Long before the gelato was invented, Romans hoping for a cool snack had to use whatever nature offered them. While the rich Patricians and Roman nobility would often have huge stores of imported snow at home to keep them cool, average citizens had to visit the snow shop. There, mountain ice was kept in underground pits and could sell for more money than wine. Among the ruins of Pompeii there are shops that specialized in selling crushed ice (from Vesuvius) sweetened with honey. Our modern alternative is a visit to the ice-cream shop and have a grattachecca or granita, which is not only much tastier than snow, it is cheaper than wine.

The Romans were big fans of air conditioning. “Hold on!” You say – air conditioning in ancient Rome? Yes, the Romans were master architects and kept their homes cool during the summer months by employing a series of architectural devices that provided an ancient form of air conditioning. An example of this is pumping cold water from wells through the walls of their homes during the summer months. Obviously, this was only for the very wealthy, but it is an ingenious concept, especially considering that it was engineered over 2,000 years ago. Our modern equivalent is to just flick a switch and turn on the air conditioning.

Many wealthy Romans escaped the heat of the summer months by going to their country houses in the hills outside Rome. With its restricted airflow and masses of heat-storing marble, Ancient Rome must have been like a furnace in the summer and the city’s wealthy Patricians were fully aware of this. It is a fact that urban centers are anywhere from 2-5° F hotter during the day than the surrounding countryside. Amazingly, since the building can very effectively trap and store heat while at night the difference can be as much as 20 degrees! That’s the difference between a good night’s sleep in 65° degree weather and a sweaty night spent tossing and turning in 85° heat. Our modern alternative is to head to the country, the mountains or the shore for a weekend away.

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