How the Ancient Romans Went to the Bathroom
A new book by journalist Lina Zeldovich traces the management of human waste—and underscores poop’s potential as a valuable resource
“I live my life in the gutter,” says Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow with a chuckle.
An anthropologist at Brandeis University, she considers her “official” title the Queen of Latrines. For the past 25 years, she has taken that label literally, spending much of her time in ancient Roman gutters.
“There’s a lot you can find out about a culture when you look at how they managed their toilets,” Koloski-Ostrow says. “That’s why I study it.”
I crossed paths with the Queen of Latrines after making an accidental discovery in Ephesus (in what is now Turkey), which grew to prominence around the second century C.E. and housed some 300,000 to 400,000 denizens. One day, I ambled into an open space drastically different from anything I’d seen before. In front of me was a long white marble bench with a row of holes shaped just like modern toilet seats: a Roman bathroom.
Turning around, I discovered two more rows of holes, altogether able to accommodate a small party. But the holes were cut so close to one another that I was left wondering how people actually used them. Wouldn’t they put you in the immediate proximity of someone else’s butt? There were no dividers of any kind in between. Talk about not having inhibitions, conducting your private business next to a dozen other folks.
Underneath the seats was a stone-lined gutter that must have carried citizens’ waste out of the city. A second shallower one ran beneath my feet. It, too, was clearly built to carry water—but for what? Other questions brewed. Did the enclosure have a roof, doors and windows? Were the stone seats hot in summer and cold in winter? Did toilet-goers talk to each other? Did they shake hands after wiping? And what did they actually wipe with, given that toilet paper is a fairly recent development? Was this a men’s room or a ladies’ room?
This chance encounter left such a profound impression that I found myself obsessed, searching for answers that had seemingly long since disappeared into the annals of history—or rather, into its sewers. I was curious whether anyone had ever studied the topic, and sure enough, someone had: Koloski-Ostrow, author of The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems.
Over a lovely conversation about bodily excretions, chamber pots, butt-wiping habits, sewer vermin and other equally unappetizing topics, the ancient Romans’ views on waste, hygiene and toilet habits begin to take shape. The word “latrine,” or latrina in Latin, was used to describe a private toilet in someone’s home, usually constructed over a cesspit. Public toilets were called foricae. They were often attached to public baths, whose water was used to flush down the filth.
Because the Roman Empire lasted for 2,000 years and stretched from Africa to the British Isles, Roman toilet attitudes varied geographically and over time. Generally speaking, however, the Romans had fewer inhibitions than people today. They were reasonably content sitting in close quarters—after all, Roman theater seats were rather close, too, about 12 inches apart. And they were similarly at ease when taking communal dumps.
“Today, you pull down your pants and expose yourself, but when you had your toga wrapped around you, it provided a natural protection,” Koloski-Ostrow says. “The clothes they wore would provide a barricade so you actually could do your business in relative privacy, get up and go. And hopefully your toga wasn’t too dirty after that.” If you compare the forica with the modern urinal, she adds, it actually offers more privacy.
Despite the lack of toilet paper, toilet-goers did wipe. That’s what the mysterious shallow gutter was for. The Romans cleaned their behinds with sea sponges attached to a stick, and the gutter supplied clean flowing water to dip the sponges in. This soft, gentle tool was called a tersorium, which literally meant “a wiping thing.”
The Romans liked to move their bowels in comfort. Whether they washed their hands after that is another story. Maybe they dipped their fingers into an amphora by the door. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they did in some parts of the empire but not in others. Worse, the tersoria were probably reused and shared by all fellow butt-wipers who came and went throughout the day. So, if one of the forica visitors had intestinal worms, all the others would carry them home, too. Without any knowledge of how diseases spread, the overall Roman toilet setup could hardly be called hygienic by modern standards.
Though they look advanced for an ancient civilization, Roman public toilets were far from glamorous. The white marble seats gleaming in the sun may look clean now, but that was hardly the case when these facilities were operational. They had low roofs and tiny windows that let in little light. People sometimes missed the holes, so the floors and seats were often soiled. The air stunk. “Think about it—how often does someone come and wipe off that marble?” Koloski-Ostrow asks. In fact, she thinks the facilities were so unwelcoming that the empire’s elite only used them under great duress.
Upper-class Romans, who sometimes paid for the foricae to be erected, generally wouldn’t set foot in these places. They constructed them for the poor and the enslaved—but not because they took pity on the lower classes. They built these public toilets so they wouldn’t have to walk knee-deep in excrement on the streets. Just like any other civilization that chose to urbanize, the Romans were up against a problem: What to do with all this waste? The Roman elite viewed public toilets as an instrument that flushed the filth of the plebes out of their noble sight. In Roman baths, it was common practice to inscribe the name of the benefactor who paid to build the facility, but toilet walls bear no such writing. “It seems that no one in Rome wanted to be associated with a toilet,” Koloski-Ostrow says.
Why would refined noblemen want to sit next to common people who had lice, open wounds, skin sores, diarrhea and other health problems? That wasn’t the worst of it. The sewers underneath the public toilets were a welcoming home for vermin. “Rats, snakes and spiders would come up from down below,” Koloski-Ostrow explains. Plus, the decomposing sewage may have produced methane, which could ignite, quite literally lighting a fire under someone.
Neither were the public toilets built to accommodate women. By the second century, “public latrines were constructed in the areas of the city where men had business to do,” Koloski-Ostrow says. “Maybe [an enslaved] girl who was sent to the market would venture in, out of necessity, although she would fear being mugged or raped. But an elite Roman woman wouldn’t be caught dead in there.”
Back at their comfortable villas, wealthy citizens had their own personal latrines constructed over cesspools. But even they may have preferred the more comfortable, less smelly option of chamber pots, which enslaved people were forced to empty onto garden patches. The elite didn’t want to connect their cesspools to the sewer pipes because that would likely bring the vermin and stink into their homes. Instead, they hired stercorraii—manure removers—to empty their pits. Koloski-Ostrow notes that in one case, “11 asses may have been paid for the removal of manure.”
The famous Roman sewers were another story. At the height of its power, Rome had to clean up after about a million people. An average adult produces about a pound of poo a day, so a 500-ton pile of feces is a mind-boggling image. While Roman farmers understood the waste’s fertilizing value and put some of it back into the fields, the city couldn’t recycle it fast enough. To flush that much excrement out of the city daily, one needs a truly massive system.
The Romans did everything on a grand scale—including filth removal. They initially gleaned their sewer technology from the Greeks. In her book, Koloski-Ostrow attributes this “technology transfer” to “Hellenistic cultural forces” and Roman soldiers who starting building latrines in military camps. To keep their Roman-sized Augean stables clean, the Romans scaled up the system to massive proportions, building the Greatest Sewer, or Cloaca Massima. (It was named after the Roman goddess Cloacina—the Cleanser, from the Latin verb cluo, meaning “to clean.”)
The Cloaca Massima moved millions of gallons of water every day. It was so immense that Greek geographer and historian Strabo wrote that Rome’s sewers were big enough “for wagons loaded with hay to pass” and for “veritable rivers” to flow through them.
The sewer accomplished several things. It drained the excess water from the city, rid the people of their waste and generally carried away everything they didn’t want, discharging it into the River Tiber. It also drained water from the surrounding swamps and river valleys, preventing floods. Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote that when the rivers surrounding Rome spilled into the sewers with unrelenting force, the sewers withstood Mother Nature’s wrath, directing the currents down to the Tiber, where the triple-arch outlet of the Cloaca Massima still stands today. When the sewers clogged up or needed other repairs, a considerable amount of money was spent on keeping them functioning. Despite many earthquakes, floods, collapsed buildings and other cataclysms, the Roman sewers stood strong over centuries.
The Cloaca Massima solved Rome’s sewage removal problems, but it didn’t solve the city’s health issues. It carried the filth out of the city and dumped it into the Tiber, polluting the very water some citizens depended on for irrigation, bathing and drinking. And so, while the Romans no longer had to see, or smell, their excrement, they hadn’t done much to eliminate its hazardous nature. Through the next several centuries, as humankind kept concentrating in cities, it would find itself in a bitter battle with its own waste—seemingly with no way to win.
Adapted from The Other Science Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste Into Wealth and Health by Lina Zeldovich, to be published by University of Chicago on November 19, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Lina Zeldovich.
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