Latrine Used by Ancient Actors Discovered Among Ruins of Theater in Turkey

Dated to the second century C.E., the communal “artist toilet” could accommodate about a dozen people at a time

site of latrine
The latrine was about 16 inches high, with a smaller 3- to 4-inch-deep trough for clean water located nearby. İzmir Metropolitan Municipality

Archaeologists excavating an ancient theater beneath the modern Turkish city of İzmir have discovered a communal toilet where actors likely relieved themselves before or after performances. The latrine appears to have been installed during a renovation of the theater in the second century C.E. It remained in use for around 300 years, the Hürriyet Daily News reports.

“It is a toilet with a U-plan seating arrangement, as we see more often in Anatolia, that 12 to 13 people can use together,” says Akin Ersoy, an archaeologist at İzmir Kâtip Çelebi Üniversity who is leading the excavation, in a statement from the İzmir Metropolitan Municipality. “The use of this toilet space by a large number of people also brought socialization.”

The theater in the ancient city of Smyrna seated around 20,000 people. Researchers already knew that a separate set of latrines near the theater served audience members. The newly discovered facility was located in a stage building that was closed to the public.

“Since it is located in a closed area, it is possible to consider it an ‘artist toilet,’” Ersoy says. “This is a first among theaters in the Mediterranean region.”

The latrine was about 16 inches high, with a smaller 3- to 4-inch-deep trough for clean water located nearby, reports Ali Korkmaz for the state-run Anadolu Agency (AA). People using the toilet would have cleaned themselves with the constantly flowing clean water and the help of a sponge attached to a stick.

site of archaeological dig, aerial view
The theater was located on a hillside overlooking the ancient city. İzmir Metropolitan Municipality

As Yeni Safak reports, the theater itself dates back to the second century B.C.E. Smyrna, located at the same spot as modern İzmir on the Aegean coast, is one of the oldest cities in the Mediterranean world, per Encyclopedia Britannica. Greek-style pottery from as early as 1000 B.C.E. has been found there.

According to ancient sources, Smyrna was controlled by the Aeolians, Ionians and Lydians before being largely abandoned. Forces under the control of Alexander the Great reestablished the city in the fourth century B.C.E. Along with the rest of what’s now western Turkey, Smyrna came under Roman rule in the first century B.C.E., well before the toilet’s construction.

Communal toilets were common in the ancient Roman world, wrote Ann O. Koloski-Ostrow, an archaeologist at Brandeis University, for the Conversation in 2015. Public latrines were generally connected to the main sewer lines of a city, while private ones had to be emptied periodically. People using the public toilets had to watch out for rats and potential explosions caused by the buildup of hydrogen sulfide and methane. 

Archaeologists have been excavating the Smyrna theater since 2012. The venue, located on a rocky hill overlooking the ancient city, hosted plays, religious rituals and social activities, as Ersoy told AA in 2018. He said the theater was abandoned in the fourth century as the increasing power of Christianity led to the abandonment of “pagan” entertainment.

Earlier this year, researchers at Pergamon, a Unesco World Heritage Site in western Turkey, discovered inscribed VIP seats at an amphitheater designed to resemble Rome’s Colosseum, as Laura Geggel reported for Live Science at the time. Large enough to house as many as 50,000 spectators, the arena was likely constructed to compete with similar stadiums in Ephesus and Smyrna.

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