Recently Unearthed Roman Latrine Was Full of Dirty Jokes

Mosaics uncovered in a Roman bathroom in modern-day Turkey reminds us that bathroom humor has ancient roots

Ganymedes and the heron. University of Nebraska

Anyone who’s had the privilege of visiting a public restroom has likely encountered more than a few dirty jokes and obscene scrawlings. The phenomenon is nothing new. The ancient Romans were notorious for their graffiti, and much of it is preserved in Pompeii. But a new find in present-day Turkey may take Roman bathroom humor to a new level. As Megan Gannon at LiveScience reports, archaeologists have unearthed a latrine decorated with suggestive mosaics, meaning the dirty jokes were built right into the walls.

The off-color outhouse was found by the Antiochia ad Cragum Archaeological Research Project (ACARP), which has been excavating the archaeological site along the southern coast of Turkey since 2004. The team uncovered two mosaic scenes dating to the 2nd century A.D. in the latrine of a bathhouse during the last few days of the dig season this past summer. While public latrines were common in Roman-era cities and villages, very few have survived. Toilets decorated with mosaics are even more unusual.

Michael Hoff of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who is the co-director of the project, tells IFLScience that the mosaics depict two scenes: one tells a version of the legend of Ganymedes, a beautiful Trojan prince, whom Jupiter kidnapped and brought to Olympus to make him serve as his cupbearer and concubine. Ganymedes is often portrayed as the god of homosexual love.

Typically, Ganymedes is depicted with a hoop and an elater or stick, which is intended to “underline his boyish innocence,” according to Eva C. Keuls, classics professor at University of Minnesota, in The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens. In the mosaic, however, Ganymedes is shown with a stick with a sponge on the tip, possibly so he could clean the latrines. Meanwhile, Jupiter is depicted in the scene as a heron, suggestively sponging Ganymede’s privates with his long beak. “It’s bathroom humor that would have been appreciated by the males who would have been visiting the latrine while doing their business,” says Hoff.

The other mural depicts Narcissus, the Greco-Roman mythological character who falls in love with his own reflection in the waters of a spring, eventually wasting away. In the latrine version, however, Narcissus has a very long nose, which Romans would have recognized as a sign of ugliness. Instead of admiring the reflection of his face in the water, he is ogling the reflection of his well-endowed genitals.

It’s not known if this latrine was especially naughty or if these types of mosaics may have been a common element of lavatories. What we do know from Pompeii and other sites is that sexually suggestive murals were common in places like taverns, brothels and in some homes. Suggestive artwork or trinkets were also not unusual.

Whatever the case, the jokes help archaeologists put a human face on their work. “The humor that is expressed from these mosaics really does put humanity into our abandoned city. We had been working here for 10 years and we’ve found buildings, markets, temples, and bath buildings – it’s all neat but it doesn’t speak that much to the people who actually lived here,” Hoff tells IFLScience. “I think this was really the most intimate piece of evidence that we have of the humanity who lived and breathed and worked and played here at our ancient city.”

The mosaics aren’t the only treasure archaeologists have found in Antiochia, which served as an important Roman trading center in the region and was later the seat of a bishopric during the Byzantine era before being abandoned in the 11th century. Researchers believe Antiochia would have served as an attractive hiding spot for pirates and other criminals. In another bath building, archaeologists discovered a hoard of 3,000 silver coins dating mostly to the 1600s and from regions all over Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The cache of coins appear to have been buried there intentionally. Underneath the loot, the researchers discovered the bones of a person who may have been a murder victim.

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