Before Porcelain Came To Pompeii: A Tale of Toilets (and Sanitation) in Ancient Rome

Here is something I never learned when researching the Dead Sea Scrolls for an exhibit: the toilet habits of an Essene sect from the first century BCE.  They are apparently described in two different sources: one of the Temple Scrolls (11QT) and from Flavius Josephus, an ancient historian.

Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, archaeologist and professor at Brandeis University, mentions them while comparing the sanitation records of other by-gone cultures in her latest book.

No such detailed records yet exist for ancient Roman society, but for Dr. Koloski-Ostrow, this is not a deterrent.

Using ancient literature, Roman graffiti, artwork, and the structures themselves, she pieces together an intimate and unique portrait of Ostia, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ancient Rome during the 3rd century BCE through the 2nd century CE.

The mere existence of sewers and aqueducts might lead one to believe that the engineers of Ancient Rome were millenia ahead of the rest of the world in terms of cleanliness.

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[[Image courtesy Getty Images, the ancient roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard in France. It crosses the Gardon River in the Gard département of southern France. It was built in the first century CE and is an UNESCO world heritage site. The author of this blog was delighted (and awed) to walk across the top of it years ago.]]

The evidence seems to point in that direction, especially given that public toilets were built in many Roman cities.  Ancient Rome itself had latrines designed for 47 – 60 people in a row.

But do these structures actually indicate what we, in the 21st century, might assume about their function and purpose?

This is one of the many questions asked by Dr. Koloski-Ostrow in “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems,” released this past April by the University of North Carolina Press.

Archaeology of Ancient Sanitation

 

[[Image of the book cover, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems,” courtesy of UNC Press]]

In it, she focuses on a largely ignored part of ancient life, a subject that most people today might, quite frankly, find slightly repugnant.

Since 1992, prompted by the remark of a colleague into how little has been done with this topic, Dr. Koloski-Ostrow has been researching the structures related to toilets within Ancient Roman sites.

“Roman toilets, sewers, and drains are important archaeological features that embody ideas relevant to Roman society about cleanliness, physical health, concepts of beauty, and even notions of privacy.  If toilets are excavated properly, they can provide valuable data even about the diet and socioeconomic status of users, divisions between households where they are found, construction methods and maintenance.  While the understanding that outhouse archaeology is significant has made major strides in nineteenth-century American historical circles, this perception has been slow to affect the archaeology of the Roman world.  Part of the problem, of course, is that many Roman toilets and latrines were excavated more than a hundred years ago, as the science of archaeology was developing.  As a result, no one was taking much care to stratify dung piles, to sort garbage from house toilets, or to remove privy deposits.   These early excavations sought the greatest art treasures, which were unlikely to be found in toilets.” –pg. 38, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Surprisingly, this is not a discussion of artifacts found within sewers (although certainly this work has been done by other people).  Rather, this is an intriguing tour through an ancient society at-large, viewed from the perspective of urban design.

She attributes two theories as major influences upon her work: formation processes and the social theory of architectural design.  Viewed from these lenses—in which human behavior and decisions are tantamount–sanitation and its related structures become a fascinating puzzle to decipher.

The social theory of architectural design encourages one to ponder the motivation behind the building and location of an archaeological find. Why, for example, were many private toilets in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia positioned in or near the kitchen?  What decisions were made to include or not include windows in public latrines?  And therefore, was odor a concern in either of these cases?  When sewers were available, and no laws existed to prevent builders to connect to these sewers in town, why were so many private homes still using cesspit toilets? (More on this subject below.)

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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, a street in Pompeii. Notice the raised stones.  This enabled citizens to cross the street and not get their sandals wet or dirty–from both water run-off and potential toilet refuse from those homes that connected their toilets to the street….]]

 

Formation processes, as its name suggests, focuses on the reasons behind “construction, use and ultimate abandonment” of archaeological features.

Aside from chamber pots, wealthy Roman citizens eventually had either cesspit toilets or toilets connected to city sewers within the home.

Not so for the general public.

“We know…that elite attitudes toward the masses and their living conditions were, at best, dismissive and, at worst, callous.” –pg. 75, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Within the crowded tenements of Ancient Rome, multi-storied buildings had shared latrines, if any at all.  Some were located on the ground floor; some, surprisingly, were constructed on higher levels.

And here we arrive at latrines.

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow believes the term “latrina” meant a public toilet in the 3rd century BCE.   The later word “forica” (“foricae” in plural) referred to multi-seat public toilets.  As already mentioned, the Largo Argentina in Ancient Rome provided seating for 47 people in one latrine; up to 60 people in another larger latrine constructed in the following century. Public latrines were not always part of Roman cities, and Dr. Koloski-Ostrow wonders whether these may have originally been built as a practicality: a way to keep human refuse out of city property, rather than a concern for human needs.

There were no apparent stalls or partitions.  A latrine consisted of either wooden or marble benches, and the holes were placed at the same distance from each other (with variations of just centimeters) throughout the centuries.  They were generally constructed over a main sewer branch.

 

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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, sea sponges.  Ancient Romans are believed to have used such sponges on the end of a stick as toilet paper.]]

 

The windows, at least in early latrines, were small and built high up into the wall; she describes these facilities as “grim, dark and dirty.”

And she ponders who frequented them, whether social status mattered in their use.

“Another knotty question frequently asked about latrines is whether men and women used them simultaneously.  We might also ask if women used them at all.  The best response is probably not to seek a definitive answer, but to accept the fact that in all likelihood mixed latrine use varied from region to region or even from establishment to establishment, and certainly from country to city.  Personal choice must have played a role, and there were both prudes and perverts afoot in Roman life.  Chances are that if women entered a latrine on occasion, they were women of the lowest social order, enjoying the use of a public facility, a privilege that was rarely otherwise afforded them by the Roman city administration.” –pg. 31, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy”

When I asked what alternative a woman might have had, she responded by email, that it “is very related to the hierarchical nature of all of Roman society.”

“Women of high social status,” she continued, “would not have entered a dark, dank public facility any more than a man of high social status would.”

“First of all, women of high social status did not tend to be out and about in the Roman city during the day.  Their slaves and freedwomen would have done the necessary errands and shopping for these high status women.

“If a woman of low status (slave or freedwoman) were out of the house and needed to use a toilet, she may have stepped into a public latrine, but I’m guessing that she would have thought twice about it—given worries of robbery or assault.  Such places were convenient, like nasty toilets in the New York subways, for unsavory types to lie in wait.  So, women (low status) would have done their business outside the house and then rushed back home.  In the home were chamber pots and cesspit toilets for their needs.  You can see that I cannot prove any of this, but I have outlined whatever evidence I was able to find in the sources.”

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow relied on ancient writers to help give her a sense of what import, if any, sanitation played on cultural perspectives of the time.

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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, bathing hall, Pompeii.]]

Praise for the Cloaca Maxima—the Great Sewer of Rome—can be found in Pliny the Elder, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Strabo (a Greek geographer) and Vitruvius (himself an architect), among others.  But, she notes, these writers ultimately focus on water as a vehicle for cleanliness.

Discussing this sewer in the ancient city of Rome itself and its connection to the Tiber River, Dr. Koloski-Ostrow makes an important distinction between what we today consider “hygienic” and the possible ancient ideal of visible “cleanliness.”

“The Great Sewer undoubtedly did drain off into the Tiber excess street water, mud, animal dung, and other refuse that would have otherwise cluttered urban vistas, but I am unwilling to view it as part of a Roman sanitary revolution, despite the fact that the concept of ‘health’ and the sewer are closely interrelated…A truly important interrelationship to note is that between water and its potential to clean, to refresh, and to inspire economic growth, urban development, and industry.  The sewers did the job of moving stagnant and polluted water from where it was not wanted in the urban environment to someplace else.  Another way to see this is to say that the sewer—assuming it was not hopelessly blocked—moved dirty water from where it hindered cleanliness, economic growth, development and industry.

“As Romanized cities spread across the Mediterranean, the hydraulic technology, time, and expense that were necessary to lay underground sewers surely rivaled the effort required for all other parts of the urban infrastructure, including construction of multistory apartment buildings, streets, and aqueducts.  Just as networks of pipes were necessary for bringing clean water to fountains, public baths, and private houses, in many Roman cities sewer systems were there to take it away.  Connections between these aquatic underground networks and concrete concepts of hygiene, as we would understand them, really do not exist. The most we can say is that the Romans seemed to define hygiene as the removal of visible dirt.” –pg. 66, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Remember, germ theory is a relatively recent phenomenon.   We might take for granted knowledge of microbes and their potential for disease, but this was not a solid connection in earlier human history.  This is not to say that ancient cultures were not clean (although by today’s standards, this might be debated), nor that refuse in all of its forms was not something they wanted to remove, but—as Dr. Koloski-Ostrow asserts throughout her book—it is a mistake to project 21st century understanding onto ancient structures.

From 1683 when Holland’s Anthony van Leeuwenhoek saw “small living animals” in his microscope to the late 19th century when France’s Louis Pasteur and Germany’s Robert Koch gave us concrete evidence of germs and disease, we have only just recently made this connection.

Sewers, in today’s mind, are a way to help keep disease out of our living arrangements.  We equate sewers with toilets, filth, and the often out-of-sight water treatment facilities that take care of the sewer contents.

“I want my readers to understand that having the ‘equipment’ to remove urine and excrement (sewers and latrines and house toilets) does not automatically translate to strong ideals of cleanliness and hygiene,” Dr. Koloski-Ostrow wrote.

When asked whether this was a controversial assertion in archaeological circles, she responded, “The scholarship on matters of filth in the Roman city have gone back and forth over the years. (‘Romans were clean freaks’ or ‘Romans were filthy, lice and stench ridden creatures.’)”

“…I’d rather say about it that my work will cause more discussion on the topic (rather than being radically ‘controversial,’) and I just hope that in the book I’ve provided enough careful research to show the complexity and richness of the topic.”

Bocca della Verita - Cosmedin

 

[[Above, Franco Sgariglia and Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow pose with their hands in the Bocca della Verità–the ‘mouth of truth’– in Rome, Italy.* (*Thank you to the person who corrected my original statement that it was in Cosmedin; not, in fact, a city in Italy!) Situated outside the Church of Santa Maria, brides and grooms place their hands in its mouth and say their vows.  It is believed that  this mouth will shut on anyone who does not tell the truth.  But Dr. Koloski-Ostrow, after studying the water wear on its face–determining that water flowed into rather than out of its openings like a fountain piece–believes that this stone piece was actually once a sewer cover!]]

[[Image from THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF SANITATION IN ROMAN ITALY: TOILETS, SEWERS, AND WATER SYSTEMS by Ann Koloski-Ostrow. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu]]

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[[Another image of the Bocca, from Getty Images]]

And certainly, she has done so.  Along with providing the reader new perspectives on what might have occurred in ancient construction, she describes fascinating anecdotes and possibilities.

As mentioned earlier, many private city toilets were cesspit toilets—something that some unfortunate person had to constantly empty when full—instead of simply connecting to the city sewer system that would carry all refuse away.

Why?

Consider two things: frequent flooding and the lack of systems to prevent methane and hydrogen sulphide gas build-up. Now consider what this means: in the case of flooding, unfortunate back-flow from the sewer right into homes.  And in the case of gases, the potential for frequent (and perhaps inexplicable?) explosions.

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow mentions how many archaeologists, from the first Pompeii dig to the present, were unwilling to focus on any of these ancient structures.  But this continues to be an unseemly topic for many people to openly discuss, in scholarly or other circles.

She prefaces her book with this concern.

“At times I have had my own fears either that everyone would gradually abandon me on account of my fascinations for the underside, or worse, that I would be known in scholarly circles as ‘Koloski-Ostrow on the toilet,’ which, it seems has happened.” – pg. xv, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

And while she describes the overwhelming support she’s received over the years from colleagues and friends, I still wondered how people react to her research now.

“Well,” she wrote, “I’d say that people snicker when they first hear about it.  When I explain, however, that I do not ‘just’ research Roman toilets and sewers, but the ancient technologies of water supply and distribution, urban infrastructure, ancient plumbing, and the social ideas that accompanied these topics, those snickers usually turn to rapt attention and interest.”

“I do not consider the work ‘trivial,’ but a serious new probe into the realities of life in the ancient Roman city.  My readers seem to agree after they engage with the research too.”

It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking read, written for those who are familiar with ancient Roman history, but readable for those who are not.

In response to whether she was surprised by anything she discovered, she answered, “I guess I was most surprised by how much work was necessary to do before I could sit down to put it all together—studying the archaeology on the ground at so many ancient sites, reading and assessing ancient Roman graffiti, and searching such a wide variety of classical texts (ranging over two to three hundred years of Roman writers) and analyzing Roman wall paintings.”

“It was a labor of love,” she concluded, “but a labor, nevertheless.”

———————-

For more fascinating details about ancient sanitation, including murders and bodies thrown into the sewers, please buy and read the book!

An enormous and sincere THANK YOU to Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow for her time; her open, generous and fascinating responses to my questions–especially in the midst of an incredible work-load on her part–and her graciousness in enabling me to use so many quotes from her book!  I am so grateful that she took the time to contact me directly. It was a great honor and pleasure connecting with her!  I look forward to reading her upcoming book, Pompeii and Herculaneum: Roman Daily Life in the Shadow of Vesuvius through Cambridge University Press.

Many, many thanks to Regina Mahalek and Matthew Somoroff at UNC Press for both connecting me with Dr. Koloski-Ostrow and for the pictures provided.

A big thank you to Colleen, the brilliant mind behind this post’s title. I am not good with titles; the original was a bit of a bore.  Thank you (coupled with a smile and a roll of the eyes) for the many ‘helpful’ titles offered by friends and family.

FULL DISCLOSURE: the author of this blog read an article about Dr. Koloski-Ostrow’s work in 2014, then requested and received a review copy of this book in 2015. I am profoundly grateful to the UNC Press for that book, as I thoroughly enjoyed it!

 

References:

  • The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, University of North Carolina Press, 2015
  • Handbook to life in Ancient Rome, Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, Facts on File Inc., 1994
  • The Discovery of the Germ: Twenty Years That Transformed the Way We Think About Disease, John Waller, Columbia University Press, 2002
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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, buildings of Pompeii situated below the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius]]

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