On June 1st, 2016 we learned about

The somwhat putrid, often pestilent, public potties of ancient Rome

There’s nothing like that moment of dread as you open the door to a public bathroom you’ve never used before. Will it have toilet paper? Will the stall doors be intact? Did the previous users at least try to flush before leaving? As unpleasant as this is, it’s apparently not as scary as what ancient Romans worried about with their public latrines, since they bothered to include shines to protective goddesses and warnings about demons to anyone who needed to defecate while out in the city. As researchers have started more closely examining these accommodations, they’ve found that while demonic possession probably wasn’t a problem, many other aspects of these early toilets did pose risk for injury or infection.

Romans didn’t invent the toilet, as earlier examples of dedicated latrines have been found as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. Minoans later came up with the idea of flushing an used toilet out with water, and Hellenistic Greeks started building public spaces with a collection of latrines. The Romans, however, seemed to have really been fixated on these ideas though, because they built a lot of them. Upper class Roman households had private commodes, multi-story buildings had toilets emptying into central waste pits, and of course there large public works, including public toilet chambers, drainage ditches along roads, and the Cloaca Maxima— Rome’s central sewage system.

Coming together to share the sewer

For the amount of effort put into them, none of these potties were terribly pleasant. Private commodes in Rome weren’t fancy, often located in or near a houses kitchen, so that food scraps could be dumped into them as well. They were likely much more comfortable than the public toilet chambers though, which would be large rooms with bench-like latrines along the outer walls. Round holes were cut in the seats so that the user could defecate into a pit or pipe with running water. The front of the latrine had a sort of keyhole opening, pointing to a narrow stream of water running along in front of each seat. This was likely allow people to moisten sponges on a stick that were used in place of toilet paper. If your sponge was too dirty or dry, you’d rinse it in this line of water then resume cleaning yourself.

As you might imagine, it seems nobody chose to linger at these bathrooms longer than necessary. Graffiti has been found on the walls outside these locations, but rarely inside, indicating that people had to wait in a line to get in, but were much more efficient with their time once they got inside. The design of the sewers seems to have been easily susceptible to blockages, and preserved pupae indicate that they were breeding grounds for flies. Written accounts mention invasive octopuses coming out of toilets, but that role was likely filled by things like rats who could have used them for access to the whole city. If all that weren’t enough, methane may have occasionally become ignited, with spurts of flames erupting from the potty seat. Maybe this explains the fears of demons?

After the smell, bugs, rats and flames, the kicker is that there is no solid evidence that any of this actually improved hygiene or health. Archaeological evidence for suggests that Romans likely carried the equivalent number of parasites to people from Bronze Age cultures without any of this elaborate infrastructure.  This isn’t entirely due to the bathrooms directly, but rather that egg-carrying feces was used as fertilizer and then fed back to the population. Since Romans didn’t have any kind of germ theory and thought that disease arose from the imbalance of humors in the body, these failures were probably lost on them anyway.

Lingering questions

With so many ways that Roman toilets don’t meet modern standards for hygienically dealing with waste, archaeologists are working understanding what the goal of these latrines was. There isn’t much documentation about toilets from ancient Rome, and this unglamorous subject hasn’t been thoroughly studied until recently. Researchers are now finding old latrines to provide a bounty of information about people’s diets and habits, but there remains a lot to be discovered. Did people socialize in these open spaces? Were they gender segregated? And with all the marks against them from a modern perspective, did the Romans consider them a success?

Source: The secret history of ancient toilets by Chelsea Wald, Nature News