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Roman Toilets

J. C. McKeown is a Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  His new book, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire, is a collection carefully gleaned from the wide body of evidence left to us by the Romans themselves.  Each fact or opinion highlights a curious feature of life in ancient Rome.  Below we have excerpted some tidbits from the chapter on Roman toilets.

The Romans were justly proud of their extensive system of aqueducts.  Frontinus boasts, Could you compare with all these many massive and serviceable acqueducts the useless pyramids or the famous but idle works of the Greeks?  (On the Water-Supply of Rome 1.16).  Much of the water from the aqueducts was used to keep the public toilets clean, maintaining a constant flow through these facilities directly to the sewers and on to the Tiber.

According to the notitia regionum, an early-4th-century A.D. catalog of the city’s buildings and landmarks, Rome then had 144 public latrinae.

The standard of engineering in Roman latrinae was not achieved again in Europe until the 19th century.

Just as aqueducts provided an abundant water supply, so a certain degree of sanitation was ensured by the system of sewers, especially the Cloaca Maxima (Main Drain).  Begun in the city’s earliest times, it was much admired in antiquity, and is still, to a very limited degree, operational today.

Until recently, not much research was done on ancient toilets.  Archaeologists were often reluctant to identify them for what they are.  Likewise, in antiquity, Vitruvius and Frontinus were very reticent about waste disposal in the influential treatises on architecture and aqueducts, respectively.

Almost all the private houses excavated in Herculaneum and Pompeii had toilet facilities, often in the kitchen or under the stairs; there is little evidence for doors to these cubbyholes.

At the animal-fighting recently, one of the Germans who was getting ready for the show withdrew to relieve himself – that was the only privacy he had, away from his guard.  There he choked himself to death by ramming down his throat the stick with a sponge attached that is provided for personal hygiene (Seneca…).  Remnants of sponges have been discovered in a Roman sewer at York in northern England.

Apollinaris medicus Titi Imp. hic cacavit bene (“Apollinarius, physician to the emperor Titus, had a find shit here”) (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions… a graffito in the Casa della Gemma in Herculaneum).

I do not think that silver chamber pots are included with heirlooms, since they are not part of the silver collection (Justinian’s Digest…).  This legal ruling presumably exists because chamber pots were often made of silver.  Even gold ones are mentioned occasionally; most notoriously, Mark Anthony was criticized for using one (Pliny Natural History…).

The Emperor August Caesar, son of a god, Pontifex Maximus, designated consul for the twelfth time, and tribune of the people for the eighteenth time, sends greetings to the officials, the council, and the people of Cnidus. So beings a letter sent by Augustus in 6 B.C. to a not particularly important Greek community, attempting to settle a dispute over the apparently accidental death of someone who tried to break into a house and was hit by a chamber pot that slipped from the hand of a slave trying to empty its contents down over him (Select Greek Inscriptions…).

A papyrus letter records the dramatic details of a similar incident brought to the royal court in the pre-Roman period:

Greetings to King Ptolemy.  I have been wronged by a woman named Psneobastis from Pysa.  I went to Pysa on business.  She leaned out of an upper-story window and drenched me by emptying a chamber pot into the street.  When I complained angrily, she pulled at my cloak, exposing my chest, and spat in my face.  I can provide witnesses to prove that I have been subjected to an unjust attack. (Lille Papyri…)

I have wet the bed; I confess, I have done wrong, innkeeper.  If you ask, Why? there was no chamber pot (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions… a technically quite accomplished elegiac couplet.)

At lines 1026-29 of the fourth book of his On the Nature of Things, one of the greatest poems ever written in Latin, Lucretius gives a high-style description of bed-wetting:

When they are bound up by sleep, people who are normally immaculate often believe that they are raising up their clothing by a basin or a shallow pot; they pour out the liquid filtered from their whole body, and the oriental bedding with its magnificent splendor is soaked.

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