“I live my life in the gutter,” says Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow with a chuckle.
An anthropologist at Brandeis University, she considers her “official” title the Queen of Latrines. For the past 25 years, she has taken that label literally, spending much of her time inancient Roman gutters.
“There’s a lot you can find out about a culture when you look at how they managed their toilets,” Koloski-Ostrow says. “That’s why I study it.”
I crossed paths with the Queen of Latrines after making an accidental discovery in Ephesus(in what is now Turkey),which grew to prominence around the second century C.E. and housed some 300,000 to 400,000 denizens. One day, I ambled into an open space drastically different from anything I’d seen before. In front of me was a long white marble bench with a row of holes shaped just like modern toilet seats: a Roman bathroom.
The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste Into Wealth and Health
Grossly ambitious and rooted in scientific scholarship, "The Other Dark Matter" shows how human excrement can be a life-saving, money-making resource—if we make better use of it.
Turning around, I discovered two more rows of holes, altogether able to accommodate a small party. But the holes were cut so close to one another that I was left wondering how people actually used them. Wouldn’t they put you in the immediate proximity of someone else’s butt? There were no dividers of any kind in between. Talk about not having inhibitions, conducting your private business next to a dozen other folks.
Underneath the seats was a stone-lined gutter that must have carried citizens’ waste out of the city. A second shallower one ran beneath my feet. It, too, was clearly built to carry water—but for what? Other questions brewed. Did the enclosure have a roof, doors and windows? Were the stone seats hot in summer and cold in winter? Did toilet-goers talk to each other? Did they shake hands after wiping? And what did they actually wipe with, given that toilet paper is a fairly recent development? Was this a men’s room or a ladies’ room?
This chance encounter left such a profound impression that I found myself obsessed, searching for answers that had seemingly long since disappeared into the annals of history—or rather, into its sewers. I was curious whether anyone had ever studied the topic, and sure enough, someone had: Koloski-Ostrow, author of The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems.
Over a lovely conversation about bodily excretions, chamber pots, butt-wiping habits, sewer vermin and other equally unappetizing topics, the ancient Romans’ views on waste, hygiene and toilet habits begin to take shape. The word “latrine,” or latrina in Latin, was used to describe a private toilet in someone’s home, usually constructed over a cesspit. Public toilets were called foricae. They were often attached to public baths, whose water was used to flush down the filth.
Because the Roman Empire lasted for 2,000 years and stretched from Africa to the British Isles, Roman toilet attitudes varied geographically and over time. Generally speaking, however, the Romans had fewer inhibitions than people today. They were reasonably content sitting in close quarters—after all, Roman theater seats were rather close, too, about 12 inches apart. And they were similarly at ease when taking communal dumps.
“Today, you pull down your pants and expose yourself, but when you had your toga wrapped around you, it provided a natural protection,” Koloski-Ostrow says. “The clothes they wore would provide a barricade so you actually could do your business in relative privacy, get up and go. And hopefully your toga wasn’t too dirty after that.” If you compare the forica with the modern urinal, she adds, it actually offers more privacy.
Despite the lack of toilet paper, toilet-goers did wipe. That’s what the mysterious shallow gutter was for. The Romans cleaned their behinds with sea sponges attached to a stick, and the gutter supplied clean flowing water to dip the sponges in. This soft, gentle tool was called a tersorium, which literally meant “a wiping thing.”
The Romans liked to move their bowels in comfort. Whether they washed their hands after that is another story. Maybe they dipped their fingers into an amphora by the door. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they did in some parts of the empire but not in others. Worse, the tersoria were probably reused and shared by all fellow butt-wipers who came and went throughout the day. So, if one of the forica visitors had intestinal worms, all the others would carry them home, too. Without any knowledge of how diseases spread, the overall Roman toilet setup could hardly be called hygienic by modern standards.
Though they look advanced for an ancient civilization, Roman public toilets were far from glamorous. The white marble seats gleaming in the sun may look clean now, but that was hardly the case when these facilities were operational. They had low roofs and tiny windows that let in little light. People sometimes missed the holes, so the floors and seats were often soiled. The air stunk. “Think about it—how often does someone come and wipe off that marble?” Koloski-Ostrow asks. In fact, she thinks the facilities were so unwelcoming that the empire’s elite only used them under great duress.
Upper-class Romans, who sometimes paid for the foricae to be erected, generally wouldn’t set foot in these places. They constructed them for the poor and the enslaved—but not because they took pity on the lower classes. They built these public toilets so they wouldn’t have to walk knee-deep in excrement on the streets. Just like any other civilization that chose to urbanize, the Romans were up against a problem: What to do with all this waste? The Roman elite viewed public toilets as an instrument that flushed the filth of the plebes out of their noble sight. In Roman baths, it was common practice to inscribe the name of the benefactor who paid to build the facility, but toilet walls bear no such writing. “It seems that no one in Rome wanted to be associated with a toilet,” Koloski-Ostrow says.
Why would refined noblemen want to sit next to common people who had lice, open wounds, skin sores, diarrhea and other health problems? That wasn’t the worst of it. The sewers underneath the public toilets were a welcoming home for vermin. “Rats, snakes and spiders would come up from down below,” Koloski-Ostrow explains. Plus, the decomposing sewage may have produced methane, which could ignite, quite literally lighting a fire under someone.
Neither were the public toilets built to accommodate women. By the second century, “public latrines were constructed in the areas of the city where men had business to do,” Koloski-Ostrow says. “Maybe [an enslaved] girl who was sent to the market would venture in, out of necessity, although she would fear being mugged or raped. But an elite Roman woman wouldn’t be caught dead in there.”
Back at their comfortable villas, wealthy citizens had their own personal latrines constructed over cesspools. But even they may have preferred the more comfortable, less smelly option of chamber pots, which enslaved people were forced to empty onto garden patches. The elite didn’t want to connect their cesspools to the sewer pipes because that would likely bring the vermin and stink into their homes. Instead, they hired stercorraii—manure removers—to empty their pits. Koloski-Ostrow notes that in one case, “11 asses may have been paid for the removal of manure.”
The famous Roman sewers were another story. At the height of its power, Rome had to clean up after about a million people.An average adult produces about a pound of poo a day, so a 500-ton pile of feces is a mind-boggling image.While Roman farmers understood the waste’s fertilizing value and put some of it back into the fields, the city couldn’t recycle it fast enough. To flush that much excrement out of the city daily, one needs a truly massive system.
The Romans did everything on a grand scale—including filth removal. They initially gleaned their sewer technology from the Greeks. In her book, Koloski-Ostrow attributes this “technology transfer” to “Hellenistic cultural forces” and Roman soldiers who starting building latrines in military camps. To keep their Roman-sized Augean stables clean, the Romans scaled up the system to massive proportions, building the Greatest Sewer, or Cloaca Massima. (It was named after the Roman goddess Cloacina—the Cleanser, from the Latin verb cluo, meaning “to clean.”)
The Cloaca Massima moved millions of gallons of water every day. It was so immense that Greek geographer and historian Strabo wrote that Rome’s sewers were big enough “for wagons loaded with hay to pass” and for “veritable rivers” to flow through them.
The sewer accomplished several things. It drained the excess water from the city, rid the people of their waste and generally carried away everything they didn’t want, discharging it into the River Tiber. It also drained water from the surrounding swamps and river valleys, preventing floods. Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote that when the rivers surrounding Rome spilled into the sewers with unrelenting force, the sewers withstood Mother Nature’s wrath, directing the currents down to the Tiber, where the triple-arch outlet of the Cloaca Massima still stands today. When the sewers clogged up or needed other repairs, a considerable amount of money was spent on keeping them functioning. Despite many earthquakes, floods, collapsed buildings and other cataclysms, the Roman sewers stood strong over centuries.
The Cloaca Massima solved Rome’s sewage removal problems, but it didn’t solve the city’s health issues. It carried the filth out of the city and dumped it into the Tiber, polluting the very water some citizens depended on for irrigation, bathing and drinking. And so, while the Romans no longer had to see, or smell, their excrement, they hadn’t done much to eliminate its hazardous nature. Through the next several centuries, as humankind kept concentrating in cities, it would find itself in a bitter battle with its own waste—seemingly with no way to win.
Adapted from The Other Science Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste Into Wealth and Healthby Lina Zeldovich, to be published by University of Chicago on November 19, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Lina Zeldovich.
Lina Zeldovich has written for the New York Times, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, and other publications and has won four awards for covering the science of poop. Her book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, was released in November 2021 by Chicago University Press.
How did ancient Romans go to the bathroom? ›
The word “latrine,” or latrina in Latin, was used to describe a private toilet in someone's home, usually constructed over a cesspit. Public toilets were called foricae. They were often attached to public baths, whose water was used to flush down the filth.How did Romans clean themselves after pooping? ›
Our ancient Roman would simply wipe him- or herself, rinse the tersorium in whatever was available (running water and/or a bucket of vinegar or salt water), and leave it for the next person to use. That's right, it was a shared butt cleaner.How did ancient people use the bathroom? ›
From 332 bc to 642 a.d during the greco-roman. Period another stick was used called a tesorium.How do Romans use the toilet? ›
Ancient Roman Toilets
As with the ancient Greeks, the Romans did not have toilet paper. Instead, they used a sponge attached to a stick, which they would dip into a shallow channel of water and then use to rinse themselves off. In some cases, the sponge was kept in a bucket of saltwater and vinegar.
- The Romans would have baths together. ...
- The Romans invented loads of things! ...
- The Roman's most popular form of entertainment were Gladiator fights. ...
- The rich Romans had servants. ...
- We still use some Roman roads. ...
- They worshipped a lot of different Gods and Goddesses. ...
- Ancient Rome is underground.
Construction. The Romans had a complex system of sewers covered by stones, much like modern sewers. Waste flushed from the latrines flowed through a central channel into the main sewage system and thence into a nearby river or stream.Did Romans wash their clothes in urine? ›
In fact, in ancient Rome, vessels for collecting urine were commonplace on streets–passers-by would relieve themselves into them and when the vats were full their contents were taken to a fullonica (a laundry), diluted with water and poured over dirty clothes.What did they use before toilet paper? ›
Nature makes great toilet paper
Leaves, sticks, moss, sand and water were common choices, depending on early humans' environment. Once we developed agriculture, we had options like hay and corn husks. People who lived on islands or on the coast used shells and a scraping technique.
If you went to the toilet in ancient Rome, you would not have any toilet paper. Instead you may have used a sponge (Latin: tersorium) to wipe. These ancient devices consisted of a stick with a vinegar- or salt water-soaked sponge attached. They were often shared!What were the first toilets like? ›
The first modern flushable toilet was described in 1596 by Sir John Harington, an English courtier and the godson of Queen Elizabeth I. Harington's device called for a 2-foot-deep oval bowl waterproofed with pitch, resin and wax and fed by water from an upstairs cistern.
How did people wipe their butts before toilet paper? ›
And though sticks have been popular for cleaning the anus throughout history, ancient people wiped with many other materials, such as water, leaves, grass, stones, animal furs and seashells. In the Middle Ages, Morrison added, people also used moss, sedge, hay, straw and pieces of tapestry.Why did Roman toilets explode? ›
Apparently during the flood water with faeces could spill from toilets; in turn, a large amount of methane in the pipes could even cause a flame explosion. The proof that ancient Romans were afraid – in some sense – of toilets is the fact that we find fewer traces of graffiti in toilets than in other public places.How did people used to go to the bathroom? ›
People used leaves, grass, or even dry corn cobs for wiping. Chamber pots had to be emptied each day. This was usually done by emptying them down the privy hole. With liquid waste, some just threw the contents out in the yard.What would it have been like to use a private Roman toilet? ›
Unlike public latrines, private toilets were not usually connected to the local sewer system. Instead, Romans would fill up their cesspits and empty them in their gardens or a field outside town.What was the first toilet? ›
The credit for inventing the flush toilet goes to Sir John Harrington, godson of Elizabeth I, who invented a water closet with a raised cistern and a small downpipe through which water ran to flush the waste in 1592.What is Rome's nickname? ›
The Eternal City is one of the most popular nicknames for Rome for excellent reasons.Why did the Romans love water? ›
In ancient Rome, water was worshipped like a deity. Its abundance not only meant the wellbeing of Rome's citizens but was also a sign of wealth and power for its burgeoning civilization. The site of Rome is naturally well-supplied with sources of water, notably nearby springs, and easily-accessible groundwater.What food did the Romans eat? ›
The Romans primarily ate cereals and legumes, usually with sides of vegetables, cheese, or meat and covered with sauces made out of fermented fish, vinegar, honey, and various herbs and spices. While they had some refrigeration, much of their diet depended on which foods were locally and seasonally available.How did Romans keep bath water clean? ›
The Romans did not have disinfectants and it is likely that the bathing pools were only periodically emptied and cleaned. In addition, the baths often had built-in toilets which recycled bath water to carry away the waste.How often did Romans bathe? ›
Bathing was a custom introduced to Italy from Greece towards the end of the 3rd century B.C. Early Romans washed their arms and legs everyday, which were dirty from working, but only washed their whole bodies every nine days.
How did the Romans wash their hair? ›
They used lye soap which is made by combining ashes with lard or other oils and fats. This kind of soap was known from ancient Egyptian times. It was customary in Rome to always wash your hair on August 13th in honor of Diana, but they washed it other times as well, obviously.What was human urine used for? ›
Given that urea in urine breaks down into ammonia, urine has been used for cleaning. In pre-industrial times, urine was used – in the form of lant or aged urine – as a cleaning fluid. Urine was also used for whitening teeth in Ancient Rome.What is a Roman bath called? ›
In ancient Rome, thermae (from Greek θερμός thermos, "hot") and balneae (from Greek βαλανεῖον balaneion) were facilities for bathing. Thermae usually refers to the large imperial bath complexes, while balneae were smaller-scale facilities, public or private, that existed in great numbers throughout Rome.What did female wear in ancient Rome? ›
For most of ancient Roman history, respectable Roman women wore the stola — a long dress that reached down to the feet that was worn over a tunic. The stola was usually sleeveless and could be made out of a range of materials, though it had traditionally been made out of wool, like the toga.How did Romans clean themselves? ›
Not even the Greeks and Romans, who pioneered running water and public baths, used soap to clean their bodies. Instead, men and women immersed themselves in water baths and then smeared their bodies with scented olive oils. They used a metal or reed scraper called a strigil to remove any remaining oil or grime.Do Japanese use toilet paper? ›
Toilet paper is used in Japan, even by those who own toilets with bidets and washlet functions (see below). In Japan, toilet paper is thrown directly into the toilet after use. However, please be sure to put just the toilet paper provided in the toilet.Do Africans use toilet paper? ›
Yet 70% of the world's population doesn't use toilet paper at all. Big areas of southern Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia use water instead.What would it have been like to use a private Roman toilet? ›
Unlike public latrines, private toilets were not usually connected to the local sewer system. Instead, Romans would fill up their cesspits and empty them in their gardens or a field outside town.How did people wipe before toilet paper? ›
Leaves, sticks, moss, sand and water were common choices, depending on early humans' environment. Once we developed agriculture, we had options like hay and corn husks. People who lived on islands or on the coast used shells and a scraping technique.Did the Romans brush their teeth? ›
The ancient Romans also practiced dental hygiene.
They used frayed sticks and abrasive powders to brush their teeth. These powders were made from ground-up hooves, pumice, eggshells, seashells, and ashes.
Who did the Romans fear the most? ›
Of all the groups who invaded the Roman Empire, none was more feared than the Huns. Their superior fighting technique would cause thousands to flee west in the 5th century.What did Romans use for toilet paper? ›
If you relieved yourself in a public latrine in ancient Rome, you may have used a tersorium to wipe. These ancient devices consisted of a stick with a vinegar- or salt water-soaked sponge attached.How did Romans clean themselves? ›
Not even the Greeks and Romans, who pioneered running water and public baths, used soap to clean their bodies. Instead, men and women immersed themselves in water baths and then smeared their bodies with scented olive oils. They used a metal or reed scraper called a strigil to remove any remaining oil or grime.How often did Romans bathe? ›
Bathing was a custom introduced to Italy from Greece towards the end of the 3rd century B.C. Early Romans washed their arms and legs everyday, which were dirty from working, but only washed their whole bodies every nine days.Do the Royals wipe themselves? ›
When they wipe their face and hands at the table, they do so inside the fold so their clothes don't get dirty. Don't miss these 12 times the royal family broke their own protocol.Do Japanese use toilet paper? ›
Toilet paper is used in Japan, even by those who own toilets with bidets and washlet functions (see below). In Japan, toilet paper is thrown directly into the toilet after use. However, please be sure to put just the toilet paper provided in the toilet.Which culture does not use toilet paper? ›
Millions of Muslims and Hindus around the world were bowled over by this need to buy toilet paper since they typically wash their backsides with water. According to Sahih al-Bukhari, one of the six significant Hadith collections in Sunni Islam, the left hand should be used for anal ablution after defecation.