How the Ancient Romans Went to the Bathroom (2022)

How the Ancient Romans Went to the Bathroom (1)

“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.

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.

(Video) How They Did It - Going to the Bathroom in Ancient Rome

How the Ancient Romans Went to the Bathroom (3)

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.”

How the Ancient Romans Went to the Bathroom (4)

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.

(Video) Public Latrines in Ancient Rome

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.

How the Ancient Romans Went to the Bathroom (5)

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.”

“There’s a lot you can find out about a culture when you look at how they managed their toilets.”

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.

(Video) How Did The Romans Go To The Toilet?

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.

How the Ancient Romans Went to the Bathroom (6)

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.

Recommended Videos

(Video) A Guide to Roman Latrines

FAQs

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.

Where did Roman soldiers go to the toilet? ›

When out on patrol, Roman soldiers would just go to the toilet wherever they were. Back at the fort, they shared communal toilet spaces, such as can be found at Hadrian's Wall. The toilets had their own plumbing and sewers, sometimes using water from bath houses to flush them.

What did Romans use instead of toilet paper? ›

Archaeologists have yet to settle the sponge-on-stick debate. But they have uncovered samples of pessoi, a humbler, ancient Greek and Roman toilet paper equivalent. Consisting of small oval or circular pebbles or pieces of broken ceramic, pessoi have been uncovered in the ruins of ancient Roman and Greek latrines.

Did Romans wash their clothes in urine? ›

Before soap, urine, mixed with water, was used as a detergent for clothing. The ammonia in the urine made even the worst stains go out of the clothes. The barrels of urine were therefore eagerly purchased by laundries. Urine was not only used to wash clothes, but the Romans also used it to brush their teeth.

Did ancient Romans use toilet paper? ›

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.

Were Roman baths hygienic? ›

Although there were many sewers, public latrines, baths and other sanitation infrastructure, disease was still rampant. The baths are known to symbolise the "great hygiene of Rome".

How did the Romans get rid of human waste? ›

The major drain in Rome was the Cloaca Maxima, which was constructed in the 6'~ century BC9 This was originally an open sewer to help drain the marshy land in the Forum Romanum and the Suburba, but by the late Republic the Cloaca became a system of underground paved sewers, which extended throughout the city and ...

What was hygiene like in ancient Rome? ›

Hygiene in ancient Rome included the famous public Roman baths, toilets, exfoliating cleansers, public facilities, and—despite the use of a communal toilet sponge (ancient Roman Charmin®)—generally high standards of cleanliness.

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.

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 diapers? ›

Swaddles as nappies

Back in the day, in Roman times, a gent named Soranus (not even kidding) suggested that babies be swaddled in soft cloth. The cloth would soak up the pee and poop and presumably be changed fairly often.

Did the Romans brush teeth with urine? ›

The Romans used to buy bottles of Portuguese urine and use that as a rinse. GROSS! Importing bottled urine became so popular that the emperor Nero taxed the trade. The ammonia in urine was thought to disinfect mouths and whiten teeth, and urine remained a popular mouthwash ingredient until the 18th century.

Why is the Roman bath water green? ›

Why is the water green? In Roman times the baths would have had a roof – they would not have been open air as they are today. The sunlight allows lots of plants and algae to grow in the water, the heat and minerals in the water allow the algae to reproduce very quickly, hence the water is green.

Did Romans eat pizza? ›

Did you know pizza took the United States by storm before it became popular in its native Italy? Pizza has a long history. Flatbreads with toppings were consumed by the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. (The latter ate a version with herbs and oil, similar to today's focaccia.)

How did Victorian ladies go to the toilet? ›

For ease of use, Victorian women could simply hold the chamber pot in their hands, rest a foot on the top of the chair, and hold the chamber pot underneath the skirts. For those who wish for visual aids (not at all indecent!), Prior Attire demonstrates using the restroom in Victorian clothing.

Did Romans wash? ›

BATHING & CLEANING

In terms of bathing and cleaning, the Romans really earned their laurels. They believed that good health came from bathing, eating, massages and exercise. Many Roman Citizens would bathe frequently during the week. The Romans saw bathing as a social activity as well as a way of keeping clean.

Why did Roman soldiers carry vinegar? ›

The Roman Empire ensured soldiers were hydrated with a mix of sour wine, vinegar and herbs called posca, an acidic, slightly tart drink (sound familiar?).

Did Roman baths smell? ›

Toilets and public baths were heavy with the smell of excrement, urine and disease. In classical scholarship, when we sniff out what the nose knows, we reconstruct a vivid picture of daily life in Rome, one that reveals both the risks and the delights of that ancient society.

How did 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.

Were Roman baths unisex? ›

In the Roman bath houses, men and women did not bath together. It was considered to be in poor taste so, each had their own designated time at the bath house. For instance, woman may have been allowed in the bath houses in the morning while men came in in the afternoon.

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.

Why did the Romans fear public toilets? ›

They were afraid of connecting their houses to the sewers, since they feared what might climb out of a sewer into one's house,” she wrote in her email. (Roman toilet rats!) “They also feared the mephitic gas fires that sometimes burned in sewer holes or in the open seats in public toilets.”

Did Romans use soap? ›

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.

What did the ancient Greeks use to wipe their butts? ›

Ancient Greece Hygiene

Ancient Greeks often used stones ("pessoi") or fragments of ceramic ("ostraka") to wipe. Pessoi as wiping objects are found in Ancient Greek art, writings, and even proverbs.

What ancient civilization had the best hygiene? ›

Based on the writings of Herodotus, Ancient Egyptians used many healthy hygiene habits, such as washing, and laundry. They also knew to use mint to make their breath fresh. According to Ancient History Online Encyclopedia, Ancient Egyptians always tried to make their bodies clean.

How did ancient humans wipe? ›

In very ancient times, wiping with stones and other natural materials and rinsing with water or snow was common. Some cultures opted for seashells and animal furs. A sponge on a stick, known as tersorium or xylospongium.

What did Romans use to wipe their butt? ›

A tool called a tersorium, which was “used to clean the buttocks after defecation.” Imagine a loofah, but made of fresh sea sponge, attached to a wooden rod—similar to back-washers sold in drugstores today.

How did the Romans get rid of human waste? ›

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.

What did the Romans use to clean themselves? ›

In Ancient Roman and Greek cultures, the strigil was used for cleansing the body by scraping off dirt, perspiration and oil that was applied before bathing.

Did ancient Rome have flushing toilets? ›

Roman toilets didn't flush. Some of them were tied into internal plumbing and sewer systems, which often consisted of just a small stream of water running continuously beneath the toilet seats.

When did humans start wiping their own bottom? ›

East Asia (700 AD)

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.

Why do Greek toilets not have toilet paper? ›

Greek plumbing often consists of dated, narrow pipes which will easily clog if you flush toilet paper down them (and definitely clog if you flush anything else like tampons or baby wipes).

Was Pompeii smelly? ›

The ancient Romans lived in smelly cities. We know this from archaeological evidence found at the best-preserved sites of Roman Italy — Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia and Rome — as well as from contemporary literary references. When I say smelly, I mean eye-wateringly, pungently smelly. Even the entertainment reeked.

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.

What was hygiene like in ancient Rome? ›

Hygiene in ancient Rome included the famous public Roman baths, toilets, exfoliating cleansers, public facilities, and—despite the use of a communal toilet sponge (ancient Roman Charmin®)—generally high standards of cleanliness.

How did 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 did Romans use for diapers? ›

Swaddles as nappies

Back in the day, in Roman times, a gent named Soranus (not even kidding) suggested that babies be swaddled in soft cloth. The cloth would soak up the pee and poop and presumably be changed fairly often.

What ancient civilization had the best hygiene? ›

Based on the writings of Herodotus, Ancient Egyptians used many healthy hygiene habits, such as washing, and laundry. They also knew to use mint to make their breath fresh. According to Ancient History Online Encyclopedia, Ancient Egyptians always tried to make their bodies clean.

How did people wipe before toilet paper? ›

From Seashells to Communal Sponges

In very ancient times, wiping with stones and other natural materials and rinsing with water or snow was common. Some cultures opted for seashells and animal furs. A sponge on a stick, known as tersorium or xylospongium.

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.

When did humans start using toilet paper? ›

So, it makes sense that the first recorded use of toilet paper was in the 6th century A.D. In his writings, a scholar named Yen Chih-Thui noted that when he used old manuscripts to clean up after his toilet time, he never used the pages with important quotes or the names of the sages.

Videos

1. Public Bathroom in Ancient Rome Style | Forest Destine
(Epic! Forest Destine WORLD TRAVEL Enthusiast)
2. Ancient Roman Bathroom!!
(ScienceJim)
3. History of Toilets in Ancient Rome
(HIST!MYTH)
4. 10 Truly Disgusting Facts About Ancient Roman Life
(Rich Tomato)
5. Did The Romans Really Swipe Their Backside With A Shared Sponge? | Ancient Roman Toilet Paper
(SandRhoman History)
6. Deadliest Uses of This Ancient Roman Toilet Paper Alternative
(Classics In Color)

Top Articles

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Laurine Ryan

Last Updated: 12/02/2022

Views: 6470

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (77 voted)

Reviews: 84% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Laurine Ryan

Birthday: 1994-12-23

Address: Suite 751 871 Lissette Throughway, West Kittie, NH 41603

Phone: +2366831109631

Job: Sales Producer

Hobby: Creative writing, Motor sports, Do it yourself, Skateboarding, Coffee roasting, Calligraphy, Stand-up comedy

Introduction: My name is Laurine Ryan, I am a adorable, fair, graceful, spotless, gorgeous, homely, cooperative person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.