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Roman toilets carried parasites

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman toilet
Roman toilet | Photo: CRAIG TAYLOR

As we learn from the research, public baths, latrines, sewers, fountains and clean drinking water did not protect the ancient Romans from parasites at all.

A work published in the journal “Parasitology” proves that Roman civilization, considered very hygienic, did not differ much from the Iron Age in terms of the degree of transmission of parasites. The author of the study, Piers Mitchell, conducted his research on the basis of residues in sewage, cesspools, pits filled with rubbish or graves. To his surprise, it turned out that the civilization facilities of the Romans only increased the rate of transmission of parasites and bacteria.

According to him, the most common parasites of Roman times were the whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) and nematodes (Ascaris lumbricoides), which spread as a result of contamination of food with faeces. According to the researcher, this degree of infection was due to the fact that the Romans prepared food without washing their hands or by using human waste as fertilizer.

Protozoa Entamoeba histolytica were also common and caused dysentery with bloody diarrhoea, abdominal pain and fever. Here, contamination of drinking water with human faeces was of great importance. In ancient Rome, there were also lice and fleas, at a level similar to that of the Middle Ages and the Vikings.

It is also worth mentioning that in Roman times (compared to the Iron and Bronze Age), the range of broad mole-like eggs was increased. The researcher believes this is because the Romans loved garum sauce, made from fermented fish guts. The liquid was not boiled but only exposed to the sun.

It should be emphasized that Roman doctors were aware of the presence of parasites. Galen (130-210 CE), who was the court physician of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus or Septimius Severus, believed that parasites arise spontaneously under the influence of heat. A Roman physician recommended dietary modification, bloodletting, and the use of medications that could have a cooling and drying effect. In the case of lice and fleas, patches were applied to the hairy areas and then torn off. Desiccation could have been an everyday reality for most of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire.

Mitchell’s discoveries are so surprising that so far ancient Romans were considered to be fully hygienic and healthier than other peoples. The proof of this were public latrines, sewage systems, aqueducts with drinking water, toilets were equipped with sponges for washing intimate places. Naturally, the facilities of the Romans were not pointless. Thanks to these tabernacles, people were cleaner and smelled better. As it turns out, the issue of health is different.


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