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Hygiene in ancient Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman military latrine
Roman military latrine - visualization based on the ruins at Hadrian's Wall in Housesteads (England).
Contents

To this day, the Roman civilization appears to us as a world of well-educated, healthy people who care much more about hygiene than, for example, in the Middle Ages. When it comes to the upper social spheres, the Romans certainly had a high standard of living. The houses of aristocrats, patricians, as well as equites living in the city, and even rural latifundia had pipes supplying public water from aqueducts. Interestingly, in order to limit water theft, an obligation was introduced to stamp lead pipes that were connected to aqueducts – this was a confirmation that water abstraction on the property was legal. It also had its own toilets and baths.

The situation, however, was completely different in the case of the plebeians and the proletariat, who lived in tenement houses (insulae), without permanent access to water, sewage and toilets.

Public toilet

Contemporary analyzes say that in the 4th century there were a total of 144 public latrines (foricae) located in Rome1. Interestingly, only a small part of them was connected to the main sewage system. These toilets were rooms, as a rule, consisting of a long gallery, and individual openings (most often marble) were located at short distances from each other. This way of dealing with the needs indirectly served the integration- 10 to 20 people could take care of their needs at one time. Instead of paper, natural sea sponges (spongia) were used, placed on sticks, which were put back in the bowl of water after use (so that they would probably get wet). Vinegar was often used for disinfection. There were usually small channels on the floor with fresh water, which was supplied by aqueducts. Latrines usually accompanied public baths.

An interesting story was told by Seneka the Younger, telling us how a certain bestiarius (a hunter fighting in the arena with animals), fearing death in a shameful way, he decided to commit suicide before the fight by sticking a stick with a sponge from the toilet down his throat2.

Public latrines (latrinae) in Ostia. Despite the fact that they had marble floors and were decorated with beautiful paintings, they did not meet the current basic principles of hygiene in any way. In the Roman world, city latrines could be felt from a distance.
Creative Commons License Attribution - On these same conditions 3.0.

The latrines could be used by both patricians and commoners (were mostly free). Sometimes the poor simply allowed themselves to empty themselves down the drain.

The latrine system was found in many places of the Empire, incl. in the Roman fort in Hadrian’s Wall, in Pompeii or Herculaneum. It is worth mentioning that the portico of the theatre where the treacherously murdered was Julius Caesar during the March id of 44 BCE it was turned into a public toilet over time (due to the bad history of the place).

Baths

Baths (thermaeor balnea) were bathhouses composed of a complex of facilities located on a vast area, accessible to everyone, both free people and slaves, for the rich and the poor at specific times. The fee for using the thermal baths was very low. Periodically, it was abolished by the emperor by way of grace in order to win over the Roman people. Basically, the baths were available to everyone, although most often there was a division that strictly defined the hours of bathing for the sick, women and men.

Baths were a permanent element of social life in Roman cities. They were built mainly with state money, but their construction was often commissioned by private persons. Baths were present both at aristocratic villas and at Roman camps (castra). Thus, public and private baths stood out.

At the entrance to the baths, in the vestibule, a certain casparius accepted money and valuables from the entrants.

Visualization showing the use of Roman terms.

The rooms included:

  • cloakrooms (apodyterium)
  • cold water pools (frigidarium)
  • a small heated room to prepare the body to face higher temperatures (tepidarium)
  • hot water pools (calidarium)
  • baths: dry (laconicum) or steam (sudationes)
  • massage rooms (oleoterion) where the bodies were anointed with oils
  • relaxation room (tepidarium)
To get a clean and healthy skin, perfumed oils were used and then scraped with a tool called strigil.

In addition to these rooms, the thermal baths also included sports fields, gymnasiums (gymnasiums), stadiums, massage rooms, rooms for rubbing oil and perfume, exheders and porticoes for discussing, talking or listening to the recitations of poets and speakers. There were also libraries, music rooms, buffets and dice game rooms in the thermal baths. The objects were placed among the greenery. The rooms themselves had rich decorations. The walls were tiled with marble, decorated with paintings, and the floors were covered with mosaics. The rooms were decorated with sculptures, greenery and all elements of decor.

Roman Baths were certainly one of the favourite places for the Roman to relax his body. Tepidariumwas probably the first place visited by bathers and was a kind of introduction to further hot (caldarium) or cold (frigidarium) baths. The Tepidariumwas distinguished by the richest decorations among other baths and was the central hall in Roman baths and was surrounded by other rooms. The room was heated by the floor and had hot water. Then they usually went to the warmest room – caldarium(the temperature could be in the range of 50-55 degrees Celsius), heated with an under-floor heating system called hypocaustum. Earlier, the patient had to sweat a lot in order not to switch too quickly to the hot caldarium. In caldarium there was sometimes a separate room with a dry hot room – laconicum, which allowed the body to sweat “poisons” well. The pores of the skin opened in both of these places, which then closed in the cold waters of the frigidarium. In this way, it was possible to clean the skin in inaccessible places. It happened that the water in the frigidarium was cooled with snow.

The stench and dirt in the cities

We know ancient Rome for its beautiful villas and majestic buildings, where the elite of the country lived. However, most of Roman society lived in small flats, single rooms or apartments without any amenities. Water was drawn from public wells or fountains powered by aqueducts. Water from rivers was certainly not taken as it was known that they were highly contaminated.

Of course, hygiene in Rome could raise many objections, because (especially in multi-storey residential buildings) there were no toilets and litter was often poured directly onto the streets, when residents did not want to go out at night and leave the potty with impurities on the court. There was even a record that there was a penalty for dousing passers-by – Ulpian advised on how to deal with those guilty of being drenched with impurities. This was certainly a big problem in ancient Rome; I guess the cases of drenching happened quite often. As mentioned, faeces were also left in front of tenement houses, which they collected at night, the so-called stercorarii and then sold it to farmers as fertilizer.

The streets were also covered with a lot of rubbish. Most of the waste was collected in the streets between the buildings, which sometimes resulted in numerous congestion. As there were no municipal cleaning services, the neighbourhood was certainly filled with a foul odour, and to make matters worse, the prevailing animals spread disease.

Sometimes the apartments had latrines, but as a rule, they were located right next to the kitchenette, which naturally caused the transmission of microorganisms to the food consumed.

Poor people went to public or paid baths to wash their bodies. The baths therefore often became a place where people could get infected because public baths were not cleaned every day and the water did not have any bactericidal additives.

It is believed that every head of the Roman family had the necessary knowledge about healing herbs and medicines that could help in the treatment of certain diseases. The sanitary system in the patrician’s house was very good. Not only did the villas often have their own outlet to the sewer, but also the health of the family was in the hands of (usually) Greek doctors.

On the advice of a doctor or neighbours, the sick commoner often went to the public bath, and thus spread the disease to other visitors. The most common diseases were malaria, tuberculosis, typhus. Children aged 1 to 5 and the elderly were particularly exposed to these diseases.

Sewer system

The first sewer system in Rome is believed to have been built between 800 and 735 BCE. The Roman sewer system was extremely extensive in ancient Rome. For example, the largest Cloaca Maxima was 4.2 m high and 3.2 m wide and stretched for several kilometres. It was originally created as an open channel to drain water from the marshy area of ​​the later Forum Romanum. Strabo reports that Cloaca Maxima was large enough to accommodate a passing wagon loaded with hay3.

Rome at its peak (early 2nd century CE) is believed to have practically one million inhabitants. Based on the analysis of scientists, it is believed that an average person excretes 50 grams of stool per day, therefore ancient Rome had to measure 50 thousand kg of stool per day4.

The mouth of the Cloaca Maxima to the Tiber

The sewers had a very serious disadvantage – no gas discharge (venting), which could (and did) cause explosions of accumulated hydrogen sulphide. Another problem was the discharge of waste into the Tiber River. The level of the river changed quite frequently, which when it increased caused the waste to return “with the force of a waterfall” back to the Roman dwellings.

Also, sometimes, the channels were not open. Their purification was to be undertaken by the convicts, according to Plinius the Younger5.

The sewers could be inspected by boat, which he did personally, e.g. Marcus Agrippa when he was in the office of the Edel in 33 BCE. canals, taverns, baths, and the quality of water bodies. In addition, they were responsible for the patency of the sewers and the fight against foul odours.

In the 1st century CE, the Roman sewage system was very efficient. This is mentioned in Pliny the Elder in “Natural History”, claiming that he was the most outstanding achievement of all6.

The Roman aqueduct system provided the city’s inhabitants with water of varying quality. The best one was intended for drinking, while the lesser one was used in baths and latrines. The channels were made of stone. By design, the waste flowed from the latrines into the central canal and the main system flowed into a nearby river or stream.

It is worth mentioning that the sewage system in Rome was followed in other cities of the Empire – incl. in Eboracum (present York, England), where its remains are still impressive.

Toilet deities

Interestingly, the Romans attached so much importance to hygiene that even the goddess of sewers, the toilet god and the god of excrement appeared in the pantheon of Roman deities. The goddess of the channels was Cloacina(from the word cloaca meaning “channel”), which was borrowed from Etruscan mythology. She was the protector of Cloaca Maxima, and her powers were invoked when a sewer became clogged or kicked up sewage. Titus Tacius, an early co-ruler of Rome, even built a temple dedicated to her in his toilet. Over time, this deity was equated with Venus, worshipped at the Temple of Venus Cloacina (Sacellum Cloacinae) on Forum Romanum.

The toilet god – Crepitus –was responsible for flatulence (the Romans referred to him for diarrhoea or constipation). Another deity was Sterquilinus (also called Stercutusor Sterculius, from stercus “excrement”), which was especially revered by farmers when fertilizing the field. Stercutuswas strongly associated with Saturn, the god of agriculture. Over time, his cult became the target of attacks by Christians who considered him absurd.

Footnotes
  1. Taylor Craig, The Disposal of Human Waste: A comparison between Ancient Rome and Medieval London
  2. Seneca the Younger, Epistles, 70.20
  3. Strabo, Geography, V.3
  4. Taylor Craig, The Disposal of Human Waste: A comparison between Ancient Rome and Medieval London
  5. Pliny the Younger, Epistles, X.32.2
  6. Pliny the Elder Natural history, XXXVI.24
Sources
  • Amulree Lord, Hygienic Conditions in Ancient Rome and Modern London, 1973
  • Beard Mary, SPQR. Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2016
  • Casson Lionel, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, 1998
  • Connolly Peter, Dodge Hazel, Antyczne Miasta
  • Juvenal, Satires, 3

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