Books

How the Romans went about their business

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

When Ovid was seeking ‘cures for love’, the most efficient remedy, he wrote, was for a young man to watch his girl on the toilet. The American author of The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy begins with this worrying poetic advice. The evacuation of the human body has had little previous attention from historians of Rome, she says, but ‘Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow on the toilet’ should not become the citation attached by fellow scholars to her name. We might all be put off.

Her fear is well-founded. The reason that there are dozens of books about the Romans’ baths and almost none about their latrines reveals much about us and nothing about them. High-minded archaeologists used to prefer their heroes as brave bathers discussing philosophy. Any awkward seats with holes could be prison chairs or hydraulic hoists. One early 19th-century excavator posited a form of ‘medicinal steam baths’ where the ‘strength of the steam created a need to be seated’. This notion of Roman ladies communally experiencing the treatment recently revived by Gwyneth Paltrow did not find general favour. But its spirit lived on.

Some parts of the author’s subject have an assured place in cultural history. The ‘outside loo’ has become a symbol of poverty. Civilisation is ‘en suite’. In the debate between defecating far away from the rest of life or with the closeness of convenience, the conveniences have triumphed — and not merely in language. The Romans too could see the benefit of convenience, but Cicero noted the success of the human body in separating the entry and exit of food. Architects, he said, should do the same. Nero’s wealthy tutor, Seneca, saw moral virtue in the dark and dankness of a shed in the garden before foreign luxury arrived.


For the rich at home there was the best of both worlds, as satirised by Petronius at about the same time: a slave boy brings a silver pot to the dinner table; you piss in it, wipe your hands on his hair and he takes the pot away. For Trimalchio’s guests in the Satyricon there are bowls just outside the door, regularly refreshed.

This parvenu host takes a strong line against constipation and, in one of the most detailed Latin speeches on the subject, insists that there be no embarrassment at getting up to leave the table when necessity calls — just like his wife, Fortunata, does at night, he adds. As well as words on Ovid’s love cure, Koloski-Ostrow gives a disturbing account of this banquet and its aftermath, the brown sausages on silverware, the master chef’s skill with testicles, anuses and bellies, the phalluses flowing with gravy. This is food that ‘appears as if it might already have been digested and expelled’.

Outside the home the toilet choices were more limited, particularly but not only for the poor. Privacy, apart from that provided by clothing, was not a prime concern. There was much to be said against being alone in a loo, not least the danger of demons from the deep, both physical, when the rivers flooded back in to the drains, and metaphysical, if Fortuna, the spiritual guardian of Roman latrines, were for any reason enraged.

Spectators attending games had very few conveniences, so few that Koloski-Ostrow suggests that their purpose was not to convenience the users at all but to protect certain of the buildings from urine stains and ‘secretly deposited piles’. Men who wanted to piss might find a bowl outside a cloth-maker’s shop, thus playing a vital part in an industrial process. Women would have to use the same facilities, the dark, shared cabins, the close seats, and, for the lucky ones, the trough of running water in which a sponge on a stick might be washed before fulfilling the function later taken by a roll of paper.

This is a scholarly book that sets out its evidence and encourages the discovery of more. It is not a first volume in a modern history of public health: the Romans had no knowledge of how defecation drove disease. Nor is it one of those ‘day-by-day in antiquity’ texts designed to attract reluctant schoolchildren. Like all the best ancient history, it provides rigorous engagement with our own assumptions about then and about now.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £50 Tel: 08430 600033. Peter Stothard is editor of the TLS and author of Alexandria: the last nights of Cleopatra.

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Show comments
  • Jabez Foodbotham

    In the TV fictional series Rome shown several years ago, one of the shots in the opening credits, or whatever you call the sequence shown at the start of each episode, appeared to show a man exiting a public latrine. Then there is also Vespasian’s non olet comment.

    • Terry Field

      I recall the ‘Vespasiennes’ in French towns. Very social; raising ones hat to a passing lady whilst one’s little man tinkled away.No doubt the Roman way.
      Now one could raise one’s hat at a same sex person, had the Imperial loos not been replaced with the Euro-bogs with the disappearing loo-seats.

  • ArchiePonsonby

    I always though that Cloaca was the goddess of latrines?

    • Phil T Tipp

      Almost! Cloacina was the presiding goddess of the Roman Cloaca Maxima, in Rome itself:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloacina

      • ArchiePonsonby

        Ah! The price of not trotting over to Wikipedia!

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