(WARNING: if you are a bit squeamish, I recommend you to read another post in this blog. In any case, this article should not be read right before or after a meal. I am not responsible for any grievances).
When I decided to publish this blog, my main intention was to bring closer to the general public the study of history and science in all their full meaning, the great events, peoples and characters that left their names in our planet. But mainly, I wanted to write about little known but interesting aspects of life in the past. Tin that sense, today’s topic aims to publicize a hidden but relevant element of daily life in Rome and it is simply their habits when going to the throne, the bathroom one, of course.
The inhabitants of ancient Rome were famous, among other things, because of their baths and hygiene practices. The capital of the Republic was the first large city in the world with running water and public fountains to which a series of aqueducts supplied the precious liquid. To study and admire Roman customs we have tens of examples of the most famous ruins: The Caracalla’s Baths, the City of Bath itself and the recently unearthed Ostia Antica, a Spa with dozens of bath houses, on the beaches closest to Rome. Well known is the bathing ritual of the Romans which, in addition to its inherent prophylactic and purifying function, doubled as a meeting point where citizens socialized and conspired. However, as interesting as the dipping may be, we will leave this matter for a future article to focus on public bathrooms.
To begin with, we have to say that this type of facilities in Rome actually serve their purpose because they were public in more than one way, not only because any citizen was allowed in, but because once inside, the physiologic needs of senators, soldiers, merchants or artisans were done in front of everybody, without shyness or walls or panels isolating the W.C.’s, graciously sculpted in stone or carved in wood. Just like that, as if the bathrooms of any airport were suddenly stripped of all divisions and the hurried travelers had to discharge their digestive process’ residual product under the pernicious gaze of their neighbors. An image is worth a thousand words.
This is how a Roman public bath looked in ancient times:
This is how it looks now:
For us, descendants of those men and women who happily defecated while discussing the last debate in the Senate, the latest fashion show or last week’s gladiators combat, the sight of this spectacle would probably seem disgusting but, for them, it was nothing more than combining a physiological need with a social one.
More striking, if possible, was the method used by the visitors to the baths to wipe their butts. In absence of toilette paper, the cleaning device was a wooden stick with a sponge attached at one of the ends (often, literally a sea sponge), or some type of cloth or animal wool. If you look carefully at the illustrations, you can see the gutters just in front of the seats, where sea water ran continuously so they could rinse their sponges after each use. To make matters worse, the sponges were also public and only the wealthier carried their own.
A second option, when public bathrooms sat in the poorer neighborhoods, was simply to use the hand (not very differently to how is currently done in some countries), which was rapidly washed in a fountain installed for that purpose. I think you don’t need any more details. In those days it was a common practice, except in China, where paper had been used for the private parts since the second century b.C. I imagine that some of you are already sending a prayer to the inventor of modern toilette paper, I do sometimes.
During the years that I have been studying the Romans and their traditions, this has been the most noteworthy and strange aspect I have found. I cannot criticize them for these practices because, truth to be told, they didn’t have many options and they were the victims of the limitations of their time. In any case, it wasn’t that bad. What is important for me is that many of their public bathrooms have survived and have given us the opportunity to better know the culture of our ancestors. I hope that, as nasty as the matter may be, you have learned something new.
«Another technique was to use oval or circular fragments of ceramic known as “pessoi” (meaning pebbles»
That is correct Balázs, thank you for commenting on it and for the link.
Great article thanks. It beats later cultures using hay and a bucket in the corner. Japanese used sticks and Aztecs used corn cobs.
Thank you Gargarean, some people have commented that paper is anti-hygienic, but it still beats the s… out of my butt…;;)
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Excellent read, very interesting. Often wondered about that. Personally, I don’t think you should ever apologise for writing about a topic that is based on historical fact; that relates to such an important period in the history of civilisation and that allows the reader to compare to glean genuine insight and curiousity from the past while comparing it to today.
Thank you very much Peter for your kind comment. I thought this curiosity was interesting and thar it would also be interesting for my readers. I also think that there is no reason to apologize, I did it more as a joke, it’s kiand of my style, but maybe I dind’t translate the satetment properly… 😉 History is what it is and it should be thaught as such, with no remorse or subjectivity, when our capacity llows it to do it. In any case, one more story about those Romans and their thousand peculiarities.
Thank you again and best regatds.
This is a great article, I have red this in many other sourses.
I have a little extention for that ,,
You westeners havent been able find out the difference of the water that is used for daily needs and for others..
The water suply is the most importent key for usuing it as it is where need to be used..
If you go back to Europian 1700 hundreds.. with the lack of wc paper ?? we dongt need aany question for that.
Same time perion even much earlier, Middle east, Every town has at least a proper public bath.
After this reality, We dont care how you clean yourselves..
They would have been overjoyed by the appearance of a Sears and Roebuck mail-order catalog!
Hehe, I would too Ann…;)
Thank you and best regards.
The orginal cloaca-room!
That’s right Claude! 😉
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The scholar Francois Rabelais reported that the best of all breech-wipes, discovered by Gargantua, is the soft downy neck of a goose.
Jeje, it is probably true Mark, but I am not goung to be the one who does the field research…:P Let me know if you hear about the brave persone to do it…
Thank you very much for your comment. Best regards.
I’ve always loved learning about the Ancient Romans (I’m a classical civilizations minor in college). However, the first picture intrigued me because it shows the patrons of the bathroom wearing pants, though if I’m correct, the Ancient Romans didn’t wear pants until late in the empire. Just a small detail that I instantly saw. 🙂 Other than that, this was a fun article to read nonetheless. 🙂
you are right to point out the anachronism of the trousers. Romans saw them used by the Gauls, but did not adapt them until about the second century A.D. The picture is modern and I used because it was the one that best illustrated the use of the public bathrooms. I apologize if it causes any confusion aming the readers and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain.
Recuerdo haber leído sobre los inodoros colectivos romanos, pero jamás paso por mi cabeza la forma en que se limpiaban el ano tanto patricios como plebeyos. En cualquier caso, fue gracias a la ingeniería hidráulica que cualquier ciudadano romano tenia acceso al agua, elemento indispensable para su limpieza rectal. Muy buen articulo.
muchas veces los historiadores se fijan más en las grandes obras que en los pequeños detalles, probablemente porque es lo que más demanda el lector. Como bien dices, los romanos se distinguieron por sus grandes obras de ingeniería, especialmente las hidráulicas, y fueron la primera civilización que contó con agua corriente en sus hogares. Eso sí, a la hora de limpiarse el trasero hacían lo mejor que podían con lo que tenían, muy respetable en mi opinión, pero no deja de llamarnos la atención.
Muchas gracias por comentar. Un cordial saludo.
Where the same bathrooms used by both men and women at the same time?
Only in a few cases, in small towns. Never in the big cities. Thank you for your comment
«Tin that sense,»
Since we’re coming up to Easter this week, I was curious about the Hebrew toileting practices. Were they the same? Was there ritual involved?
I do not have an answer to your question, but it is a good reason to do some researching…who knows, maybe I fins material for another post… 😛
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Nice contribution friend. Muslims do have a very different sense of cleaningness and the link you provide explains it very well.
Thank you very much.
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«So one of the men ran off at once, took a sponge, and soaked it in some sour wine. Then he put it on a stick and offered Jesus a drink.:» I’ve wondered if part of the insult, now unknown to our times, was this was the same sponge you just described?
precisely one day before Christians celebrate the scene you mention I have to face your very interesting question. The truth is that I don’t know, but I have never heard any derogatory connentaries about the sponge that was given to Jesus. As far as I remember, the problem was with the fact that it was soaked in vinegar and not in water. If you ask me, it is just a coincidence born out of necessity.
Thank you for reading and commenting.
Actually, dipping the sponge in water would have been a worse insult. Unpolluted water was not a common commodity, not the least due to reasons given above, and people preferred alternatives. It is little known these days that drinking vinegar is an excellent way to quench thirst. It was widespread among the legions as a non-alcoholic option and at least one high-ranked officer of the British Empire still adhered to the same habit. What the soldier did to Jesus was an act of grace.
I didn’t know that, but it makes sense Codex, I will serach further and see what I can find, maybe there is material for another entry.
Thank you for your kind comments. Salve!
Check for «posca», that’s what the legionaries called their vinegar drink in their language. If you want to try it, there is actually a recipe available here: http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Posca
Thank you once again Codex, I will try this at home…:P
Did slaves use the same facilities?
most likely slaves were allowed into this facilities, for their status in Rome was not one of inferiority but a more administrative one. Slaves were more like employees of their masters and in many cases were allowed to have properties and their own bussinesses.
Thank you for youy interesting question.
I have heard that the use of the sponge on the stick for cleaning is the origin of the phrase «grabbing the wrong end of the stick». Maybe yes, maybe no, but still an un-appealing image.
I really don’t know whether the claim is true or not, but it does make sense. Still, as you mention, it’s not very appealing… 😛
Thank you very much for yput comment.
That has to do more with the cleaning stick that was used in more ‘modern’ toilets (known as ottoman style) that were apparentely just a hole on the ground connected to a pipe that led to the sewage. The stick was used to occasionaly clear the pipe if feces couldn’t be removed just by throwing water. I guess you wouldn’t want to hold the stick from the wrong side…
Also, has to be mentioned that this roman practice and especially the common use of the cleaning sponge, has led many people to die in an era when the nature of bacteria, viruses and transmitting diseases was not yet fully discovered..
i saw da in spartacus the series
I didn’t watch the series «Spartacus», but other readers have call my attention to the point…maybe it’s time I give it a chance. Thank you for your comment.
I agree, sir, no need to apologize for contributing to the world’s knowledge, although the concept of a shared sponge (!) does overwhelm. Cheers.
I do my best Alya, trying to share my passion for history. The critics are just part of the process..
Thank you very much for your kind comment.
Personally I find wiping with hand & water, followed obviously with a vigorous cleansing of said hand, far more hygienic than using toilet paper which forces the excrèment into the amphi-anal pores. However, sharing a spunge on a stick is rather disgusting to me.
every culture has its own rituals and costumes and, as long as they do not harm or denigrate the individual, I see no reason to criticize them. Some prefer toilett paper, others the hand or any resource available. Fine with me as long as they have a choice.
Thank you for your comment and best regards.
This is definitely a new finding, and is interesting to have a glimpse of how the Romans do their toilet matters back in the days.
I thought so too. Normally historians dedicate more pages to the great achievements of ancient civilizations, forgetting the little details of daily life.
Thank you very much for your kind comment.
I may be misremembering, but in my studies back in university, I seem to recall that the hand wiping is one of the big reasons why one hand was generally kept inside of the toga (as we often see in movies) and the other outside. So that the hand that you used to wipe yourself in the washroom was not used in public, when it wasn’t necessary.
it is possible, but honestly I haven’t find any reference to the hiding of the hand. In any case, the Romans didn’t normally just use the hand, as some modern arab cultures do, but used a sponge, or some other object at hand.
Thank you very much for your comment. Best regards.
Great Article! Thank you for sharing this! I know that the argument may seem disgusting … but I’ve always wondered how the ancient people behaved with issues that we now consider «normal» or «trivial» … For example, how did the women do during the menstrual cycle? Did they have the bathroom at home? What did they use to wash instead of soap? I think it is interesting to know …
thank you very much for your kind comment. There is still a lot to be learned about the daily practices of the Romans. I am not sure there is evidence about the question you ask regarding that delicate subject. But I am now also curious and I will see what can I find, there may be material for another article…;)
About the bathrooms, only the houses of the well-off were equiped with private restrooms but even in such cases they were not as comfortable as we would like them in the present. They were more like current facilities in some parts of Asis, that is, just a hole in the ground.
The Romans actually invented the soap, although late during the Empire. They probably discovered it’s properties when ashes from some of the various volcanos fell into an amphora with olive oil and they observed the foam. Still, they preferred pure olive oil for cleansing,
I hope I have answered yout questions, Thank you again and best regards.
Nope. Soap was an invention of the Germanics that slowly wound its way onto the Roman market. Even their name, sapo, derived from Germanic saîpon.
I have found various sources speaking about products similar to soap in ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt, but none about the Germanic tribes. Would you be so kind to direct me to or send me a reference on the matter. I will duly appreciate it.
You’re welcome, J.G. Now both Pliny and Galen mention that the Germanics invented soap and produced the best kinds, and that even the very word was Germanic. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, XXVIII.191.) Martial (Martial, Epigrammata, VIII) names at least two kinds: Chattic Foam, Spuma Chattica (or Caustica?) which would probably be a liquid, and the mnore solid Mattiacian Ball, Pila Mattiaca, both products named for the tribe that sold them, apparently.
I followed the referneces you gave me and found the info, really cool stuff, specially for somebody who makes his own soap at home, like me…;) I am thinking how to turn this into a new entry…and will give you the deserved credit…
I’m more surprised by the fact that the romans in the illustration appears to be wearing pants.
as I explained to another comment, your appreciation is correct. The only reason I chose this picture, in spite of the anachronism, is because I thought it was the best example of the topic of the article. Trouseres were not used in Rome until late in the Empire.
Thank you very much for your comment. Best regards.
This article is good . Good to know the history of romans unhyginiec way of public practice that never been mentioned during our studies about their history..
thank you very much for your comment. I try to cover areas of history that are little known and this, I believ, is a good example, a curiosity that I hope attracts more people to the study of this exciting subject.
I always thought they used sand. Ouch!
Sand? hoho, that’s much harsher than the sponge…
Lots more things the Romans might have used here: http://flavias.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/ten-things-romans-used-for-toilet-paper.html
yours is a great page and it is going to take me time to go through all your material. I see you have been writing about Roman toilettes for a long time, so I will probably have to consult you the next time I decide to post about the matter.
I have been to Rome a few times and one of the things that always got my attention was the fact that our ancestors did their business without the whims of privacy of our era and civilization, I just think is fun and thousands of readers seem to agree 😉 . Every culture of evrey era did the best they could with what they had at hand (in this case literally), just as we do now. Who knows if, in the future, somebody will write about our «primitive» toilettes and paper…
Thank you very much for your comment and for sharing your blog. I m sure the rest of readers will appreciate it.
Thank you for sharing! Reading some of the comments about lack of hygiene, it brings to mind the Roman practice of washing the toga in urine. According to my sources, this was the lowest job. Men sent their toga to the cleaners, so to speak. It consisted of a shallow pool dug in the ground, filled with urine. The woolen fabric was soaked, and workers stepped upon it with bare feet, agitating the wash cycle. I can only presume the garments were rinsed in water afterwards!
THank you very much Kate! it is true that the Romans had some strange practices regarding hygiene, although I cannot criticize them for they didi the best they could with the resources and technology available.
Regarding Roman laundry, I also have an article…I hioe you like it.
Best regards 😉
You will be surprised to discover that toilets were pretty much the same even as shortly as 100 years ago. My Austrian grandmother told me that in her childhood in the late 1920s, she spent her summer vacations on a farm in Hungary that was owned by relatives. Their toilet was a separate little building with no running water but only buckets for use and old newspapers for wiping your butt. Like in your average Roman toilet there were several adjacent places without screens or doors. And what was strangest: to access the female section you had to pass through the male section! Of course, it might right then be occupied by three or more farmhands who would all watch you and calling dirty jokes after you when you passed them by. Well, such was life in the good old times.
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