(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.