You can learn a lot about a civilization by studying how they went to the bathroom, and how they got rid of human waste. A civilization's plumbing can teach us about the diets they ate, the diseases they contracted, how they conducted civil engineering projects, and possibly even what their attitudes about bathrooms were.
But our information about ancient bathrooms and toilets is still fairly new, especially when it comes to ancient Rome. Until recently, the bathroom habits of the ancients weren't considered an appropriate subject for academic study. When previous archaeologists did unearth ancient toilets, they came up with fantastical alternate reasons for their uses to avoid describing how they were actually used. When Italian excavator Giacomo Boni discovered a Roman toilet in 1913, he imagined that it was a water pump that powered the entire house.
In recent years, archaeologists have been giving ancient toilets a second look. And it's thanks to them that we can bring you these facts about going to the bathroom in ancient Rome.
Before Latrines, People Did Their Business Wherever It Was Convenient
The Romans were innovators in public sanitation. The Roman sewer system is considered one of their most impressive achievements. In particular, Rome's Cloaca Maxima, ("Great Sewer"), built around 600 BCE, is still in use today.
The Roman sewer system allowed for an extensive network of public latrines to be built. But before plumbing was introduced (and even sometimes after), the Romans relieved themselves wherever possible. Sometimes this meant using a chamber pot, other times it meant finding a discrete spot to do business. As you might imagine, this resulted in cities being covered with human waste. In his Satire III, the Roman poet Juvenal warns his readers not to walk around the city at night or else they might be drenched by a slop bucket.
There were even publicly posted notices prohibiting citizens from relieving themselves in public. The Baths of Titus in Rome include a message that reads: "Twelve gods and goddesses and Jupiter, the biggest and the best, will be angry with whoever urinates or defecates here."
Excrement Was Quickly Swept Away By A Rush Of Water
Public latrines were often connected to Rome's sewer system. In the latrine on the Palatine Hill, the toilets were located 380 centimeters above the sewer below.
However, while Roman sewers did carry away human waste, that probably wasn't their primary purpose. Rome's Tiber River often flooded, leaving the city frequently inundated with standing water. The main purpose of Rome's sewer system was to drain away flood water. This drained flood water was then routed back into the Tiber.
The Wealthy Probably Had A Toilet At Home
Wealthier Romans often had private toilets in their homes. Unlike public latrines, private toilets were not usually connected to the local sewer system. Instead, Romans would fill up their cesspits and empty them in their gardens or a field outside town. Because they were also used to dispose of food waste, private toilets were often located near - or sometimes in - the kitchen.
There were two reasons the Romans didn't connect their toilets to the sewers: One, because the sewers were prone to flooding, and two, for fear of small vermin like rats climbing out out of them.
People Wiped With A Publicly Shared Sponge On A Stick
The first packaged toilet paper wasn't sold commercially until 1857. Before then, people were forced to wipe using whatever natural materials were available - often, absorbant leaves.
But if you used a public latrine in ancient Rome, your only option was called a "xylospongium." This was a sponge attached to the end of a stick, and it would have been shared by everyone. Toilets in Roman latrines were designed for the xylospongium, with a keyhole-shaped slit on the front of the toilet seat to accomodate them. Roman latrines also featured small gutters running parallel to the toilet seats. Researchers speculate that these gutters were used to rinse off the xylospongium between use.