The Roman Empire, which lasted for around 1,500 years, stands as one of the most significant examples of the rise and fall of a civilization in human history. And while it would have been fascinating to meet epic Roman emperors like Caligula or Commodus, in reality, living at the time of their reigns probably wouldn't have been so great. In fact, the nasty realities of ancient Rome – from tapeworms to mass enslavement – create a pretty unappealing picture of life at the time.
There are nearly unlimited examples of Roman squalor. Despite their vaunted baths, the Romans still had a host of parasites and diseases. Some of their medical remedies were absolutely disgusting (as in dung, anyone?). Emperors, not exactly the paragons of virtue they purported to be, seduced siblings and molested little kids. Even tasty dinner dishes were made out of repellant things, ranging from dolphin meatballs to flamingo tongues. Such disgusting conditions in Imperial Rome are enough to make anyone queasy.
Ancient Romans used a particularly gross form of butt-cleaning to keep their whitest togas white. To really clean those hard to reach places after they spent some time squatted down over a bench with holes in it, they would wipe with a sponge set on the end of a stick. Called a xylospongium, these sponge-sticks were attached to the bathroom benches, so a busy Roman didn't have to worry about toting one through the city with them as they ran daily errands.
To access the stick, you'd reach through a keyhole and maneuver it through to clean your derriere. Although this sounds like a convenient, time-saving trick, it's pretty hideous that people using public restrooms likely had to share sponge-sticks. All one can hope is that they were switched out or cleaned often by bathroom attendants.
Ancient Rome had a pretty sophisticated sewer system, but it's purpose – rather than to remove debris, excrement, and general filth – was to drain standing water from the streets. Ancient Romans had very different cleanliness standards than more contemporary civilizations, and they just weren't that concerned about poop and rotting food in the streets as long as they could walk through them. However, examining Roman excrement has revealed how absolutely awful these standards were for people at the time. In fact, archaeologists have found tons of parasites and infections in fossilized Roman poop, including roundworm and dysentery.
In addition, the Romans, frugal people that they were, didn't dispose of a lot of the excrement they had access to. Instead they used it to fertilize their crops, which recycled gross stuff from their bowels back onto their food. And their version of ketchup, a favorite condiment, was an uncooked, fermented fish sauce called garum. This beloved solution might have allowed tapeworm parasites to thrive.
Here's the ancient version of a dry cleaner: a fuller, who used urine to clean clothes. It sounds disgusting, but ammonia, a key ingredient in human-made water, is great at getting tricky stains out of togas. And, unlike soap, pee was easy to get. Fullers could just put vessels on street corners, and men who had the urge for a quick number one could contribute their services by peeing into the buckets.
The first-century Roman emperor Vespasian famously instated a "urine tax," raking in a bunch of cash by taxing the public bins where people dumped urine collected from toilets. And the tax was quite lucrative. Some even credit it with saving the Empire at a particularly precarious time. When Vespasian's son, the future emperor Titus, expressed his displeasure at this governmental initiative, his dad "held a piece of money from the first payment to his son's nose, asking whether its odor was offensive to him," according to Suetonius. Titus, of course, said no, and Vespasian famously replied, "Yet it comes from urine!"
Rome wasn't built in a day, but it was built on the backs – and with the hands of – a magnitude of slaves. In fact, one of the city's foundational myths is the story of the capture and rape of the Sabine women, who were taken from their community and forced to become reproductive machines for the creation and continuance of the Roman population.
Whether bought in markets, seized from nearby communities, or captured as a result of foreign wars, servi (as the slaves were called in Latin) were estimated to have made up anywhere from one-third to three-fifths of Italy's entire population. That means there were up to four million slaves in Italy alone, which doesn't even count the rest of the Empire!