In the ancient world, a toilet was something like a jacuzzi: not everyone could afford the convenience that for the vast majority of modern people has already become commonplace. The remains of ancient public latrines and traces of their contents turned out to be the richest source of knowledge about the way of life of long-dead people, but science has only recently paid serious attention to them. An article published in the journal Nature tells what the ancient Roman toilets told archaeologists.
About two thousand years ago, under one of the most magnificent palaces in ancient Rome, there was a room with high ceilings. In it, a long bench stretched along the wall, in the seat of which 50 holes the size of a dinner plate were cut. There was always high humidity in the room, a peculiar smell and a lot of people of the lower class. And today this room is inaccessible to ordinary people, because the place that used to be a public toilet is now the property of scientists - historians and archaeologists.
The restroom is located on the Palatine Hill, which was once one of the most populous areas in Rome. Ann Koloski-Ostrow and Gemma Jansen studied it in 2014: they measured the height of the stone base of the bench (43 centimeters, which was convenient for most people), the distance between the holes (about half a meter, which provided personal seated space) and the depth of the sewer (up to four meters). Scientists also suggested that the source of the water that washed out sewage from the sewer was the bath rooms located nearby. Graffiti on the walls near the entrance hinted at long lines where people had enough time to write or cut a message before taking their place on the bench. The underground location of the toilet, combined with the red and white painting of the walls, indicated that its visitors were people of the lower class - possibly slaves.
The room was discovered in 1913 by Italian archaeologist Giacomo Boni. The standards of decency at the time did not allow the scientist to admit that he had found a toilet, so in his report he suggested that the leaky bench could be part of a complex mechanism designed to supply water to the upper rooms of the palace.
A century later, ancient toilets have ceased to be such a delicate topic, so scientists openly research them in order to understand the way of life of people of the past. Public latrines allow you to learn about the diet, diseases and habits of the inhabitants of ancient Rome, especially those who belonged to the lower strata of the population. Archaeologists were able to figure out that people had some trepidation about toilets, in part because of superstition, in part because of the real dangers posed by rats and other parasites lurking in the sewers. Ancient Rome was famous for its complex plumbing and sewerage systems, but studies of waste products revealed that sanitary conditions left much to be desired.
The first simple toilets are believed to have been invented in Mesopotamia at the end of the fourth millennium BC. They were pits four meters deep, lined with hollow ceramic cylinders about a meter in diameter. Ancient people did not show much zeal for improving sewage technology. Toilets were comfortable, cheap and easy to install, yet rare. There were very few houses with latrines, most of the people used chamber pots or went “in the field”.
Due to their low distribution, toilets could not play a large role in improving the health of the population. The main function of any good sewage system is to separate waste from people, thereby preventing the faecal-oral mechanism of infection transmission. The latrines of Mesopotamia coped with this task, but in order to really improve the epidemiological situation, it was necessary to provide at least 75 percent of urban residents with access to them.
The ancient era amazes modern people with the pace of development of technology. Only a thousand years later, the Minoans on the island of Crete figured out how to improve the toilet by adding containers for flushing. The technological breakthrough, however, was only available to the elite. The first “new generation” latrines known to archaeologists were equipped with a palace in the city of Knossos: the water used in the toilet flushed waste into the palace's sewer system.
The invention was in demand. In the first millennium BC, the ancient Greeks of the classical period (V-IV centuries BC), and then the Hellenistic period, used large-scale public toilets. The latrines were large rooms with benches and drainage systems. In addition, toilets have appeared in middle-class households. The ubiquity of latrines became a sign of the prosperity of a society, whose representatives began to live in greater comfort.
The Romans, however, made toilets almost a national treasure. According to Koloski-Ostrov, around the 1st century AD, public toilets, like baths, became an integral part of Roman infrastructure, almost all residents of Rome had private toilets. Nevertheless, archaeologists know very little about how latrines functioned and what role they played in the cultural life of people. During the Roman Empire, few people wrote about toilets, and the few surviving records had a satirical focus that is difficult to interpret.
Anne Spikelets-Isle, jokingly referred to as “the queen of the restrooms, ” by fellow archaeologists, has shown that the topic should be taken seriously. Together with Jansen and other scientists, she examined 60 ancient toilets of Rome, which had not previously attracted the attention of specialists.
Roman public latrines looked much like their Greek predecessors: a wooden or stone-faced bench above the sewers. Round holes were cut in the seats and keyhole-shaped slits in the front. The latter, according to scientists, were intended for cleaning the toilet bowl using an analogue of a modern brush - a stick with a sponge tip. There were small gutters along the bench, in which the sponge could be washed. There were no walls between the toilets, so an intimate setting was out of the question.
The private toilets had a different arrangement. They were located inside or next to the kitchen, which was very practical, since it made it possible to dispose of food waste. Buckets of water were used to flush the latrine, the toilets were not connected to the city sewer, so they had to be manually cleaned and the contents disposed of either in the garden or outside the city.
Sewerage - despite the popular belief that it was the pinnacle of Roman civilization - was less widespread and ineffective. Spikelets-Ostrov checked to see if they used any modern sanitary principles, including regular air purging or solid waste deposition controls to reduce stench and clogging. It turned out that the sewage system absolutely did not meet modern standards: some channels were completely blocked by silt in less than a year, therefore, they required periodic cleaning - an extremely dirty and dangerous job.
Among other things, ancient toilets told about the culinary habits of the Romans. The inhabitants of ancient cities, like modern people, suffered from the unhygienic habit of throwing garbage in the toilet, but food waste became a rich source of information for scientists. It turned out that even the poorest townspeople ate figs, eggs, olives, grapes and shellfish, used dill, mint, coriander and mustard as spices.
The large amount of waste showed that the Romans preferred to cook at home. The abundance of fish bones made it possible to draw a conclusion about the development of the fish trade.
Toilets are a kind of window into the life of people of that era, about which archaeologists previously knew little. Most scholars have focused on palaces and monumental structures belonging to the elite. The fact that history has finally turned its attention to latrines is, according to Koloski-Ostrov, in all respects a positive trend.