Though it may sound distasteful, the ruins of toilets and sewer systems can be a treasure trove for researchers who want to know how early Romans lived and ate.
Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti spoke with Brandeis classics professor Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow about her work in archaic sanitation last summer, and today we revisit that conversation.
On the changing understanding of Roman toilets
“We used to think there were no toilets in peoples’ private homes, that if they used facilities in the high empire, they used public facilities that were associated with bath buildings, or near the amphitheater. But now, we understand that everybody did have a private house toilet. Only those were cesspit toilets... But Romans knew how to make flush toilets. They could have had house flush toilets, but they chose not to. Except for public ones — multi-seater toilets where up to 60 to 100 people sat around a room on open holes — those were flush toilets.”
On how toilets in Roman homes worked
“What is interesting is that Romans didn’t have sewer traps, and they didn’t have the systems that we have connecting our modern toilets to sewers, and they were really afraid to put their house toilets connected to the sewer system.
“So instead they, once a year, roughly, maybe, excavated their own house toilets into the garden and raised their vegetables on the human excrement from the house. Or, they sold the contents of their house toilets — it was a commodity that you could sell to a guy going by with a wagon calling out, ‘Looking for your excrement,’ who would then collect from your cesspit the excrement to bring it to more commercial agriculture in the nearby city.”
On Roman fears about sewer-connected toilets
“Of course, the Romans didn't understand germs. They are also a people of extreme superstitions, and fear of sitting on a toilet with a sewer connection was something very real to them... Because they believed in demons that lived in dark, dirty places, and because, occasionally — as you were sitting on those public toilets over a real sewer — buildup of methodic gasses would cause a fire to burst through the seats of the toilet... Or, rats would crawl out of them and bite you.
There’s one ancient story from a writer called Aelian who tells us about an octopus that climbed out of the sea into a house toilet which did have a sewer connection and ate all the pickled fish in a pantry of this guy’s house.”
On the possible connection between Roman toilets and disease outbreaks
“I don’t know if we can trace them (Roman disease outbreaks) directly back to them, but we can say now that, from studying the actual compacted excrement in toilets, scientists have found evidence of ringworm, and whipworm and things that would have caused severe dysentery and severe intestinal cramping and severe pains for a large part of the population.”
On whether cesspit toilets are preserved enough to be researched
“Not everywhere and not everyplace but I can tell you, for example, of research done in the north of England, in Roman soldiers' camps. We can see from the excavation of the excrement that the officers ate a much better diet and had flour free of boll weevils and bugs compared to the lowly foot soldiers' toilets. So it can tell us about diet, and the quality of the food even, in the place where the people are using those toilets.”