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Ancient Roman Baths and Toilets

IT’S OKAY TO SHOWER AND POOP TOGETHER … EWW?

PUBLIC BATHS AND TOILETS IN ANCIENT ROME

 

  Library of Congress.  Roman Baths and Abbey, Circular Bath, Bath, England  , 1905. Picture of an indoor circular bath.

Library of Congress. Roman Baths and Abbey, Circular Bath, Bath, England, 1905. Picture of an indoor circular bath.

  Mykenik,  Public toilets, Ephesus. Ancient roman latrines / latrinae  , August 2005. Picture of public toilet/latrines with multiple seats side by side.

Mykenik, Public toilets, Ephesus. Ancient roman latrines / latrinae, August 2005. Picture of public toilet/latrines with multiple seats side by side.

Would you bathe or do your business together with strangers? Well probably not, but back then it seems that the Romans totally would and totally did. For the Romans, “public” was in its literal sense, open with no privacy at all. This meant that as one pooped, others may very well be sitting beside or around doing the same, and that one would have bathed in a big pool of water, with many others sharing the same water like a swimming pool.

Of course the Romans were not always like that. Note that such ideas of bathing and doing one’s business in public only became increasingly popularized around the 2nd century BCE, when the first bath houses were built.

To describe it: Baths consisted of different types, generally differing in temperatures, most of which looked like a modern day pool. Public toilets or Latrines as the Romans called it were like long benches with holes in them. We will explore how the Romans have cleverly designed such spaces to accommodate the masses.

However, the studying of public baths and toilets in Ancient Rome is more than just architecture, for it also included health practices, technology and advances, and how people socialized.

 

SOME TERMINOLOGY FIRST (Extracted from here and there)

Laconicum - hot air//sweat room

Solium - warm bath

Caldarium - hot bath room//thermal chamber

Tepidarium - warm bath room

Frigidarium - cold bath room

Piscina - small shallow pool for a cold dip

Palaestra - exercise yard//sports

Exedra - rooms for relaxation/ conversation/ waiting. With seats.

Thermae // Balnea - Both refer to baths but typically differ in size. There are debates over the terminology but the general consensus is that thermae = public, balnea = private (See page 14 - 15 of here and page 146 - 147 of here)

Praefurnium - Furnace room

 

HEALTH & HYGIENE PRACTICES

The Romans placed great emphasis on health and hygiene. Their bathing practices, in fact, were so intense that they probably only had time to bathe once a week!  

A basic bath progressed through rooms or pools of different temperatures - in terms of heat: typically of intermediate heat, to highest heat, then back to intermediate to cool. The process usually included oiling and sweating (exercise!) in a palaestra1 before the individual progressed to the different water baths(Caldarium2 → Tepidarium3 → Frigidarium4) on the basis of temperatures. Other facilities such as Piscina5, Laconicum6, Solium7 and Exedra8 may also be available if the area was big enough.

  Bertrand Bouret.  Floorplan of the Baths of Antoninus of Carthage, Thermes d'Antonin de Carthage, Plan de l'étage des bains  , 2007. Floorplan of the Baths of Antoninus of Carthage, depicting a symmetrical layout of facilities such as the frigidarium, caldarium, tepidarium, gymnase, palestre, etc.

Bertrand Bouret. Floorplan of the Baths of Antoninus of Carthage, Thermes d'Antonin de Carthage, Plan de l'étage des bains, 2007. Floorplan of the Baths of Antoninus of Carthage, depicting a symmetrical layout of facilities such as the frigidarium, caldarium, tepidarium, gymnase, palestre, etc.

 

So why do the Romans spend so much time on something so elementary as bathing? The reason is that the Romans believed the Bath promoted many health benefits other than the purposes of hygiene, such as relief for arthritis and rheumatism.

Similarly, the Romans emphasized cleanliness when it comes to doing their ‘business’. Public latrines were public spaces with long benches made out of stones, which along the benches were holes where people sat on to do their business. Before such facilities were available to the general public, the Romans pooped and peed anywhere possible, which proved to be a crappy issue - literally, the alleys and walkways were strewn with people’s waste. 

This situation is described by Juvenal, in Satires 3.268–2779, produced at about the same time period, 2nd BCE.

In addition, such issues were widespread across cities, as evidenced from writings and notes on walls appealing to the Romans to do their business elsewhere. An example is as follows:

“ If you shit against the walls and we catch you, you will be punished. (CIL IV.7038; from Regio V at Pompeii)”

Evidently, the authorities were pissed off but such issues were largely resolved with the building of public toilets.

  D. Herdemerten.  Xylospongium .  November 2012. Sponge on a stick.

D. Herdemerten. Xylospongium. November 2012. Sponge on a stick.

However, the ideas of cleanliness was not only limited to keeping the streets clean. The Romans also had specific practices with regard to personal cleanliness. After doing their businesses, they cleaned themselves with a sponge-on-stick, or xylospongium (see picture), by dipping it in a channel of running water, typically in the middle of the latrine, before cleaning their privates. Another alternative they had was absorbent plant leaves, as you can imagine, used like toilet paper.

However, it is important to note that whilst toilets were accessible to all, poor or rich, it is more commonly used by people of lower social classes. Public toilets were typically unisex, and overcrowded with the poor who did not have toilet access in their homes. Also, toilets were poorly ventilated and dimly lit, which if one could imagine, would be better than relieving oneself in the streets but still not ideal. As such, people of higher social class typically avoided the public toilets, for they were able to afford to have one at home.

FUN FACT!10

 

TECHNOLOGY AND TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES

 

Specifics about how they cleaned and crapped aside, it is important to note that such could not have been achieved without the presence of large and stable water supplies - which brings us to the design of aqueducts and sewers.

Aqueducts were extensive structures comprising of arches and channels constructed to direct water on a specific course, typically from water sources all the way to the bath buildings and latrines. In modern day, aqueducts would be like the pipes linking our water supply all the way from reservoirs to our houses. Such structures then resembled bridges and sometimes even served as bridges as well. 95% of the Roman aqueducts were hidden from the surface. This was an exceptional way to organize a massive system, for it meant that little ground area was occupied, and that precious clean water supplies were less exposed to destructive forces of nature and enemies.

To quantify it, in the period of Trajan’s rule, about 100CE, 9 aqueducts provided almost 1,000,000 cubic metres of water daily to the whole of Rome, even to distant areas of the empire, to both public and private areas. This thus enabled the adequate supply of water to the numerous baths that Roman bathing practices required, and to the cleaning and flushing in the latrines… which brings us next to the sewage system, yet another example of how Romans applied architectural knowledge.

The sewage system continues from bath houses and latrines, bringing the used water along with waste to drain away. An example would be the Cloaca Maxima, named “one of the world’s oldest functioning wastewater and stormwater systems”, that has been present for more than 2500 years.

  GradvMedusa,  Map of downtown Rome during the Roman Empire ,  May 2006. Map of Central Rome during the time of the Roman Empire showing Cloaca Maxima, one of the world’s earliest sewage systems, in Red.

GradvMedusa, Map of downtown Rome during the Roman Empire, May 2006. Map of Central Rome during the time of the Roman Empire showing Cloaca Maxima, one of the world’s earliest sewage systems, in Red.

 

To save cost and reduce the need for manpower, most of the latrines were also built near Bath-Gymnasium11 complexes so that the water from bath houses can be used in latrines. Other than functions of waste clearance, other sources suggest that the Cloaca Maxima served to deal with excess water as well, yet again the adept two-fold use of a structure. The architecture of such a system as such effectively removes the need to constantly clear waste, and prevents the possible stench and growth of bacteria present in waste.

FUN FACT!12

 
  Isabel Rincon.  Pont Du Gard Roman Aqueduct .  June 2016. Bridge-like structure that transports water.

Isabel Rincon. Pont Du Gard Roman Aqueduct. June 2016. Bridge-like structure that transports water.

  Longbow4u.  Rome.Aqueduct.weites Tal .  June 2005. Animated drawing of aqueduct underground.

Longbow4u. Rome.Aqueduct.weites Tal. June 2005. Animated drawing of aqueduct underground.

The Romans didn't just stop their technological advances with aqueducts and sewage removal. Their efforts to control the temperature of the baths was equally impressive. As mentioned, there were baths of different heat levels/temperatures (caldarium and tepidarium for instance), and such is only possible with the ingenious hypocaust system, and further improvements to it.

The hypocaust system, or heating system, heated the baths with an intricate process beginning with the burning of firewood, which produced hot air that travelled and circulated through an intentionally constructed space beneath the floor of baths, to heat the baths up (See picture).

  Urban~commonswiki.  Vieux La Romaine Villa hypocauste .  January 2006. Stacks of tiles piled up and laid in bed of concrete to create spaces for hot air to flow to heat the floor above.

Urban~commonswiki. Vieux La Romaine Villa hypocauste. January 2006. Stacks of tiles piled up and laid in bed of concrete to create spaces for hot air to flow to heat the floor above.

 

Chimneys and pipes were also included to distance the fire from the furnace to ensure that the fire did not burn the tiles of the bath floor, reflecting certain consideration by Roman architects - possibly safety issues, or to limit how high temperatures could reach (just a speculation).

The Romans further improved on the existing technology of hypocaust systems, by using concamerations (vaults) in walls and floors of bathrooms, that distributed heat more evenly to prevent burns when coming into contact with the floor and walls of the bath. As a result, heat was also used more efficiently, as less fuel was needed per unit time. This improvement to architecture and technology allowed for safer and more efficient use of baths, which again shows the importance of design and Romans’ great understanding of architecture.

If you could imagine, so many facilities would have implied the need to dedicate a huge space, materials and planning to build the Baths. In a study on baths at Cyprus, two baths amongst the rest took up much land, of about 3,500 square metres - and to visualize that is, about half a soccer field, which would have taken tremendous time, manpower and resources to build.

 

SOCIALISATION

Now, flushing and disposing away the mechanics of the baths and toilets away, we are sure you would be more interested about what the Romans did together in the public baths and toilets.

Initially, bath houses were only for men to socialize and hold business talks. In the 2nd century B.C., the first existence of a bathhouse that holds both men and women was private and only people who could afford were able to enter. With that, poor men were deprived of the chance to interact with the women as well as joining in the latest news or business talks with the men.

Eventually, all Romans, rich or poor, aristocrat or slave, had access to the public bathhouses, with the construction of bigger and more baths. Although this promoted a sense of equality in a Rome divided by status, not everyone shared the same bathing experiences. Social status remained a great determinant of the type of facilities that people could afford to enjoy, which implied differing bathing experiences.

The rich had three separate regions in their bathhouses, for males, females, and slaves. Baths varied in size and luxuriousness. The rich would have slaves to scrub their backs and give massages, and would be anointed with perfumes and fresh clothes after bathing. The poor however could not afford such luxury.

Regardless, given all the shared facilities available at public baths, Garette G. Fagan stated that “It was almost inevitable that going to the baths became a social event”. It was a space designed to accommodate the masses. Here, Romans met their friends, family and even “made business deals and forged and maintained political alliances.”

Besides bathhouses, toilets were also a place for socializing. Toilet seats were arranged such that everyone could sit side by side, which made it a hotspot for socializing. People interacted with one another while settling their business, mentioning gossip and extending meal invitations. Some would even talk about business related topics which makes things seem less tense due to the toilet being an informal venue.

Note that sharing toilets and baths were part and parcel of life, which meant that the Romans probably would not have felt awkward, and naturally would socialize in such an environment.

  Profburp.  Dougga latrines cyclopes .  June 2006. Public latrine in a “C” shape with multiple seats.

Profburp. Dougga latrines cyclopes. June 2006. Public latrine in a “C” shape with multiple seats.

 

AFTER ALL THAT CLEANING …

Despite all the architecture and technological efforts put into Roman baths, the Romans were not necessarily clean. Research suggests that the nature of baths being public and communal likely caused diseases such as dysentery to spread more quickly throughout the Roman population. For example, Cambridge Professor Piers D. Mitchell discovered archaeological evidence for parasites found in the Roman era that causes dysentery.  

Similarly,  studies revealed that some Roman toilets were mostly poorly lit, damp and filthy, unlike the spotless white marble and open concept of the restored ruins today. This suggests that despite seemingly huge emphasis on public sanitation techniques, it was insufficient to prevent the spread of bacteria.

In comparison to the sanitation practices in Han China, Han’s water sources were protected from bacteria, by covering the wells to prevent pollution by dirt and soil. In addition, Han people dredged their wells consistently to ensure that water was clean for consumption.

Eventually, public baths fell into disuse with the fall of the Empire (476C.E.), but many were also rebuilt and modified. Public baths still exist in this day and age, mostly as tourist attractions such as the Roman Baths in United Kingdom. Further on, the unique architecture of Roman Baths seemed to have served as a guide and inspiration for many European and American bathing facilities, in later times.

  Outriggr.  Roman Baths in Bath Spa, England .  July 2006.

Outriggr. Roman Baths in Bath Spa, England. July 2006.

 

REFERENCES

Garrett G. Fagan. (1999). Book: Bathing in public in the Roman World. University of Michigan Press.

Jodi Magness. (2012). WHAT’S THE POOP ON ANCIENT TOILETS AND TOILET HABITS?. Near Eastern Archaeology, 75(2), 80-87. The American Schools of Oriental Research.

Sadi Maréchal. (2012). Research on Roman bathing: old models and new ideas. REVUE BELGE DE PHILOLOGIE ET D’HISTOIRE, 90(1), 145 - 146.

University of Washington: Baths & Bathing as an Ancient Roman. (2004).

A. Gagliano,M. Liuzzo,G. Margani & W. Pettinato. (2017). Thermo-hygrometric behaviour of Roman thermal buildings: the “Indirizzo” Baths of Catania (Sicily). Energy and Buildings, 138, 704 - 715.

James W. Ring. (1996). Windows, Baths, and Solar Energy in the Roman Empire. American Journal of Archaeology, 100(4), 717-724. Archaeological Institute of America.

Piers D. Mitchell. (2017). Human parasites in the Roman World: health consequences of conquering an empire. Parasitology, 144(1), 48-58. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/S0031182015001651

William E. Dunstan. (2010). Ancient Rome. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow. (2015). Talking heads: what toilets and sewers tell us about ancient Roman sanitation.

Michael Cote. (2010). Aqueducts and Wastewater Systems of Rome.

John C. Paige & Laura Soulliere Harrison. (1987). Out of the Vapors: A Social and Architectural History of Bathhouse Row, 13.

T. Bond, E. Roma, K. M. Foxon, M. R. Templeton & C. A. Buckley. (2013). Ancient water and sanitation systems - applicability for the contemporary urban developing world.

Onur Gülbay. (2004). Western Anatolian Public Latrines.

Ian D. Rotherham. (2012). Roman Baths in Britain.

Craig Taylor. (2005). The Disposal of Human Waste: A comparison between Ancient Rome and Medieval London.

Jon C. Schladweiler. (n.d.). CLOACINA: GODDESS of the SEWERS.

 
  1. Exercise yard
  2. Hot bath room/thermal chamber
  3. Warm bath room
  4. Cold bath room
  5. Small shallow pool for a cold dip
  6. Sweat room
  7. Warm bath
  8. Rooms with seats for relaxation or conversation
  9. "And now regard the different and diverse perils of the night. See what a height it is to that towering roof from which a potsherd comes crack upon my head every time that some broken or leaky vessel is pitched out of the window! See with what a smash it strikes and dents the pavement! There’s death in every open window as you pass along at night. You may be deemed a fool, improvident of sudden accident if you go out to dinner without having made your will. You can but hope, and put up a piteous prayer in your hearth that they may be content to pour down on you only the contents of their slop-basins.”
    Juvenal is saying here that there is a high possibility that a Roman passing by houses on a street may likely get drenched with the waste poured out by houses above, and as you should observe, the poem is meant to be humorous but yet it is also critical of the situation.
  10. Public latrines were infamous for scaring away users when fire broke out from their seat openings as a result of gas explosions of hydrogen sulphide and methane
  11. A complex that combines a Greek or Hellenistic institution and Roman bath with richly decorated swimming pools, vaulted halls and hot baths
  12. There is a goddess of “sewers” named Cloacina