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We Don’t Shit Around

 Photographer: Mubeena Shihra.

Photographer: Mubeena Shihra.



It is no secret that civilizations have sprouted from areas surrounding bodies of water - a necessity for survival and for the maintenance of the body. In fact, the world’s first four civilizations were built around river systems: Mesopotamia was established along the Tigris and Euphrates; Egypt thrived upon the banks of the Nile; the Indus Valley Civilization grew fiercely along the Indus River; and the Shang Dynasty emerged on the banks of the Yellow River.

Apart from their stereotypical role of providing drinking water and sustenance for crops, rivers also played an essential role in sewage treatment during the Ancient Age. In fact, sanitary systems tell us a lot about the civilizations in which they were built. We are interested in what something as "insignificant" as a sanitary system could tell us about civilizations that built them.

Since sanitary systems were considered technologically advanced back in the day, the intricacy of their sanitary systems were directly correlated to the advancement of the civilizations themselves:

“Centres of civilisation, like Jerusalem, Athens, Rome and Carthage, arose to pre-eminence in sanitary matters, built sewers, constructed aqueducts and provided for the inhabitants magnificent baths the equal of which the world has never seen”
(J.J. Cosgrove, History of Sanitation).

In addition, the choice of funneling time and resources into the establishment of sanitary systems is also very telling of how these civilizations regarded concepts such as cleanliness and privacy, and how these "luxuries" were important to them as part of either social or religious practices.

Most notably, according to Nick De Pace (teacher of architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design), the Roman sewers for their unique and elaborate designs provide an important insight into "how and why Rome existed".

Therefore, we have chosen to delve deeper into the bowels of Ancient Rome:

 Gif from  Friends  (NBC, Warner Bros. Television). Retrieved from  Tumblr .

Gif from Friends (NBC, Warner Bros. Television). Retrieved from Tumblr.


Click on the image to view a larger version. Image created by Glad Tan with information complied by Jon C. Schladweiler).

Before we begin, we would like to point out Rome's place in the timeline of toilets and sanitation (image on the left). Note that the Romans were not the first ones to have discovered the joys of sanitation, nor were they the first to associate cleanliness with a kind of spiritual purity or "holiness".

It is also interesting to note how the perception of toilets (and the activities associated with them) has changed over time. From open defecation to public latrines and baths to private toilets, humankind has become increasingly self-conscious about their bowel movements.

The current state of our sanitary system and the way our toilets are designed are also very telling of our modern-day preferences: today, public toilets in some parts of the world go so far as to provide a push-button that imitates the sound of flushing – because there is no way we are giving away what we could possibly be up to by carelessly allowing sounds to escape the cubicle. If historians 1000 years from now looked back at our public toilets, they would probably think that we were clean freaks who cared too much about what complete strangers thought about us.

In the same way, the sanitary system and toilets of Ancient Rome tell us very weird and interesting habits of the Roman people.


We also need to clarify some terms:

Although the drainage system is closely related to the sewage system, they are slightly different in that they carry different matter around.

 Table created with information from  here  and  here .

Table created with information from here and here.

Also, when we say “sanitation”, we refer to cleanliness with respect to the world around us. On the other hand, when we say “hygiene”, we refer to steps we, as individuals, take to maintain the cleanliness of our bodies. The focus of our blog post will be on the former instead of the latter. Read more about the difference between sanitation and hygiene here.

Alright, let's get down to it!

Ancient Roman Latrines

  Ancient Roman latrines/latrinae, Ostia Antica . Image retrieved from  Wikimedia Commons  on 14 October 2016.

Ancient Roman latrines/latrinae, Ostia Antica. Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons on 14 October 2016.

Eastern latrine, the public toilets along the central road, the Great Baths complex, Ancient Dion. Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons on 14 October 2016. 

When we think of public toilets today, we think of private cubicles and toilet papers. The public toilets we know today are used mainly for our timely bowel movements. For the Romans, public toilets, or what they call latrines, were literally public. They were around since the 2nd century BCE. In contrast, these latrines were long benches and quite open, which allowed people to socialize while doing their business. There was little privacy, but the Romans did not seem to mind.

This would mean bathrooms/toilets were often shared by many people, of different ages and genders!

  Image retrieved  on 14 October 2016.

Image retrieved on 14 October 2016.

As you could imagine, a huge issue that arose in ancient Roman times was unhygienic practices that led to manifestation of diseases. Instead of using toilet paper, the Romans would share a common sponge on a stick in the latrines to clean up after themselves.

 Image retrieved from  here .

Image retrieved from here.

Apart from the shared unsanitary toilets and unhygienic practices, the Romans also used human waste as fertilizer. This attracted and bred parasites, which ultimately meant ground zero for the breeding and spreading of diseases to human bodies. 

Today, although the usage of waste as fertilizer is still practiced in some parts of the world, our public toilets are clean and generally well kept. People do not share toilet papers or dirty water, which helped curb the spread of diseases or illnesses that are usually found in unsanitary living conditions. Although latrines brought Romans together as they sat side by side or across one another while pooping, the 21st century public toilet provides comfort as well as privacy; this allows people to go about their daily toilet visits more comfortably, without engaging in awkward toilet conversations or sharing filthy sponges with strangers in the toilets!

Cloaca Maxima

 Image was retrieved from  here  on 14 October 2016. 

Image was retrieved from here on 14 October 2016. 

Literally “The Great Sewer”, Cloaca Maxima in Rome was built in 6th century BCE by the Etruscans. Its construction was probably ordered by the then king of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus. It started as a canal to contain flood water from low-lying Rome but was then sheltered four centuries later, making it underground.

Cloacina, the Roman goddess of sewers, filth and beauty is said to have guarded Cloaca Maxima. She was formerly an Etruscan goddess but she was eventually picked up by the Romans. Water in Cloaca Maxima flowed from the neighboring three hills and through the main Forum. It then carried away pungent waste to the Tiber river (Bennett, 2006).

The Cloaca Maxima is still in existence today, approximately 2700 years since it began construction in 616 BCE.

 Retrieved on 14 October 2016 from  here .

Retrieved on 14 October 2016 from here.

To have survived so long is astounding. This just shows how resilient the materials used in the construction were. It possibly advocates the usage of “rectilinear blocks” in the design of sewers (Bennett, 2006).


In conclusion, toilets and the hygiene that comes along with it has made tremendous progress. What was once a collective cesspool of human waste, disease and vermin has become a place of modern comfort where one can go about their “business” in a calm and relaxed manner. However, we must realize that the progress and convenience of toilet and sanitation standards that we enjoy today are a result of the harsh lessons learned by the these ancient races, for it was their suffering from diseases, vermin and a whole range of other illnesses that came about from appalling hygiene standards that forced them to invent ways to isolate, transport and dispose of these collectives of waste so as to prevent future civilizations from suffering the same shit-related misery that resulted from their improper methods when it came to dealing with human waste.

 Retrieved from  here  on 14 October 2016. 

Retrieved from here on 14 October 2016. 

Thanks for reading!