I live my life in the gutter, says Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow with a chuckle.
An anthropologist at Brandeis University, her “official” title is “Queen of Latrines”.
For the past 25 years, she has spent much of her time in ancient Roman gutters. “There’s a lot you can find out about a culture when you look at how they managed their toilets,” Koloski-Ostrow says. “That’s why I study it. My life in the gutter.”
Ephesus (in what is now Turkey), grew to prominence around the second century C.E. and housed some 300,000 to 400,000 Roman citizens. One of the open spaces in the city contains a long white marble bench with a row of holes shaped just like modern toilet seats: a Roman bathroom. There are no dividers of any kind in between. Talk about not having inhibitions, conducting your private business next to a dozen other strangers.
A recent Smithsonian article on this subject, adapted from a book by Lina Zeldovich, recalled the author meeting Koloski-Ostrow at this site in Ephesus. It describes a lovely conversation about bodily excretions, chamber pots, butt-wiping habits, sewer vermin, and other equally unappetizing topics. As a result of that conversation, the author’s understanding of the ancient Romans’ views on waste, hygiene and toilet habits began to take shape. The word “latrine,” or latrina in Latin, was used to describe a private toilet in someone’s home, usually constructed over a cesspit. Public toilets were called foricae, and they were often attached to public baths, whose water was used to flush away the waste.
Underneath the marble seats is a stone-lined gutter that must have carried citizens’ waste out of the city. A second shallower gutter in front of the seats was clearly built to carry water—but for what? Did the enclosure have a roof, doors and windows? Were the stone seats hot in summer and cold in winter? Did toilet-goers talk to each other? Did they shake hands after wiping? And what did they actually wipe with, given that toilet paper is a fairly recent development? Was this a men’s room or a ladies’ room?
Despite the lack of toilet paper, toilet-goers did wipe. That’s what the mysterious shallow gutter was for. The Romans cleaned their behinds with sea sponges attached to a stick, and the gutter supplied clean flowing water to dip the sponges in. This soft, gentle tool was called a tersorium, which literally meant “a wiping thing.” (Multiple usage I assume!!!!!!)
Upper-class Romans, who sometimes paid for the foricae to be erected, generally wouldn’t set foot in these places. They constructed them for the poor and the enslaved. Neither were the public toilets built to accommodate women, and an elite Roman woman wouldn’t be caught dead in there.
The famous Roman sewers were another story. At the height of its power, Rome had to clean up after about a million people. An average adult produces about a pound a day, so a 500-ton pile of feces is a mind-boggling image. While Roman farmers understood the waste’s fertilizing value, and put some of it back into the fields, the city couldn’t recycle it fast enough. To flush that much excrement out of the city daily, one needs a truly massive system.
The Romans did everything on a grand scale, including waste removal. They initially borrowed their sewer technology from the Greeks. Koloski-Ostrow attributes this “technology transfer” to “Hellenistic cultural forces” and to Roman soldiers who starting building latrines in military camps. To keep their Roman-sized Augean stables clean, the Romans scaled up the system to massive proportions, building the Greatest Sewer, or Cloaca Massima (It was named after the Roman goddess Cloacina—the Cleanser, from the Latin verb cluo, meaning “to clean.”).
The Cloaca Massima moved millions of gallons of water every day. It was so immense that Greek geographer and historian Strabo wrote that Rome’s sewers were big enough “for wagons loaded with hay to pass” and for “veritable rivers” to flow through them. The triple-arch outlet of the Cloaca Massima still stands today.
The Cloaca Massima solved Rome’s sewage removal problems, but it didn’t solve the city’s health issues. It carried the filth out of the city and dumped it into the Tiber, polluting the very water some citizens depended on for irrigation, bathing and drinking. And so, while the Romans no longer had to see, or smell, their excrement, they didn’t manage to eliminate its hazardous nature.
Through the next several centuries, as humankind kept concentrating in cities, it would find itself in a bitter battle with its own waste—seemingly with no way to win.
Now, aren’t you glad you now know all about my life in the gutter, and the Cloaca Massima? Definitely something to look out for on your next trip to Rome! Thank you Lina Zeldovich and the Queen of the Latrines, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, for illuminating these Roman habits.