Public restrooms in the Ancient Roman world

A large latrine in Ostia Antica.

A shy, private person would not have an easy time of things in ancient Rome.  Bathing was typically conducted as a group activity, the baths of Caracalla in the city of Rome could accommodate upwards of 1600 bathers, and “going to the powder room” was often a group effort as well.  Rome gave us lots of amazing things that we take for granted today: central heating, giant sports stadiums, vaulted ceilings, concrete and coin operated machines to name a few.  The most important innovation, in my opinion, however was the flushing toilet.  Not the porcelain gods we have come to know and appreciate (sometimes praying to after a night of excessive, youthful partying), but often large, sometimes elaborate communal affairs–marble cladding, statuary, shrines, etc.

Using a Roman public restroom involved sitting cheek to cheek with your neighbor, discussing the political events of the week, planning dinner parties, scheming for invitations to said dinner parties.  You sat on the long marble bench with key-hole shaped cutouts, a small trough in the floor in front of you running with clean water, the trench directly under you flushing, often with grey water from a nearby bath complex, the waste of the latrine out to the main sewer.  Depending on the quality of the facility, a slave may be on hand ready to offer you a sea sponge, freshly cleaned in vinegar, attached to the end of a stick.  No wasteful use of trees to make toilet paper here, the sea sponge gets cleaned off after use to be offered to the next “customer.”  I guess the Romans also gave us the concept of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”  Who knew?

The lower opening gave convenient access for the sponge-on-a-stick.

Why does Vacerra spend his hours in all the privies, and day-long sit?
He wants a supper, not a s**t.” Martial

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2 Responses to Public restrooms in the Ancient Roman world

  1. Millie Jean says:

    hi what was the alternative instead of using the public toilets. I have homework and i have been searching but no websites have told me?????

  2. Private toilets and/or evidence of toilets have been found in Roman houses and upstairs apartments – Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia all have good examples of this. If you weren’t fortunate enough to live in a house with a toilet, you’d use a chamber pot. After you took care of “business” you simply dumped the chamber pot into the gutter along the street.

    Here is just one of many references you might check out for your research: http://books.google.com/books?id=xkOhwFzz1AkC&pg=PA359&lpg=PA359&dq=chamber+pots+ancient+rome&source=bl&ots=pP4rj6hKlc&sig=2vj30Crk5KWLPfrCe7X3IcEwqZg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=y3ngUIu9A4y8qQGV8IAI&ved=0CIEBEOgBMA0#v=onepage&q=chamber%20pots%20ancient%20rome&f=false

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