The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow

Book Review by Guy

The young student many times begins his or her studies of ancient Rome by learning only about the famous personalities, the pivotal dates, and the crucial battles. This might leave the student with the sterile impression that the ancient history of Rome was only about shining marble buildings, clean tidy roads, great orators, conquering generals, countless decadent emperors, and innumerable grand monuments.

Too often, the mud and the grime, the pungent and putrid odors, the deafening noise from the crowded bustling streets, the many foreign tongues heard at the busy markets, and the sounds and confusion of any major ancient city are forgotten. Only later the student might want to learn the true nitty-gritty of everyday life for the ordinary resident of Rome.

To appreciate the everyday life of the typical ancient Roman, the student will also need to delve deeper into several other important aspects of ancient Roman life. These topics might include diet, disease, denarii, demographics, and death. After reading Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow’s book The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems,” I would add another “D”-- defecation.

Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow is a professor and chair of Classical studies at Brandeis University. She has researched Ancient Roman sanitation and written about this subject for more than two decades. The professor’s book is a dense scholarly examination of sanitation in Ancient Rome, but is also chalked full of thought-provoking insights and insightful research about everyday life’s most private behavior.

Many would ask, “Why even study this topic?” Professor Koloski-Ostrow answers, “We now know that toilets, sewers, and drains can be strikingly fruitful indicators of intimate details about Roman life and society.” The book is 312 pages and includes about 122 pages of main text, 28 drawings, 64 black and white illustrations, 8 maps, and 50 pages of footnotes. The main text is divided into five chapters.

The first chapter gives a meticulous assessment of the best-preserved latrines at Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia, and other sites. Professor Koloski-Ostrow explores technical aspects of latrines, including ventilation and lighting, decoration and design, and water and sewer connections. Two of the many interesting subjects of the first chapter are the frequent appearance of the goddess Fortuna on the wall drawings of the latrines and the possible previous function of the famous stone piece La Bocca della Verità. (The Mouth of Truth).

Traditionally in the Roman religion, Fortuna was the goddess of luck. The professor believes that the goddess Fortuna found at Roman toilets “can relate either to ideas about sanitation (the maintenance of a healthy body), religion (the protection needed from the gods entering a latrine), or both.” She adds later, “The Romans clearly associated the goddess with the activities of the toilet.”

I wrote about Professor Koloski-Ostrow’s interesting observation about the famous La Bocca della Verità in a previous post.

The second chapter is a comparative study of sanitation in history throughout the world. Professor Koloski-Ostrow briefly examines a wide range of sanitation practices from toilets in biblical times to sanitation in Europe from the middle ages to the nineteenth century, as well as sanitation practices of Muslims, Hindus, and Asian cultures. The third chapter attempts to understand Roman sanitation from archaeology, including toilets, sewers, and water systems.

The fourth chapter pinpoints behaviors, attitudes, and ideals for Roman toilets. It is in this chapter that the professor distinguishes between the Latin words latrina and forica (plural foacae). She states that “the latrina was located in a private house or some other private space and not accessible to the public at large.” She adds that the latrina was usually a one-seater. The foricae were “multiseat facilities, open in plan, were public buildings or often attached to public buildings or often attached to public buildings, though sometimes they were privately owned.”

The fifth and last chapter examines the literary evidence (including graffiti) and painted references for ancient Roman sanitation. In the last chapter, the professor discusses a drawing with the painted message cacator cave malu(m) or “Crapper, beware of the danger.” Professor Koloski-Ostrow suggests several meanings: “a warning against the evil that might be the pollution of entering a latrine, or the evil of coming in contact with excrement, or the evil of inciting the evil eye, to name a few.”

Among the abundant footnotes, the professor makes reference to an article by Scobie that “discusses the various diseases in which Romans were susceptible in the light of their usage of human excrement as fertilize: cholera, dysentery, gastroenteritis, infectious hepatitis, leptospirosis, and typhoid fever.” Oh, what fun.

Professor Koloski-Ostrow delves into a frequently overlooked aspect of Ancient Roman life—sanitation. The subject matter may not be as glamorous as a passionate love affair between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. The study of sanitation is, however, essential for any serious student of Ancient Rome. Koloski-Ostrow’s The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems is a good book with which to start one’s study.

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