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Roman Toilets Spread Parasites

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Public baths, latrines with washing facilities, sewer systems, fountains and clean drinking water from aqueducts did not protect the ancient Romans from parasites, finds new research. Published in the journal Parasitology, the study used archaeological evidence from cesspits, sewer drains, rubbish pits, burials and other sites to assess the impact of Romanization across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.


...via Discovery News

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I do think a lot of romanophiles get carried away with this concept of romanization. The Romans never, at any stage, romanized any society, or at less not overtly. They most certainly persuaded native leaders in new provinces to go latin so that they could be plugged straight into the Roman political system along with tribal loyalties, but the people themselves? As long as provincials paid taxes and behaved themselves, the Romans simply let them carry on with their lives. It is true that urbanisation was encouraged under the Augustan Franchise and that presented a familiar latin mode to cities around the empire, but only at the higher stages of development were Roman modes dominant. Many minor settlements were the same as provincial societies - hybrids, with a mix of latin and native influence. After all, the Romans said themselves that it was Gaul who had "most closely emulated them", which does imply not everyone was so keen to do away with traditional ways of life. For that matter, there is plenty of archeological evidence to show the persistence of native culture right through the imperial period and beyond.


Of course the findings are no suprise. Although the Romans thought highly of cleaniness, clearly their cities were not particularly clean. They did, after all, stress the importance of the cloaca maxima, Rome's famous sewer tunnel. We are talking of a people who washed their clothes using human urine as a bleach, or even used the same urine to wash their teeth. We know that the insulae, or tenement blocks, were infested with vermin as much as much harassed tenants. And the waste from those buildings? More often then not, thrown out of a window into the street.


Thing is though - I find it odd that the Romans complain more about the noise of urban life than they do about the smell/

Edited by caldrail

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Let's put all this in context.


Around 100 AD, Rome had about one million inhabitants. London didn't achieve that milestone till nearly 1800 (with a couple hundred thousand of those residents living in nearby communities not yet part of London). 


Let's ask ourselves which city seems to have the healthier conditions. Would health conditions for the average resident in the London of 1750 been much better than in the Rome of 100 AD, for example? 


The only difference I can imagine is that by the 1700s, there was at least the earliest understanding of germ theory and contagious diseases. But it wasn't till late in the 1700s that Jenner introduced the safer cowpox vaccination for smallpox, for example. Hand washing, however, wasn't even an accepted requisite for good medical care till the mid-1800s.


Both cities suffered from overcrowding, infectious diseases (London at this time, unlike Rome, was ravaged by syphilis), poor nutrition, crime, streets covered with filth and excrement, poor access to shelter and houses, etc.


I ask, which water supply would have been more reliable and drinkable?


My favorite scene of preindustrial-revolution London is with Johnny Depp as the debauched Earl of Rochester. The part at the end of this short clip depicts the grime and muck of the London of the late 1600s:




guy also known as gaius

Edited by guy

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For the average joe, I wouldn't imagine huge differences at all. The enviroment is squalid, cramped, expensive. In Rome, tenements house families packed into rooms. The lower floors are noisy and vulnerable to crime. The attic freezes you in winter and boils you in summer. There's no financial support for the poor either - none of modern social provisions, although they did have a corn dole if you had a permanent address. But then, the supply of cirn was variable according to circumstance. Augustus was obliged during one shortage to exile "useless mouths" from Rome. Claudius got pelted with stale crusts from an angry crowd.


Water supply is an interesting issue. It seems local initiatives sometimes did supply cleaner water via aquaducts direct to homes in places like Herculaneum. In Rome, with much denser population and high rise apartments (the highest was nine floors - most averaged five to seven) the supply of water meant a walk to the local fountain and back again, upstairs, with a heavy load of water. I'm not hugely convinced the supply was entirely clean, certainly not by standards, but most likely better than typical towns that relied on wells or nearby rivers. Water from natural watercourses was used by human and animal alike for all sorts of things and if you were downstream of a settlement, the water was unlikely to be as healthy. With poor urban drainage and stagnant water malaria was rife in Rome as the imperial period progressed.


In short, despite changes in culture and facilities, conditions between imperial Rome and Reformation London resulted in pretty much the same life expectantcy.The Tiber did not achieve the same terrible reputation as a sewer in the way that the Thames did but there must have been similarities.

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