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Appreciating Ancient Latrines

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(I have both the honor and the privilege to review Anne Olga Koloski-Ostrow’s “The Archaeology of sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems." This is just a preview of my later complete review.)

While doing research a few years ago about healthcare in the ancient world, I found this fascinating drawing by the illustrator Ron Embleton. It depicts a communal latrine (forica) at Housesteads Fort along Hadrian’s Wall. I was horrified by the use of the sponge on a stick, probably shared, for personal hygiene.




(Click on image to enlarge)


This is a picture of a preserved Ancient Roman latrine in Ostia:




For many years, these pictures and others of ancient Roman latrines had left me with more questions than answers.

While reviewing Professor Koloski-Ostrow’s book “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems,” I gained greater insight into sanitation in ancient Rome and an answer to many of my questions.


Professor Koloski-Ostrow notes, “The ever-present trenches at the feet of the public toilets were definitely designed to hold liquids, either spillage from washing arrangements, water directed into them for cleaning sponge sticks, or urine.”


Professor Koloski-Ostrow’s research further supports the use of sponge sticks for personal cleaning after toilet use.

She sites Seneca’s moving tribute to a German gladiator killing himself with a sponge stick as evidence of at least its presence near a commode:


 “For example, there was lately in a training-school for the wild-beast gladiators a German, who was making ready for the morning exhibition; he withdrew in order to relieve himself,-the only thing which he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body. That was truly to insult death! Yes, indeed; it was not a very elegant or becoming way to die; but was it more foolish than to be over-nice about dying? What a brave fellow! He surely deserved to be allowed to choose his fate! How bravely he would have wielded a sword! With what courage he would have hurled himself into the depths of the sea, or down a precipice!” (Seneca “Epistulae ad Lucilium”)



There is no definitive evidence that these sponge sticks were used for personal cleanup (and not used for cleaning the toilets, instead). Professor Koloski-Ostrow, however, does make a persuasive argument that the sponge sticks, in fact, were used for personal hygiene.


To really understand ancient Roman culture and history, one must appreciate the mundane as well as the monuments.



guy also known as gaius

Edited by guy
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