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The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems

The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems

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The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems

481 pages
3 hours
Apr 6, 2015


The Romans developed sophisticated methods for managing hygiene, including aqueducts for moving water from one place to another, sewers for removing used water from baths and runoff from walkways and roads, and public and private latrines. Through the archeological record, graffiti, sanitation-related paintings, and literature, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow explores this little-known world of bathrooms and sewers, offering unique insights into Roman sanitation, engineering, urban planning and development, hygiene, and public health. Focusing on the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia, and Rome, Koloski-Ostrow's work challenges common perceptions of Romans' social customs, beliefs about health, tolerance for filth in their cities, and attitudes toward privacy. In charting the complex history of sanitary customs from the late republic to the early empire, Koloski-Ostrow reveals the origins of waste removal technologies and their implications for urban health, past and present.

Apr 6, 2015

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Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow is professor and chair of Classical Studies at Brandeis University, the Kevy and Hortense Kaiserman Endowed Chair in the Humanities, and affiliate faculty in Anthropology, Fine Arts, Italian Studies, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She won the 2016 Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching from the Archaeological Institute of America. She is an Associate Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome for 2018-19.

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


Chapter 1. An Introduction to Sanitation in Roman Italy and Urban Case Studies of the Best-Preserved Public Latrines


Since the early 1990s I have given short papers at the annual meetings of the Archaeological Institute of America on a variety of topics related to Roman toilets. I have treated toilets as architectural representations of Romanization, as features in bath buildings whose hydrological design technology is closely tied to the baths in which they sit, as indicators of Roman sanitary conditions in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and as sources for graffiti on bodily evacuation related to health. At every one of these conferences, my talks have been scheduled within general sessions on Roman baths. The apparent logic in the scheduling has been that public latrines are often located in baths.

While their location in baths is quite common, Roman toilets of various kinds, including multiseat latrines, could also be independent constructions in Roman cities, and toilets were common constructions in private houses and villas as well. Many questions about the technical and cultural aspects of toilets remain unanswered, and they deserve more prominence in discussions of both Roman social life and urban planning. I believe that the time has come to put Roman toilets, sewers, water systems, and Roman sanitation more directly in the spotlight of Roman history and the history of technology. I also believe that it is important to start explorations in Roman Italy, where some of the best examples of toilets within their ancient urban contexts still exist in the archaeological record. In the course of these pages, I present an overview of the nature of the existing archaeological evidence for Roman toilets, including the wide variety of sizes, types, and locations for these facilities, along with an exploration of their elusive builders and their client users.

Given the long lag in bath studies until fairly recent decades, the lack of attention to toilets, sewers, and water systems over the past one hundred years or so is not surprising. For one thing, in eras when sensitivity ran high concerning matters of personal hygiene, no scholars would take on topics so obviously disgusting.¹ Embarrassment over these subjects and powerful taboos automatically in place about toilet habits merged with another widespread notion: that the role of archaeology was to reveal the high culture of ancient Greece and Rome, not the dirty, unpleasant habits of bodily evacuation. No one could discuss these habits openly, let alone treat them as worthy of scholarly inquiry, and so Roman toilet and sewer research was not pursued, even as many new archaeological features related to sanitation were being freshly discovered. Not until the late twentieth century did scholarly analysis begin in earnest on ancient Roman sanitary constructions and notions. We now know that toilets, sewers, and drains can be strikingly fruitful indicators of intimate details about Roman life and society.²

We can say with assurance that the early archaeologists were certainly not studying toilets for a realistic look at their social implications, they were not excavating them with the scientific precision necessary to glean the wealth of information that stratified fecal matter can unfold, and they were not trying to get any kind of global perspective on sanitary installations across the Roman world. In addition, those archaeologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who found structures that we now know were Roman toilets could be downright indignant in their refusal to identify them accurately. A. De Iorio (1820), one of the early excavators of Pozzuoli (ancient Puteoli) preferred to invent a fantasy interpretation for the latrines in the macellum (market) rather than confront their more embarrassing archaeological reality head-on. In order to escape the sacrilege of excrement in the sublime vicinity of the so-called Serapeum, he argued that the latrines were medicinal steam baths where the strength of the steam created a need to be seated.³ Elsewhere these early archaeologists mysteriously turned toilets into seats for medical treatments and even prison chairs.⁴

About a hundred years later, in 1913, G. Boni would transform the seats in the latrine under the imperial palace on the Palatine into hydraulic water hoists, with no small amount of mathematical calculation.⁵ We can ascribe most of these inaccuracies to an open disgust for talking about fecal issues, which seems prevalent especially throughout the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, we must wonder at the preponderance of these latrine blunders. Perhaps something more than the discomfort level of the researchers caused such omissions from earlier scholarship.

By the end of the first century B.C., and very likely much before, the Romans had built public toilets, what we can call public latrines, as a hallmark construction of Romanization. These structures provide useful data for evaluating Roman ideas about public health and standards for it. The physical remains of sewer networks and latrines are in remarkably good condition at a number of sites all around the Roman world, but they are largely unstudied. We need to find out, as much as archaeology allows, which latrines were connected to sewer lines and precisely how they operated. Unfortunately, the literary record on public latrines and sewers is uniformly meager as far as physical descriptions go, and not one full account of their administration is extant. Significant literary references touching on these topics, however, do survive, and must be pulled together and reviewed in conjunction with sites on the ground. If we combine in situ observation with literary and epigraphical evidence, the result can be quite productive.


Roman cesspits and sewers, which serviced public latrines and baths and removed runoff from the streets, were putrid in nature and often in dangerous proximity to a city’s water supply. Most cities of the Roman world by the early first century B.C. had public toilets of some sort, which could be characterized by darkness, stench, and disease-ridden chambers. Questions about urban sanitation can only find answers from sites where substantial, well-preserved archaeological remains are available. Pompeii, Herculaneum, Rome, and Ostia have such evidence, despite the fact we never feel that we have enough of it to fine-tune our understanding. Research projects on baths, drainage, and the function of urban space have demonstrated the valuable insights to be gained from specific urban locales already.⁶ As we now have a clearer idea how domestic architecture, fora, temples, structures for entertainment, macella, and even the benches that lined the streets⁷ were utilized within their urban spaces, and how they functioned within Roman society at various periods, we can use these research efforts as models for questions about sanitation as well. Pompeii and Herculaneum especially provide excellently preserved remains of public and private toilets within their Roman townscapes, concrete instances of inhabited space⁸ at particular moments in the lives of these cities. From these facilities we can explore relationships between space, function, and society over time.

In addition to preserving strong evidence for Roman public toilets, the zone of Vesuvius offers us several large villa complexes with other types of latrine facilities, useful for comparative purposes as we further explore the archaeology of Roman hygiene and sanitation. Furthermore, several of these latrines can with some certainty be dated early in the Roman architectural development of the form.⁹ The quantity of evidence available at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and, for later periods, at Ostia gives these sites their special status. I have also selected other lesser-known urban sites either because they offer some unique information about sanitation within an urban context or because they verify something we can hypothesize elsewhere. Since so many literary references to sewers and latrine customs are set in Rome, I include Rome, too, for its material remains, though not much work has been done on the toilets of Rome, and they are scattered in time and place.

The main question we are seeking to answer is: Were harsh sanitary conditions,¹⁰ to be discussed in chapter 3, improved or changed in any way by the addition of latrine architecture to Rome and other cities, and can we determine if toilets were designed and sited with urban health in mind? In subsequent chapters we shall discuss sewers, especially in Rome, and latrines from a variety of perspectives in the wider context of Roman society, but first we need to view these elements of urban infrastructure inside particular cities. A close look at facilities in Pompeii and Herculaneum can clarify Roman hygienic standards, if they existed at all, at particular points on a timeline in the late republic and the early empire. While luxury latrines are not any major part of our explorations in this study, I include a few samples of public toilets from the second century and later just to demonstrate signs of changing taste and designs.

Well-preserved examples of luxury latrines are found in Timgad, Cuicul, Corinth, Ephesus, Athens, Apamea, Madaurus, Thubursicum, Thuburbo Maius, and Sabratha, to name a few places where, by the second century A.D., latrines began to shine with a new kind of polish. In an earlier period, when the blood of dead gladiators was still considered a viable cure for epilepsy, and when too many flies still gorged freely on open dung heaps,¹¹ what did public toilets look like, and were they agreeable spaces or not?

Physical details of public latrines in Roman Italy during the first century B.C. and early first century A.D. are unmistakably different from those of later, more luxurious toilets. Early latrines are not embellished by opulent decorations and statuary, nor do they have copious dimensions. Nevertheless, that these apparently dark and dank public facilities were increasingly becoming common fixtures in the urban landscape is a fact worth noting and marks them as a precise architectural form. A comparison of the public and private spaces of Pompeii, to the extent that we can distinguish them from each other, helps to show how the use of urban space reveals hierarchy and order in Roman society.

Our best examples of public latrines in Roman Italy are either too few in one site, or numerous in one site but too late in date (second century A.D. or later), for the parameters I have set to allow us to trace the development of latrine use in chronological order in the late republic and early empire without some gaps. Pompeii, however, offers the special opportunity to view a sampling of public and private toilets from a number of different periods over time within the urban fabric of one city, and so we turn first to Pompeii.


During the pre-Roman period, when Pompeii was inhabited mainly by Oscans and Oscan-speaking Samnites, the town was heavily Hellenized, and from around 150 B.C. onward the leading families of Pompeii, who had been amassing large fortunes, would have been coming into direct contact with the Hellenistic world through trade and travel. These people, therefore, would have been swept up in a powerful current of acculturation from the East¹² that very likely contributed in some part to the construction of both house toilets and public latrines at Pompeii (fig. 1). But can we find other reasons in the archaeological evidence to explain the fact that more and more toilets were constructed?

Pompeii had at least ten relief stations that appear to have been open to the public (fig. 2), insofar as they were accessible to the wider population even if they were privately owned.¹³ The specific features of both private house toilets and public latrines can now be viewed within the larger context of Pompeii’s increasingly Hellenized culture. We look first at some private house toilets.

The most opulent private house of Pompeii’s Oscan-Samnite period, heavily Hellenized on a grand scale that is equivalent to the royal palaces of the East and North Africa, is the House of the Faun, which occupies an entire insula, VI.12 (fig. 3).¹⁴ Samnite landowners were clearly in the process of adopting the luxurious tastes of the Hellenistic world with the same level of conspicuous consumption that later Roman aristocrats would manifest in their villas on the Bay of Naples.¹⁵ None of the restraints against overindulgence in luxuries that were exercised in Rome were to be found on the bay. In addition to the House of the Faun’s lavish decorative program, strongly indicative of the cult of Dionysus,¹⁶ the grandeur of two imposing atria, the construction of two peristyle gardens, and the insertion of the Alexander mosaic in the exedra between the two peristyles—which was the most striking example of the owner’s identification with Hellenistic culture—the house was fitted with a small private bath and a latrine (latrina).¹⁷ The House of the Faun is but one of many examples of affluent houses, albeit the most grand within the circuit of the town’s walls, from the Samnite period in Pompeii,¹⁸ but virtually all of these had installations of private toilets.¹⁹

I am suggesting that the first installations of latrines in these early private dwellings may be more than luxurious responses to Hellenistic taste. Pompeii’s suburban Villa of the Mysteries, originally thought to be constructed in about 150 B.C. and now believed to be of post-Sullan date based on new excavation and analysis of the construction technique,²⁰ underwent a long history of reconstructions and transformations. During the Augustan age, with peace restored to the surrounding countryside outside Pompeii’s walls, the villa probably achieved its finest form. After the earthquake of A.D. 62 (or some other earthquake closer to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum), the villa became a working farm, perhaps operating under the procurator L. Istacidius Zosimus, a freedman of the venerable and indigenous Pompeian family, the Istacidii.²¹ The original principal entrance off the Via Superiore, which proceeded into a once elegant Doric peristyle designed according to Vitruvius’s specifications,²² became secondary. Several rooms surrounding the peristyle, especially those along the east side, were transformed into more rustic service quarters for the villa. A fairly ample latrine (fig. 4, room 40), which could seat about six, was added in the extreme southeast corner of the villa, probably sometime after A.D. 50. This latrine seems well suited for the abundant staff of slaves and workers who were involved in the production of wine and oil at the villa during its final years. The room is simple in design, convenient to the working areas of the villa, and quite close to the kitchen, which was a hub of activity. It is dark and undecorated, except for simple white plaster on its walls. Below we examine a better-preserved, but quite similar, villa latrine at Oplontis.

Neither the patronus nor any of his family probably ever ventured back to this unsavory corner of the villa, yet someone took the trouble to employ latrine technology at this later phase in the villa’s building history, and employed it, if its position can be properly read, for the least important members of the familia. I believe we can connect such constructions of large house toilets to changing social ideas.

The Grand Theater of Pompeii (VIII.7.20) (fig. 5: an arrow indicates the location of the latrine) is adjacent to one of the oldest quarters of the city, the so-called Triangular Forum (VIII.7.30). In the center of this triangular open space sits a Doric temple whose foundations date to about the second half of the sixth century B.C. Analysis of the Roman wall construction technique employed, opus incertum, dates the nucleus of the theater to the second century B.C.²³ By the time Pompeii was a Roman colony in 80 B.C., the building was in full operation. Pompeii had been outfitted with a stone theater about one hundred years before Rome’s Theater of Pompey was constructed in 55 B.C.²⁴ The theater at Pompeii as we see it today, however, seems to be largely of the Augustan period.²⁵ A major restoration and expansion, incorporating brick and marble, includes an inscription embedded in the sixth row recording that the seat was dedicated to M. Holconius Rufus.²⁶ He was a preeminent Pompeian of his day, serving as a flamen Augusti among his other offices, and very likely the general rebuilding of the theater was done under the benefit of his financial assistance to the city.

While not mentioned in many standard works on Pompeii,²⁷ a small latrine (about 3 x 5 m.) was constructed on the upper west side of the summa cavea in the exterior wall of the theater. It is located under a stair and is directly accessible from the Triangular Forum, as well as from the theater. A small window in the outer cavea wall lights the room. An enormous, circular cistern (also visible in fig. 5), built in brick-faced concrete, stands just to the north of the entrance to the latrine. In addition to providing the water for sprinkling the crowds during hot morning performances in the theater, it may also have served as a partial water supply for flushing the latrine. The addition of this small latrine, which could seat six to eight clients, seems to be an indicator of changing Roman social customs.

Another republican structure (either second century B.C. or early first century B.C.), the so-called Republican Baths (VIII.5.36),²⁸ also had a small and rather dark public latrine sited within it, even before one was placed in the remodeled theater. This building is stubbornly overgrown with weeds and too inaccessible to photograph. The latrine is located just northwest of the palaestra.²⁹ Its dimensions are about 3.5 × 5 m., and it could accommodate between eight and twelve clients. No seats survive, and much of the floor is destroyed. Nevertheless, however modest in size, these Republican Baths were apparently in operation for at least fifty years, including the latrine, which was an integral part of the structure.³⁰ We can attribute some design elements within these new bath buildings to Hellenistic tastes. Moreover, resettled veterans who came to Pompeii after 80 B.C. would no doubt have appreciated finding and establishing newer baths with toilet services in their hometown. The rationale for adding latrines within these structures, however, was perhaps as pragmatic—in its understanding of human nature—as it was forward-thinking, and we shall return to this point.

Although not much survives of it, there was also a fairly large public latrine at the west entrance to the old Forum Baths (VII.5), also dating to ca. 80 B.C.³¹ (fig. 6). When viewed along with the latrine under the stair in the Grand Theater and the latrine in the Republican Baths, this example gives us an important glimpse into the archaeological realities of early latrine architecture. These truly basic and plain facilities are still integral fixtures within the buildings in which they sit. Accessible to the street, this latrine in the Forum Baths could probably seat twelve to sixteen clients at a time.

The Stabian Baths would have operated in close proximity to these two early baths, but its public latrine (fig. 7) seems clearly to be a later renovation within the early structure of the main bathing block.³² While difficult to date precisely, we can place the construction of this latrine between the time of Augustus and the final years of the town. Its dimensions are similar to those of the latrine in the Forum Baths, although many of its features are better preserved, perhaps because they were still fairly new when Pompeii was destroyed. The room may have accommodated sixteen to twenty clients on wooden seats that have disappeared. The deep sewer trench under the latrine (fig. 8) has been cleared out, and several of the stone struts that held the wooden seating planks have survived. A channel (ca. 30 cm wide), which held the sponge sticks that the Romans sometimes used for toilet paper, stretches below the vanished latrine bank.³³ Two small windows (fig. 9) high on the east wall provided the scant light, which must have reflected to some extent on the shimmering zebra pattern (fig. 10) still visible on the walls of the whole room.³⁴

Another area of Pompeii where we can find clear evidence of Hellenistic taste, especially in the time of Augustus, is the forum. The construction program for public, cultural buildings, such as the theater and baths, proceeded without significant interruptions, but the political zone in the center of Pompeii, namely the forum area, presents a different picture. Established around the middle of the second century B.C., the forum consists of a rectangular open area dominated by a central temple, the Capitolium. Overall, it experienced a rather hodgepodge architectural development along its sides, particularly in the construction of administrative buildings at its south end, which were clearly not erected simultaneously. Perhaps the town’s political center inspired less interest for the construction of new buildings than areas of the city given over to cultural activities and other public indulgences, such as bathing. The forum of this Oscan-Samnite town was marked by start-and-stop construction that finally saw the completion of the old basilica, the Temple of Apollo, and the Capitolium. Only in the time of Augustus, when interest in Hellenistic taste had reached new heights, was a new white Sarno-limestone portico built to mask the aesthetically problematic older buildings lining the forum. At this same time, a newly refurbished macellum³⁵ sprang up in the northeast corner.

Without excavation we cannot know the developments in the area directly to the north of the Temple of Apollo. At some point, however, a large facility, perhaps a market,³⁶ was built there, along with the imposing forum latrine (fig. 11), both structures well hidden by the forum’s outer walls. I suggest that this latrine was originally constructed in the time of Augustus, given the fact that the sewer running under it looks to be of Augustan date to me. Both the outer and inner doorways are lined with bricks. Most of the walls are constructed in a coarse rubble work, which is, however, characteristic of the final years of the town, so perhaps the latrine received later repairs after earthquake damage.³⁷ In any case, the large public latrine belongs to an acculturation process in regard to the use of toilets that was gripping Pompeii already in the first century B.C., as well as so many other towns in Roman Italy.

The entrance to Pompeii’s forum latrine gives us one clear example of the design of staggered latrine doors (fig. 12), which did not allow passersby to look into the main chamber.³⁸ A small vestibule just off the forum was presumably a room for a custodian. One can enter the main room of the latrine through a second inner door. A wide sewer trench (fig. 13), over which several stone struts (fig. 14) are suspended that held the seating, surrounds the main room.

For several reasons, it appears that this latrine was not in operation in A.D. 79. Not only was there no painted decoration, but even the simplest white plaster undercoating had not yet been spread. Furthermore, the floor was not finished, and pipes leading to the sewer opening were not yet laid. Lighting, however, was to be much improved compared with that of the earlier latrines we have been surveying so far at Pompeii. Large windows are implanted high up in both east (fig. 15) and west walls (fig. 16).

Another latrine in Pompeii that is more securely dated to the early Augustan period is the one constructed along the southeast wall of the Grand Palaestra (fig. 17). While the nearby amphitheater has been dated with some certainty to 80 B.C.,³⁹ the palaestra seems to belong to another Augustan development program.⁴⁰ The latrine, an oddly jerry-built affair, is attached to the palaestra complex behind the south colonnade and may have been an afterthought in the plan (fig. 18). Seating more than twenty clients, this was the largest latrine in the town, though quite close in size to the forum latrine. It may well have serviced the amphitheater crowds, which would only have been increasing in size (along with the general population) from 80 B.C. to the early years of the first century A.D.⁴¹ Since the palaestra must have been heavily frequented by spectators during breaks in the games, we can not be very surprised by the wide variety of graffiti found there, including lurid obscenities, price lists, and recommendations for the best barbers.⁴² The austere, noble Augustan ideals behind the construction of a complex like the palaestra, which was supposed to rejuvenate the town’s youth with new athletic training grounds, often greatly diverged from the concerns and coarseness of the everyday citizens who frequented such areas. The late addition of the latrine to the complex seems to have served to dissuade visitors from urinating or defecating amid the double rows of large plane trees that lined the central pool, which they surely otherwise would have done. I do not think we can understand this large latrine solely as an expression of Hellenistic taste.

The latrine in the south side of the unfinished Central Baths⁴³ (fig. 19, e) is a part of a building that definitely dates to the last years of the city’s history. Sixteen to twenty clients could have commingled there. No seats survive, and the latrine trench has been filled in with debris. The latrine was flushed with runoff water from the swimming pool (natatio) in the palaestra of this bath. Two large windows brought light into the room from a southern exposure (fig. 20).

Three additional public sanitary facilities can be found at Pompeii in bathing complexes, and, like the old latrine in the Republican Baths, they were very likely privately owned, though they served a public utilizing the bathing facilities in which they sit, perhaps for a fee. All of these structures were built fairly late in the history of Pompeii (probably soon after A.D. 50), and all of them are on the fringes of the town, fairly well removed from the political, economic, and cultural centers, such as the forum, macellum, and main public baths.

The first of these small latrines, seating six to eight (fig. 21), is in the Suburban Baths outside the city wall near the Porta Marina.⁴⁴ A latrine with six to eight seats is at street level in the Palaestra/Sarno Bath complex (VIII.2.23), which itself is perched on the southernmost cliff of the town.⁴⁵ Finally, a larger latrine (fig. 22) was built in the Praedia of Julia Felix (figs. 23, 24) within one block of the Sarno Gate at the extreme eastern end of the town.

In addition to their curious location at the various edges of the city, these baths and their latrines contain other curiosities, namely wall paintings of the goddess Fortuna, noteworthy more for their content than for their execution, that we can relate either to ideas about sanitation (the maintenance of a healthy body), religion (the protection needed from the gods for one entering a latrine), or both.⁴⁶

By the time of Augustus, benefactors and town officials at Pompeii began providing facilities in or near the buildings they constructed for public use. In most cases, they are too humble in every way to be seen in the context of a taste for Hellenistic luxuria, and their placement and size also make it difficult to see them in terms of some sanitary revolution in the city. From a modern perspective, we might think that these early latrines at Pompeii were constructed for the comfort of an attending public at the large buildings in which they were sited (theater, baths, forum complex), though the lines must have been quite unbearable, since the seating in the latrines was so limited. To me, the archaeological evidence suggests that they were constructed to protect the property to which they were attached from various pollutions—urine stains and secretly deposited piles of excrement in far-flung corners. These early Pompeian toilets are a gesture toward better sanitation, but not the result of an overarching policy for

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