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Ancient RomanToilets

Updated on January 17, 2016

In Praise of Ancient Roman Plumbers

The Ancient Romans were skilled sanitation engineers and they had something that the modern world didn't achieve again till the seventeenth century. Toilets.

If you came along with me on a time-travel trip to first century Rome, you would find the toilet arrangements perfectly acceptable. Apart from the lack of privacy.

Pardon? No Privacy?

For us, going to the toilet is most definitely a private matter but communal latrines were perfectly acceptable to the Ancient Romans and they used this opportunity for a little old fashioned networking.

A contemporary account

Strabo wrote of Roman sanitation in Geographica, his descriptive history of people and places from different regions of the the early first century.

The sewers, covered with a vault of tightly fitted stones, have room in some places for hay wagons to drive through them. The quantity of water brought into the city by aqueducts is so great that it is like rivers flow through the city and the sewers.

Nearly every house has water tanks, service pipes, and plenty of water.

Roman Pipes, Histria Museum
Roman Pipes, Histria Museum | Source

Ancient Roman Sanitation Engineers

Ancient Rome had eleven aqueducts to carry water, and a complex system of sewers.

The sewers were much like modern sewers, where waste flushed from the latrines flowed through a central channel into the main sewage system. From there the Roman waste water ended up in a nearby river while our waste water is further treated before ending up in a river or the ocean.

The Convenience of Chamberpots

Most apartment houses (insulae) didn't have much in the way of toilet facilities and, if they did, they were on the ground floor. So most apartment dwellers used chamberpots in their own rooms. Faced with a walk (perhaps of nine stories) in the middle of the night down unlit stairs to a communal latrine, what would you prefer?

Private homes ( domi) might have latrines. although chamberpots were common, and the contents dumped into cesspits.

Public Toilets

Latrinae at Ostia Antica
Latrinae at Ostia Antica | Source

A Royal Three Seater Toilet

You could call it a private toilet

At Portus, close to Ostiia, is an elegant Ancient Roman amphitheatre on the scale of the Pantheon.

Robbed of its fine marble facing and cut stone blocks, this great building, perhaps used by the emperor himself, was reduced to a ruin almost 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists have painstakingly worked through the piles of rubble and uncovered a small, private toilet with marble walls and floor. It's fitted out with three seats, Could this be the Emperor's private toilet?

Nice and cozy. Room for yourself and two friends.

guardian science

Reconstructed Roman Toilet in Britain

The Ancient Roman Plumber

The Ancient Roman plumber was called plumbarius and I'm sure these tradesmen were as much in demand as they are today.

Cloaca Maxima, the Biggest Sewer

Outfall of Cloaca Maxima as it appears today
Outfall of Cloaca Maxima as it appears today | Source

One of the oldest Monuments in Rome

Cloaca Maxima, one of the oldest monuments of Rome, was built as a canal through the Forum Romanum in the sixth century BCE

The Cloaca Maxima was originally an open channel constructed in the 6th century BCE by lining an existing stream bed with stone. Later it was enclosed with a stone barrel (semicircular) vault. Its primary function was to carry off storm water from the Forum district to the Tiber, but in Imperial times large public baths and latrines were connected to it.

Fresco from the fullonica of Veranius Hypsaeus in Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale
Fresco from the fullonica of Veranius Hypsaeus in Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale | Source

The Fullers of Ancient Rome

The Fullones washed and cleansed clothes, a sort of ancient Dry Cleaners. As the Romans often wore wool in the hot climate, a thorough scrubbing - and a soak in alkaline for a bleach was used to get a garment clean.

The alkaline was provided by urine, collected in large pots at many corners of the Roman streets.

These days, chlorine is used in place of alkaline and urinating in the streets will get you a hefty fine.

Water and Sanitation in Imperial Rome

Recommended Reading

Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World
Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World

Is ancient engineering your thing? An excellent resource revealing a little-discussed aspect of ancient Roman culture

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries, and Curiosities
A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries, and Curiosities

Take a walk through Rome in the year of 115 CE. A wonderful way to learn about daily life in the Imperial times..


How about you?

Did you learn anything today?

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We have a lot to thank the Ancient Roman plumbers for. Large scale water systems, heated floors, toilets and drains, all the comforts of skilled plumbing that we enjoy today.

What would our society be like without plumbers?

All comments are greatly appreciated. Carve it with a chisel if you have to

© 2011 Susanna Duffy

Scrawl a Message on the Toilet Wall

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    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 2 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      The topic of toilets, old or new, always draws comments. The lavatory is an essential part of our lives and I'm very happy that I live with modern plumbing and the S bend

    • profile image

      RomeFan 3 years ago

      Wow, very interesting lens. I have read some articles about ancient plumbing and have seen diagrams about it but never did I imagined that toilets during ancient times looked like this. Amazing.

    • mariacarbonara profile image

      mariacarbonara 3 years ago

      Its amazing how many things we take for granted today were first thought of in ancient times

    • VeseliDan profile image

      VeseliDan 4 years ago

      I can't believe they used alkaline which was provided by urine to wash their clothes...

    • sudokunut profile image

      Mark Falco 4 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      Those three-seater toilets look a little too cozy to me. :)

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