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Ancient RomanToilets

Updated on January 17, 2016
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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 world.in 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?

See results

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
      Author

      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 4 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. :)

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 4 years ago

      You really scrubbed this topic clean. :-)

    • Kalafina profile image

      Kalafina 4 years ago

      I have seen many Roman toilets and bathhouses on my world travels. They were an amazing civilization with a bloody history.

    • walkingstick profile image

      walkingstick 4 years ago

      more fascinating than I first thought. Thanks!

    • profile image

      mecheshier 4 years ago

      Great lens. Love the history. Thanks for sharing

    • taylorday profile image

      taylorday 4 years ago

      uniquely interesting insight

    • PromptWriter profile image

      Moe Wood 4 years ago from Eastern Ontario

      I have a hard enough time with stalled toilets I can't imagine the open concept. LOL

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 4 years ago

      Thanks for this interesting lens. I also took your polls and got extra points because it was the 300th poll I had taken - so even more glad I read your lens! :)

    • profile image

      CuriousBoy 4 years ago

      Ok - here you have my message but, please don't flush it!

    • profile image

      jvcronje 4 years ago

      Interesting and well written. One can only admire the ancient Romans for their ingenuity!

    • FirstClassShaving profile image

      FirstClassShaving 4 years ago

      Very nice job....

    • casquid profile image

      casquid 4 years ago

      Fascinating!

      Angel Blessed!!

    • profile image

      bigpoppa3ross 4 years ago

      I'm trying not to poo poo this lens! :)

    • seotoolsector profile image

      seotoolsector 4 years ago

      Very interesting, i like roman history.

    • profile image

      Ruthi 4 years ago

      Truly unique information on ancient toilets. I had no idea and found it all quite interesting. Urnine as bleach for clothing? Oh my!

    • profile image

      wetnosedogs 4 years ago

      Fascinating lens.

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 4 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Fascinating. This is one of those things that crosses one's mind like "how did the ancient Romans........" but you don't know who to ask.

    • casnider profile image

      casnider 4 years ago

      Thank you so much for this lens. I smiled and blessed it.

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      Just goes to show how uncivilised we became!

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      Just goes to show how uncivilised we became!

    • Frischy profile image

      Frischy 4 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      I was trying to figure out why there were openings on the front of the toilets. What could be the purpose of that? It seems like it would cause a mess.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 4 years ago from Canada

      I chuckled all the way through the images of ancient toilets. I swear I could almost smell them lol.

    • profile image

      AlleyCatLane 4 years ago

      Fascinating! I always love studying the Romans when I was in school and did many reports on them. They were marvelous engineers. Blessed.

    • nyclittleitaly profile image

      nyclittleitaly 5 years ago

      so much information. gret lens

    • hysongdesigns profile image

      hysongdesigns 5 years ago

      very interesting. Too bad we've been wasting our drinking water supply and polluting the rivers and oceans ever since though.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Fascinating! Looks like the Roman folks s(h)at and discussed in public, even as they took 'pot shots' at each other huh!? Nice community living. :)

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 5 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      I remember a scene in I Claudius (the tv series) where Claudius was seen sitting on a toilet like the ones in your pictures. They look more comfortables than the toilets we had in the summer camps at the Royal Air Cadets

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 6 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Very interesting info on the Ancient Roman Toilets. I did learn a lot of new things and just wondering when this info might come up in conversation - you never know.