How Toilets Worked in Ancient Rome and Medieval England

How­ev­er detailed they may be in oth­er respects, many accounts of dai­ly life cen­turies and cen­turies ago pass over the use of the toi­let in silence. Even if they did­n’t, they would­n’t involve the kind of toi­lets we would rec­og­nize today, but rather cham­ber pots, out­hous­es, and oth­er kinds of spe­cial­ized rooms with chutes emp­ty­ing straight out into rivers and onto back gar­dens. And that was just the res­i­dences. What would pub­lic facil­i­ties have been like? We have one answer in the Told in Stone video above, which describes “pub­lic latrines in ancient Rome,” the facil­i­ties con­struct­ed in almost every Roman town “where cit­i­zens could relieve them­selves en masse.”

These usu­al­ly had at least a dozen seats, Told in Stone cre­ator Gar­rett Ryan explains, though some were grander in scale than oth­ers: the Roman ago­ra of Athens, for exam­ple, boast­ed a 68-seater. A facil­i­ty in Tim­gad, the “African Pom­peii” pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, had “fan­cy arm­rests in the shape of leap­ing dol­phins.”

Judged by their ruins, these pub­lic “restrooms” may seem unex­pect­ed­ly impres­sive in their engi­neer­ing and ele­gant in their design. But we may feel some­what less inclined toward time-trav­el fan­tasies when Ryan gets into such details as “the sponge on a stick that served as toi­let paper” that remains “one of the more noto­ri­ous aspects of dai­ly life in ancient Rome.”

These weren’t tech­ni­cal­ly latrines, as Lina Zel­dovich notes at “The word ‘latrine,’ or lat­ri­na in Latin, was used to describe a pri­vate toi­let in someone’s home, usu­al­ly con­struct­ed over a cesspit. Pub­lic toi­lets were called fori­cae,” and their con­struc­tion tend­ed to rely on deep-pock­et­ed orga­ni­za­tions or indi­vid­u­als. “Upper-class Romans, who some­times paid for the fori­cae to be erect­ed, gen­er­al­ly wouldn’t set foot in these places. They con­struct­ed them for the poor and the enslaved — but not because they took pity on the low­er class­es. They built these pub­lic toi­lets so they wouldn’t have to walk knee-deep in excre­ment on the streets.”

The prob­lem of large-scale human waste dis­pos­al is as old as urban civ­i­liza­tion, and Rome hard­ly solved it once and for all. The Absolute His­to­ry short above shows how the cas­tles of medieval Eng­land han­dled it, using lava­to­ries with holes over the moat (and piles of “moss, grass, or hay” in lieu of yet-to-be-invent­ed toi­let paper). At, Lucie Lau­monier writes that the urban equiv­a­lent of Roman fori­cae were “often built over bridges and on quays to facil­i­tate the evac­u­a­tion of human waste that went direct­ly into run­ning water.” Inno­v­a­tive as this was, it must have posed dif­fi­cul­ties for boaters pass­ing below, to say noth­ing of the users unfor­tu­nate enough to sit on a wood­en seat just rot­ten enough to give out — the prospect of which, for all the defi­cien­cies of Mod­ern West­ern civ­i­liza­tion’s pub­lic restrooms, at least no longer wor­ries us quite so much today.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Did Roman Aque­ducts Work?: The Most Impres­sive Achieve­ment of Ancient Rome’s Infra­struc­ture, Explained

Peo­ple in the Mid­dle Ages Slept Not Once But Twice Each Night: How This Lost Prac­tice Was Redis­cov­ered

Urine Wheels in Medieval Man­u­scripts: Dis­cov­er the Curi­ous Diag­nos­tic Tool Used by Medieval Doc­tors

Hermeneu­tics of Toi­lets by Slavoj Žižek: An Ani­ma­tion About Find­ing Ide­ol­o­gy in Unlike­ly Places

Every­thing You Want­ed to Know About Going to the Bath­room in Space But Were Afraid to Ask

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Peep1000 says:

    I always want to know about dai­ly life in his­to­ry. Not major things, but minor things. On the Ore­gon Trail, how did they go to the bath­room? What did women use for their peri­ods? With all the peo­ple around, how did they have sex?

  • purpleduggy says:

    the shared sponge on a stick is an anthro­po­log­i­cal fan­ta­sy. prob­a­bly only found one and assumed the worst. same with pub­lic toi­lets with­out pri­va­cy cubi­cles. all of that is gone now so anthro­pol­o­gists can make up fan­tasies of how ter­ri­ble his­to­ry was. i bet the real his­to­ry was pret­ty much the same as today. plumb­ing was wide­spread, dug latrines were done often, no one likes liv­ing in dis­gust­ing con­di­tions regard­less of time peri­od.

  • Jason says:

    A shared sponge is a fan­ta­sy I would much enjoy full­fill­ing.

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