Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.03.34

Gemma C. M. Jansen, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, Eric M. Moormann (ed.), Roman Toilets: their Archaeology and Cultural History. Babesch. Supplement, 19.   Leuven; Paris; Walpole, MA:  Peeters, 2011.  Pp. vii, 224.  ISBN 9789042925410.  €72.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jane Draycott, British School at Rome (

Table of Contents

Over the last few years an increasing level of interest in the grittier aspects of life in the ancient world has triggered research into dirt, pollution, sanitation, and waste management and disposal.1 The latest contribution to this rapidly growing body of literature originated at the Ancient Roman Toilet Workshop, held at the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome and the American Academy in Rome in 2007. According to the book’s editors (the Classical archaeologists Gemma Jansen, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, and Eric Moormann) it is designed to be used as a handbook by both specialists and non-specialists, to both encourage and assist future work on the subject, and it succeeds in this endeavour, offering something for everyone with an interest in Roman toilets.

Roman Toilets: Their Archaeology and Cultural History contains contributions from thirty-three individuals working in a variety of academic fields, ranging from the expected Classics, Egyptology, Archaeology, and Architecture, as well as Archaeozoology and even Parasitology. Due to the length (and breadth) of the volume, I will summarise the contents before moving on to a general discussion of the work as a whole.

The first chapter (Introduction) gives a succinct summary of previous research and forthcoming work on ancient sanitation. The second chapter (Archaeometry: Methods and Analysis) provides a rundown of the range of scientific techniques that can be used not only to excavate ancient toilets and their cess-pits and sewers; but also to analyse the material recovered, and the questions regarding toilet construction, use, maintenance, and abandonment that can be answered as a result. The third chapter (Non-Roman Forerunners) briefly surveys the archaeological evidence for the use of toilets in Pharaonic Egypt and toilet seats in Jerusalem, before commencing a more extensive examination of the literary and archaeological evidence for waste management in Greece from the sixth to the first centuries BC. The fourth chapter (Roman Sources) surveys the ancient literary evidence for Roman, Jewish and Christian references to toilets, and helpfully includes a comprehensive list of the passages cited. The fifth chapter (Design, Architecture and Decoration of Toilets) discusses the different types of public and private toilets, their decorative schemes, the specific images and texts that can be found in them, and again it helpfully includes a comprehensive list. The sixth chapter (Toilets in the Urban and Domestic Water Infrastructure) examines the logistical aspects of making a toilet work all the way from the flushing mechanism to the sewer system. The seventh chapter (Urination and Defecation Roman-style) attempts to reconstruct people’s behaviour once inside the latrine, and addresses the extent to which common assumptions about aspects of this behaviour are in fact correct. The eighth chapter (Location and Context of Toilets) examines the placement of toilets within towns, bath-houses, workshops and private houses. The ninth chapter (Users of Toilets: Social Differences) examines the range of individuals who could or would utilise toilets. The tenth chapter (The Economy of Ordure) explores how the waste contents of toilets, cess-pits and sewers were disposed of and subsequently utilised, such as the use of excrement and urine in agriculture and horticulture. The eleventh chapter (Toilets and Health) examines how hygienic (or, more accurately, unhygienic) ancient toilets were, along with the evidence for the cleaning of toilets, cess-pits and sewers. The twelfth chapter (Cultural Attitudes) examines religious and apotropaic aspects of toilets and toilet usage, the frequency of graffiti images and texts, and the possibility of regional variation in toilet habits.

Most of the chapters contain at least one (and often several) useful case studies of specific ancient toilets to elucidate the discussion, and the subjects of these case studies venture far beyond the usual subjects of the urinals and toilets of Ostia and Pompeii. Included are examples from Carnuntum, Thamugadi (Timgad), and Thugga (Dugga). A concerted effort is made to address the most common assumptions about Roman toilet usage, such as the extent to which Romans used sponge-sticks, or treated the public latrine as a place for socialising, or placed containers at street corners to collect urine for fulling. Further examined is the later reception of certain aspects of Roman toilets. This includes the survival of references to the emperor Vespasian’s tax on urine in the modern Italian name for the urinal, the ‘Vespasiani’, and the (inadvertent) use of rosso antico Roman toilet seats in papal investitures, which gave rise to the theory that they were used to confirm that the candidate was, in fact, a man.

There are some typographical errors (e.g. archeaeometry (p. v), theme’s (p. 4), empyting (p. 96)). With thirty-three individuals contributing to twelve chapters that each contain multiple different sections, some repetition of discussion and reference to the same handful of literary and archaeological examples is inevitable with this structure (e.g. ‘Greek’ portable vessels/commodes are discussed at pp. 25-8, while ‘Roman’ chamber-pots are discussed at pp. 95-9, but both discussions cite the same literary and archaeological examples; military latrines in Roman Britain are surveyed at pp. 135-9, and the bulk of this discussion is repeated – albeit condensed – in a section on regional diversity in latrine use in the north-western provinces at pp. 183-4). Also inevitable is a certain amount of inconsistency from chapter to chapter (and often from section to section within the same chapter), which is particularly apparent with regard to translations (e.g. cacator cave malum is translated as ‘shitter, beware of danger!’ on p. 59, then ‘shitter, beware of evil!’ and ‘shitter, beware of the evil!’ on p. 170, changes which facilitate the discussion of apotropaism that follows).

Having said that, the handbook’s strength is that it provides both highly specific and detailed discussion of individual sites in conjunction with more general thematic discussion of the place of toilets not only within the infrastructure of Roman cities, towns and forts, but also Roman social and cultural life. It is well-produced, with large, high quality colour and black and white photographs, plans and line drawings throughout. It is an important contribution to scholarship on sanitation in the ancient world and will undoubtedly serve as a solid foundation for future research in this area.


1.   See for example M. Bradley (ed.) (2012 forthcoming) Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity (Cambridge); B. Hobson (2009) Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World (London); G. E. Thüry (2001) Müll und Marmorsäulen: Siedlungshygiene in der römischen Antike (Mainz); X. D. Raventós and J-A. Remolà (edd.) (2000) Sordes Urbis: La Eliminación de Residuos en la Ciudad Romana (Rome); R. Neudecker (1994) Die Pracht der Latrine: zum Wandel der öffentlichen Bedürfnisanstalten in der kaiserzeitlichen Stadt (Munich).

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