BMCR 2000.03.16

Die Pracht der Latrine. Zum Wandel öffentlicher Bedürfnisanstalten in der kaiserzeitlichen Stadt. Studien zur antiken Stadt, 1

, Die Pracht der Latrine. Zum Wandel öffentlicher Bedürfnisanstalten in der kaiserzeitlichen Stadt. Studien zur antiken Stadt, 1. Munich: Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil, 1994. 176, figs. 72.

The wildest stories circulate about hygienic conditions in antiquity: that the Romans jumped into the bath and evacuated their bowels at the same time; that slops and faeces were thrown day and night into the streets from the upper windows of insulae in Roman cities; that blood, dung, offal, garbage, and even corpses were strewn in many a dark alley.1 Personal hygiene in the Middle Ages gets an even grimmer press. Some have claimed that bathing was taboo and people were so filthy with dirt and caked-on excrement that they could only be touched with tongs.2 The Romans, who built multi-seater public latrines from at least the second century B.C., come out with a somewhat cleaner record than their descendants. Until now, however, the sanitary facilities themselves have been used for amusing tourist photos more often than for accurate analysis of hygiene in the Roman world. Questions about latrines abound: Who built them? Were they social gathering places, as their communal arrangements suggest to us? Were they hygienic improvements on earlier provisions for basic bodily needs, or not?

Toilets and what went into them have not been subjects for archaeologists in the long tradition of studies on Roman architecture.3 Richard Neudecker’s important book, Die Pracht der Latrine, leaves us wondering why such fertile terrain has been left unplowed for so long.4 He argues that Roman social hierarchy was partly the result of conditioning, quite literally, from top to bottom. Neudecker describes the advent of what he calls the “luxury” latrine, a phenomenon of the second and third centuries A.D. By his careful reading of the archaeological evidence, he concludes that Roman urban planners came to appreciate the hidden political potential in the regulation of private behavior.

In modern western societies we can identify three forces that seem to combine to clean up cities: 1) the physical removal of dirt and muck; 2) a compulsion about cleanliness on the part of a civic administration; and 3) a regime imposed on the public by the same administration in order to promote urban order. Neudecker asks if this triad also underlay Roman culture. In order to find out, he begins his discussion with the intellectual and practical regulation of behavior in Roman society.

The first chapter provides an introductory exegesis on toilet habits from Herodotus to Freud. In the first two sub-sections, “Eine ‘Semiotik’ der Fäkalie”” and “Dezente Entblößing,” we learn why archaeologists at the turn of the twentieth century stubbornly refused to identify ancient latrines for what they were, at the same time that anti-imperialists were attacking the Romans for a perceived “cloacal obsession”.5 The remaining sub-sections of this chapter, “Der soziale Vorteil,” “Ein neues Verhalten,” and “Körpersorge als Krankheit,” methodically explain how the propagation of Roman medical literature ultimately led, in the second century A.D. and later, to a fascination for medical cures in elite Roman social circles. The aristocracy became fanatical about diet. Digestion was a hot topic of discussion. The idolization of a healthy body was almost hypochondriacal (p. 33).

Medical writers and philosopher-doctors, such as Galen (ca. 129 – ?199/216 A.D.), influenced lifestyle and daily routines to a greater and greater degree in the elevated circles of Roman society (p. 33-4). All social activities, even conversation, were considered bodily exercises. All private needs, including sexual interchanges, were treated according to their effect on physical health. The medical texts argued that indigestion could directly cause other physical problems and was to be treated as a symptom of illness. The Roman male aristocrat, therefore, needed to take his excreta seriously if he was to be socially integrated in proper fashion. Bowel movements really began to matter. In old age, for example, a heavy bowel movement was a cause for great happiness.6 No wonder we find hic cacavit bene so enthusiastically inscribed among the variety of Roman latrine graffiti.7

Neudecker’s overview of the relevant archaeological material is laid out in chapter two. The author states that he does not intend a catalogue of all latrines, but a “tabulated compilation” (p. 40). We learn how architects of this new, second century A.D. type of public facility gave special attention to ventilation, light, water, attractive form, and lavish decoration as a way to stimulate the user to more than a straightforward evacuation (p. 45). The basic technical features of luxury latrines (seat sizes, distance between seats, plumbing arrangements, and so on) remained unchanged from those in facilities of the Republic and early Empire. The superficial splendor of the newer interiors, however, increased dramatically. The new latrines were formally integrated into the commercial and social centers of Roman cities and expensively embellished with relief sculpture, statuary, mosaics, and frescoes.

Neudecker describes the urban context of luxury latrines in order to verify his point that their creation provided the possibility to distance the most elementary human processes from the rest of Roman daily life (p. 60). Chapter three focuses on the relationship between luxury latrines and three kinds of public space: vacant lots, the centers of commerce, and Roman public baths along with their neighborhoods.

In chapter four Neudecker presents well-preserved samples of latrine architecture from Rome, Ostia, Timgad, Cuicul, Corinth, and Ephesus, in order to trace the development of the Imperial luxury latrine throughout the Empire in the second and third centuries A.D. His six case studies are chosen for their geographical distribution and for the quality of their archaeological documentation. We learn that luxury latrines had few Hellenistic precedents and that even a well-engineered hydraulic infrastructure did not prompt their immediate appearance in Roman cities. The domini of the Republic and early Empire persistently preferred portable chamberpots (p. 17). Luxury latrines are ultimately connected ideologically to changing behavioral norms among Roman aristocrats. Writers such as Celsus, Epictetus, and Galen finally encouraged in their elite patrons an almost pathological concern for care of the body, in keeping with an ethos of nobilitas which linked command of one’s character to control of one’s bodily functions.

Neudecker uses the cities of Vesuvius for comparison. Pompeii preserves the best architectural evidence for Early Imperial hygienic standards, and there are no luxury latrines. Luxury latrines flourish in a restricted period, second to third centuries A.D., and then fade. Under the influence of Christian morality from the fourth century on, the public latrine reverted back to a mere utilitarian facility, gradually losing both its luxurious form and its social role in civic life.

Chapter five, “Der ‘Sitz im Leben,'” delves deeper into the Roman psychology behind the construction of luxury latrines by exploring private and public behaviors and status issues. Neudecker does not merely present an arbitrary chronological and geographical grouping of luxury latrines from the Greek East or from Roman North Africa. He explores the particular conditions under which the architecture was created in each area and in each city. Urban architecture always lagged behind urban ideology and many monuments cannot be dated conclusively. The relative chronology of the luxury latrine in the second to the third century A.D., therefore, becomes an important index for the significance of these facilities in their time (p. 133). Unquestionably, a self-conscious impetus toward cultural Romanization in any given city involved a healthy dose of economic self-interest on the part of some group. Where the military and economic prerequisites for a boom were lacking, so too was the luxury latrine (p. 134).

Chapter six suggests that excretory behavior was fitted into the social order of the Roman civic community. The creation of new building types such as the luxury latrine inevitably derived from a societal drive to put certain behaviors in the public sphere. Neudecker notes (p. 150) that each Roman could attend to his own needs at home in bad weather, but proper Roman behavior called for urbanitas, and required a public whenever possible. The latrine was ennobled as a way to “celebrate defecation with status and dignity” (p. 153).

Neudecker’s book makes clear the need for a precise, consistent “latrine vocabulary” which is both architectural and cultural and which acknowledges ancient attitudes and respects individual Roman urban designs. His study serves as an excellent reference by providing extensive notes, indexes of sites and ancient authors, and fine illustrations and plans. He has taken a bold and necessary first step into a new field of archaeology, which has recently been called comparative coprology.8 While Neudecker is not concerned with the chemical composition of excrement nor the ecological function of human waste products,9 he does discuss fully the archaeology of several major, widely dispersed latrine sites, and considers carefully the symbolic role both of toilets and their contents in the Roman community. He proves that a serious and scholarly study of Roman facilities and the human effluvia dumped into them can be effected with tact and good humor. His book is a fitting answer to an imaginary prayer a Roman might have offered to Venus Cloacina:

O Cloacina, Goddess of this place,
Look on thy suppliants with a smiling face.
Soft, yet cohesive let their offerings flow,
Not rashly swift nor insolently slow.10


1. M.Th.R.M. Dolmans, “Hygiene in de Oudheid en in de Middeleeuwen” (“Hygiene in Antiquity and the Middle Ages”), in Latrines. antiete toiletten – modern onderzoek (Amsterdam 1994) 6-12.

2. Ibid.

3. A. Boethius and J.B. Ward Perkins, Etruscan and Roman Architecture (Harmondsworth 1970); F. Sear, Roman Architecture (Ithaca 1982); W.L. MacDonald, The Architecture of the Roman Empire: an Introductory Study (New Haven 1982).

4. A. Scobie, “Slums, Sanitation, and Mortality in the Roman World,” Klio 68:2 (1986) 399-433. S. Piras, ed. Latrines. antieke toiletten – modern onderzoek (Amsterdam 1994). For research on private toilets in Roman houses see G.C.M. Jansen, “Water Systems and Sanitation in the Houses of Herculaneum,” Mitteilungen des Leichtweiß-Instituts für Wasserbau der Technischen Universität Braunschweig 117 (1992) 449-68; ead.“Private Toilets at Pompeii: Appearance and Operation,” in Sequence and Space in Pompeii. S.E. Bon and R. Jones eds. Oxbow Monographs 77 (Oxford 1997) 121-34; ead.“Systems for the Disposal of Waste and Excreta in Roman Cities. The Situation at Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia,” in SORDIS URBIS. L’eliminazione dei rifiuti nella città romana. X. Dupré Raventós ed. (Rome, 1999); ead. Systems of Water Supply, Sanitation and Waste Water Disposal in Roman Towns. A Research into Structural Variations and Innovations. diss. Katholieke Universiteit (Nijmegen, forthcoming); ead.“Hygiene and Private Toilets at Pompeii,” in Cura Aquarum in Sicilia. G.M.C. Jansen ed. (Leiden, forthcoming). For a general treatment of sanitation in Roman Italy, see A.O. Koloski-Ostrow, The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Water, Sewers, and Latrines, (Chapel Hill, forthcoming).

5. Cf. J. Joyce, “The Grandeur that was Rome,” Ulysses (New York 1961) 131: “What was their civilization? Vast, I allow: but vile. Cloacae : sewers. The Jews in the wilderness and on the mountaintop said: It is meet to be here. Let us build an altar to Jehovah. The Roman, like the Englishman who follows in his footsteps, brought to every new shore on which he set his foot (on our shore he never set it) only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: It is meet to be here. Let us construct a watercloset…” This passage is cited by Neudecker, 7.

6. Gal. De san. tuenda 5,9. Cited by Neudecker, 34.

7. CIL IV, suppl. pars 3, leg. 4, 10619: APOLLINARIS. MEDICUS. TITUS IMP. HIC. CACAVIT. BENE. “Apollinaris, doctor of the emperor Titus, crapped well here.” Cf. A. and M. De Vos, Guide archeologiche Laterza: Pompei, Ercolano, Stabia (Rome and Bari 1982) 277. This graffito was found in the Casa della Gemma in Herculaneum. Neudecker, 34, suggests that an expression of professional pride combines with personal satisfaction in the doctor’s comment.

8. An example of such a study is: R. Lewin, Merde: Excursions in Scientific, Cultural, and Socio-Historical Coprology (New York 1999).

9. Both of these are concerns in Lewin’s book, ibid. supra n. 8.

10. R. Reynolds, Cleanliness and Godliness (New York 1946) 305, supposedly, but more likely tongue in cheek, attributed to Lord Byron. In any case, I was not able to find the original in Byron.