Public Sewers and Sponges on Sticks: How Toilets Worked in Ancient Rome | History Hit

Public Sewers and Sponges on Sticks: How Toilets Worked in Ancient Rome

Peta Stamper

09 May 2023
A reconstruction of the Roman latrines in use at Housestead Fort along Hadrian's Wall.
Image Credit: CC / Carole Raddato

While ancient Roman toilet systems weren’t exactly like modern ones – Romans used a sea sponge on a stick in lieu of toilet paper – they relied on pioneering sewage networks that are still replicated the world over to this day.

Applying what had been done by the Etruscans before them, the Romans devised a sanitation system using covered drains to carry stormwater and sewage out of Rome.

Eventually, this system of sanitation was reproduced across the empire and was declared by the contemporary historian Pliny the Elder to be “the most noteworthy” of all the ancient Romans’ achievements. This feat of engineering allowed public baths, toilets and latrines to spring up across ancient Rome.

Here’s how the Romans modernised the use of the toilet.

All aqueducts lead to Rome

At the heart of the Romans’ sanitation success was a regular supply of water. The engineering feat of Roman aqueducts allowed water to be transported from fresh mountain springs and rivers directly into the city centre. The first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, had been commissioned by the censor Appius in 312 BC.

Over the centuries, 11 aqueducts were built leading to Rome. They delivered water from as far away as the Anio River via the Aqua Anio Vetus aqueduct, supplying water for the city’s drinking, bathing and sanitary needs.

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Frontinus, a water commissioner appointed by Emperor Nerva at the end of the 1st century AD, established special aqueduct maintenance crews and divided the water based on quality. Good quality water was used for drinking and cooking, while second-rate water served fountains, public baths (thermae) and sewage.

Roman citizens therefore had a relatively high standard of hygiene and expected it to be maintained.

Roman sewers

Rome’s sewers served multiple functions and became essential to the growth of the city. Using extensive terra cotta piping, sewers drained public bathwater as well as excess water from the marshy swamp areas of Rome. The Romans also were the first to seal these pipes in concrete to resist high water pressure.

The Greek author Strabo, who lived between roughly 60 BC and 24 AD, described the ingenuity of the Roman sewer system:

“The sewers, covered with a vault of tightly fitted stones, have room in some places for hay wagons to drive through them. And the quantity of water brought into the city by aqueducts is so great that rivers, as it were, flow through the city and the sewers; almost every house has water tanks, and service pipes, and plentiful streams of water.”

At its peak, Rome’s population numbered around a million people, together producing a massive amount of waste. Serving this population was the biggest sewer in the city, the Greatest Sewer or Cloaca Maxima, named for the Roman goddess Cloacina from the Latin verb cluo, meaning ‘to clean’.

The Cloaca Maxima revolutionised Rome’s sanitation system. Built in the 4th century BC, it linked Rome’s drains and flushed sewage into the Tiber River. Yet the Tiber remained a source of water used by some Romans for bathing and irrigation alike, unwittingly carrying disease and illness back into the city.

Roman toilets

Dating back to the 2nd century BC, Roman public toilets, often built with donations from charitable upper-class citizens, were called foricae. These toilets consisted of dark rooms lined with benches dotted with key-shaped holes placed rather closely together. Romans therefore got pretty close and personal while using the foricae.

They were also never far from a large number of vermin, including rats and snakes. As a result, these dark and dirty places were rarely visited by women and certainly never by rich women.

A Roman latrine among the remains of Ostia-Antica.

Image Credit: Commons / Public Domain

Elite Romans had little need for public foricae, unless they were desperate. Instead, private toilets were built in upper-class homes called latrines, built over cesspools. Private latrines probably also smelt awful and so many wealthy Romans may have just used chamber pots, emptied by slaves.

Additionally, to prevent the spread of vermin to wealthy neighbourhoods, private latrines were often separated from public sewage systems and would have to be emptied by the hands of stercorraii, ancient manure removers.

Behind the innovation

Although the Roman sanitation system was sophisticated among the ancient civilisations, behind the innovation was the reality that disease spread quickly. Even with the public foricae, many Romans simply threw their waste out of the window onto the streets.

Although public officials known as aediles were responsible for keeping the streets clean, in the poorer districts of the city, stepping stones were needed to cross over the piles of rubbish. Eventually, the city’s ground level was raised as buildings were just built on top of rubbish and rubble.

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The public baths were also breeding grounds for disease. Roman doctors would often recommend that ill people should go for a cleansing bath. As part of the baths’ etiquette, the sick usually bathed in the afternoons to avoid healthy bathers. However, like public toilets and the streets, there was no daily cleaning routine for keeping the baths themselves clean, so illness was often passed to healthy bathers who visited the next morning.

Romans used a sea sponge on a stick, called a tersorium, to wipe after using the latrine. The sponges were often washed in water containing salt and vinegar, kept in a shallow gutter below the toilets. Yet not everyone carried around their own sponge and public latrines at baths or even the Colosseum would have seen shared sponges, inevitably passing on diseases such as dysentery.

A tersorium replica showing the Roman method of fixing a sea sponge on top of a stick.

Image Credit: Commons / Public Domain

Despite the constant risk of disease, the Romans’ ancient sewer system nonetheless demonstrated innovation and a commitment to public welfare. In fact, it worked so well at transporting waste out of towns and cities that Roman sanitation was replicated across the empire, the echoes of which can still be found today.

From Rome’s Cloaca Maximus that continues to drain the Forum Romanum and surrounding hills, to a well-preserved latrine at Housesteads Fort along Hadrian’s Wall, these remains testify to the innovation behind how the Romans went to the toilet.

Peta Stamper