When we think of Rome’s glories, toilets are not the first thing that comes to mind. But they contributed a lot to the way we dispose of waste today.
The Romans had a massive influence on the way of life of millions in their heyday. The impact of Roman civilization on the world even extended into human waste disposal habits. They did not invent the toilet as such. However, they were the first to apply artificially sourced running water to toilets, a practice we have perpetuated ever since.
Before the Romans came along, toilets were glorified holes. Most of what we associate with a modern bathroom was pioneered by the Romans.
The Greeks Lead the Way
The ancient Greeks were a great inspiration to the Romans in terms of philosophy and culture. Among other things, Rome’s people also copied their toilet technology from the people across the Ionian Sea.
The ancient Greeks constructed long benches with convenient holes cut in them. They would often sit and chat as they did their business. Despite having the wisdom of Aristotle and Plato behind them, the Greeks did not invent plumbing. Instead, the holes were placed over moving bodies of water for disposal purposes.
After they finished the task at hand, they would use sponges to clean up. The sponge was attached to a stick, and the Roman in question would douse it in a body of running water before use. Once they were done, the toilet users would leave the sponge in a saltwater and vinegar bucket. It was then reused.
If you think the sponge sounds less than ideal, keep in mind that these methods were reserved for the elite. The common folk used small stones for hygienic purposes.
The Toilet Technology of Empire
In the glorious days of the Roman Republic, Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, and the other greats of their day used these tried and tested Greek methods. However, as the political modes of Rome shifted, so did their human waste methods.
In the late Republic era, the Romans began to build aqueducts. These massive constructs brought water from reserves into population centers. The aqueducts were made at a slight downward slope to flow continuously through the power of gravity.
In the early days of the Empire, the sophistication of the aqueducts increased substantially. Engineers began to connect these systems to pipes, which were used, among other things, to flush away the waste of the good citizens of Rome.
The pipes in question were crafted out of lead. The Latin word for lead is plumbum, and this is the source of the word plumber, which is still in use today. Lead pipes were also in use until we realized how dangerous they were in the 20th Century.
The Glorious Sewers of Rome
The sewers beneath the city of Rome were constructed hundreds of years before the pipes were invented. However, once they were hooked up to the sewage system, the Romans expanded them significantly.
These pipes now led directly into the sewers below Rome and the other large cities of the Empire. High-quality water was funneled to wells and fountains that people drank from. Meanwhile, lower grade H20 was allocated for waste disposal, gardening, and livestock use.
The lowliest and most disposable slaves executed the unpleasant work of maintaining the sewers. They would have to go into the sewers and clean them regularly.
The Roman elite got richer by plundering the countries they conquered to build their Empire. Therefore, pretty soon, they were too fancy for Greek-style communal toilets. Emperor Augustus and his close friends commissioned private units, which they called latrinae.
Modern Sewage Systems?
By this point, the entire system was remarkably similar to modern sewage systems. However, there were some notable differences. At that time, people mostly used the toilets exclusively for feces.
That is because the Romans considered urine to be a beneficial fluid. It was used extensively for laundry since the ammonia it contains is quite effective at removing stains. Therefore, cleaners would pick up large quantities of urine from respectable households throughout the Empire.
Despite their advanced sewage system, most toilets throughout the Empire were not connected to the system. Instead, they were isolated cesspits, often located in the kitchen right next to where they ate!
In conclusion, the Romans pioneered modern sewage and human waste disposal systems. However, their standards of hygiene were very different from ours. Still, every time we flush our toilets, we are conducting a small salute to the Roman Empire.