Roman toilets & sewers

FIRST CENTURY AD

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(Picture: Philip Corke © Historic England Archive)

 

The latrine building at Housesteads Fort, around 10m long and seating perhaps 20 people, was served by a stone tank filled with water that was directed along troughs beneath the seats to flush the waste. It also filled channels in the stone floor in which each man cleaned his tersorium (below) – a sponge on a stick that he used to wipe his bottom; these might be shared between several people.

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(Picture: Hugh Sainsbury/Crossness Engines Trust)

The tanks and channels are visible in the modern photo below.

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(Picture: English Heritage)

 

Such communal toilets were common in Roman settlements – Rome itself had 144 public latrines by AD 315, as well as toilets in homes, taverns and shops.

 

The Romans are famed for building long, straight roads and the public bath houses in which they enjoyed steaming, gossiping and cleaning themselves – you can still visit the magnificent complex in Bath, southwest England. But they also built impressive, complex water supply and drainage systems.

 

Around the sixth century BC, the Etruscan inhabitants of central Italy established drainage systems in the district that became Rome, draining marshland via the Cloaca Maxima (‘Greatest Sewer’), first built as an open channel. This huge sewer, which flowed out to the river Tiber, was later enclosed and formed part of a much larger, sophisticated system that removed rainwater and wastewater from the city’s streets, and also took away human waste.

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(Picture: AlMare, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Such sewers flowed beneath public communal latrines such as this one in Ostia Antica, the ancient harbour of Rome, carrying away the waste. Each latrine usually seated between eight and 20 people; seats were made from wood, stone or, for the wealthier and more politically important classes, marble. Latrinae in private houses were not served by running water, though, and rarely connected to the main sewer system; they typically emptied into cesspits and were probably flushed by hand with household wastewater. Waste from these internal toilets would have been collected and possibly used as fertiliser in gardens or farms.

 

Not all human waste vanished into Rome’s sewers or fields. In their homes, people urinated into chamber pots. These were commonly emptied into large receptacles on the street, often at public bath houses. Urine was valuable – it yielded ammonia, used in the fulling of textiles, a process to remove oils and dirt. So, in AD 70, the Emperor Vespasian levied a tax on the trade in urine from public toilets.

 

Today, a number of toilets have been designed to separate urine from faeces. Both waste products can thus be collected, processed and used as fertiliser.