Sunday, November 28, 2010

Roman Poo & Pee

[WARNING: this blog entry contains excerpts from a talk I gave at the British Museum called "Ancient Romans & their Poo". It will make you go "Ewww!"]

When I first started studying Classics, I thought ancient Rome must have been nice and clean because of their marvelous engineering and the aqueducts that brought tons of water from miles away. I thought ancient Rome had luxurious bath-houses and sparkling white marble columns and steps, like this scene (right) from the 1953 film Julius Caesar. I thought everybody wore nice clean tunics and no rubbish marred the streets. And of course Romans used sponges-on-sticks as toilet paper. The next best thing to puppy-soft Andrex. (read more in my blog So What's with the Sponge-Stick?) What could be more sanitary than a soft sea-sponge on a stick?

toilet in shape of chariot
However, as I researched my books and travelled the world, I realized that Rome was probably more like a hot, crowded third-world city: Calcutta, Marrakesh or Cairo. Roman cities would have been colourful but also dirty, crumbly, smelly and very unsanitary. There would have been human and animal dung in the road, plus pee, dead animals, flies, sick and infected people, tainted water, sour wine, mud, blood, rotting vegetables and rubble. Romans didn't know about bacteria or germs, so in many Roman homes you often find the toilet is right next to the hearth in the kitchen. Very rarely do you find a toilet like this luxurious marble one from the Baths of Caracalla, (shaped like a chariot in case you need to go in a hurry!)

In my first book, The Thieves of Ostia, Vespasian is Emperor.

One ancient Roman described Vespasian's expression as that of a man sitting on the toilet trying to do a poo. Here he is (right) with his son Titus. Both these portraits are upstairs in the British Museum. What do you think? Does Vespasian have a strained expression on his face?

When Vespasian was emperor he did several eccentric things, including putting a tax on urine. The ancient version of dry-cleaners were called fullers and they used urine (pee) for part of their cleaning process. (In fact the Latin word for urine is lotium and is linked to the word for wash.) The fullers often had pots outside their establishments where men could stop to pee. They also bought urine from the public latrines, and this was when the tax was paid.

Soon after this urine tax was imposed, Roman wits started calling piss-pots "vespasians". Embarrassed, Vespasian's son Titus asked his father why he insisted on making money by taxing smelly urine. Vespasian pulled out a sestertius and asked Titus to sniff it. "So?" shrugged Titus. "You see," said Vespasian. "Money doesn’t stink."  Some people in Germany liked this story so much that they made a family board game based on going to the toilet in Roman times! It’s called PECUNIA NON OLET which means "money doesn’t stink." Sadly, it doesn't exist in English.

In my second book, about the eruption of Vesuvius, I investigated the different types of graffiti on Roman walls. As well as the Christian graffiti that appears in this book they wrote things like DON'T POO HERE! We also know from inscriptions and graffiti that there were often queues outside the public loos! That meant the public latrines - the foricae - were heavily used and therefore probably quite filthy.

Romans didn't have soap. Instead, they had olive oil. They would go into the baths, strip off and rub scented olive oil all over their bodies. After some exercise and maybe a session in the steam room, they would then scrape it off with a bronze knife thingy called a strigil. Then they flicked this oily mixture of dead skin, oil, sweat and dirt (called gloios) onto the floor by the drains. They did this in the public baths. Imagine if you used your public swimming pool to get clean… along with all the neighbours on your block, young and old, healthy and sick. I used to belong to a health club until I found out people kept getting sick from going in the jacuzzi, the warm tub. If that can happen in today’s world, think how icky it must have been in Roman times!

a Roman chamberpot
In The Charioteer of Delphi, my characters Jonathan and Lupus go to the new Baths of Titus near the Circus Maximus in Rome. Jonathan finds something floating in the hot plunge. This probably happened a lot, unless pools were cleaned regularly. In addition to floaters, imagine a thin scum of dead skin, hair and scabs floating on top of the pool. As well as a scum on the water, think of what would cover the floor. Slippery gloios, spilled oil, and also crumbs from snacks, which we know people ate in the baths. It’s no wonder Pliny the Elder tells us that cockroaches loved the warm and steamy Roman Baths.

Because the Romans didn’t really understand about hygiene, there were probably flies everywhere. Vespasian’s younger brother Domitian used to amuse himself by trying to spear lazy summer flies with his stylus (the sharp implement used to write on wax tablets). One day a man went to see Domitian and asked his Greek scribe if there was anyone else in the room with the Emperor's younger brother. “Nobody,” replied the secretary dryly. “Not even a fly.”

Zoe from Blue Peter drinks pee?
My seventh Roman Mystery, The Enemies of Jupiter, has lots of gruesome facts about medicine and doctors. Doctors were called "dung-eaters" because some of them sipped your pee and tasted your poo to diagnose what was wrong with you. In that book I also tell how one doctor bleached his teeth by drinking his own urine! When I was on Blue Peter a few years ago I convinced presenter Zoe to try some urine teeth-bleaching mouthwash. She didn't like the taste! (Of course she was just pretending.) You can watch the clip on YouTube; the Roman beauty bit starts 4 minutes in. (That's me standing behind Zoe, in the unbleached stola.)

The Sirens of Surrentum is full of passion and poison. For this book I researched half a dozen deadly plants and their antidotes and learned some more fascinating facts. For example, everybody knows an antidote is something you take to stop poison taking effect. But what most books and TV shows don’t tell you is that an antidote counteracts poison by getting your body to expel it, either by vomiting or pooing! Or both.

In The Fugitive from Corinth, a Roman Mystery set on the Greek mainland, somebody accidentally empties a chamberpot out of a tavern window onto somebody down below! What is a chamberpot? It’s a pot you keep underneath your bed or in a corner of your room as a portable toilet. One Latin word for chamberpot is matella, which usually means a narrow necked flagon. Other words were pelvis, scaphium and situla. A Roman poet called Martial wrote an epigram about a  chamberpot "peeing from a chip in the side". (Epigram XII.32) Some scholars think chamberpots might have been more hygienic than toilets over pits or sewers. This is because animals might crawl out of the pit or sewer and track bacteria from poo onto food and bedding.

title card for my British Museum talk
There have always been urban myths about creatures climbing up out of the sewers or toilet. You can read more about this on my blog called Demon in the Toilet. You might think the Romans were silly and superstitious to believe there were demons in the loos. But in her forthcoming book, Roman Toilets: their Archaeology and Cultural History, Dr Gemma Jansen, a Dutch archaeologist, suggests that demons were the ancient Roman equivalent of bacteria. I think that is a brilliant idea. Like demons, bacteria are virtually invisible, but frightening because of what they can do to you… If a demon possessed you, he could make you sick or even kill you. Just like bad bacteria, germs or viruses.

don't worry; it's fake
There may not be pigs, alligators or demons in the loo, but there are germs. We know what the poor Romans didn't know: to wash our hands after doing a poo or a pee!

P.S. Thanks to everyone at the British Museum, and to all the kids who brought their parents to my talk, and to all of you brave enough to touch my fake dog poo. It was "sticky and stretchy"... Ewww!

P.P.S. If you want to know which of my Roman Mysteries has the highest 'yuk' factor it is probably The Enemies of Jupiter, now available as ebook and audio, as well as in the old fashioned format!

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children 9+ studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. The Roman Mystery Scrolls series is aimed at kids aged 7+ and the Roman Quests series, set in Roman Britain, is a follow on for kids 9+]


  1. Oooh. It is as I have suspected. Thank you for this will really help me as I conjure up ancient Romans at Vindolanda! :)

  2. I stumbled upon your post while searching for portable toilets for my company. I stayed to read and found it really fascinating. I work with poo a lot as you can imagine and after 25 years am pretty immune to various sights and smells. I have to say though the thought of the olive oil/skin stuff all over the floor just made me wretch! Cheers. :)

  3. Thanks for the feedback, Toilet Guy! What I DIDN'T say in the blog is that gladiator-scraping "gloios" was sometimes added to food as a love potion! :P

  4. Oh that's just not right!

  5. I'm so glad I stumbled upon this!

    I was really looking to learn about the process of cleaning clothes with urine that the Ancient Romans utilized. I was wondering if all the Romans smelled like pee because their clothes did.

    Anyway, it looks Miss Lawrence is going to be getting a couple of bucks for me because now I plan on reading each and every one of her Roman Mysteries books. I can tell from reading this blog that Miss Lawrence's writing technique is EASY TO UNDERSTAND and very insightful!

    Great blog article, and I can't wait to get started on the novels.


  6. Thanks, Lonsoleil! Apparently what made Roman clothing smell really bad wasn't the whiff of urine bleach but the murex (sea snail) used to dye some cloth purple!

    Enjoy the books! :-)

  7. Bob B.1:05 PM

    Whew! (Or should I say pew!) I'm reading Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series and trying to supplement it with maps and other info so I can get a real sense of what life was like then. Of course, I knew they used chamber pots and didn't understand hygiene, but your description really brings it to life in ways I hadn't thought of! Now I'm off to try to find some artists' renditions of the painted basilicas and temples. (I can't get the sparkling white marble out of my head, but according to Ms. McCullough, Romans painted their buildings!)

  8. Anonymous12:07 AM

    Thanks for this information, I shared this to my students and they all go yucks and laughed haha God bless you :)