Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Ten Things Romans Used for Toilet Paper

Me and my talisman!
I know, I know! I'm always blogging about toilets and evil eyes and gladiator-scraping love-potion and suchlike, but I can't help it. It is all so fascinating! My husband Richard was the one who taught me the first lesson of history: NO TOILET PAPER!

So how did the people in olden days wipe their bottoms?

This question draws in even the most reluctant child. In fact it is often especially appealing to kids who find history dull. It's a Way To Show Them That History Is Totally COOL!

For the past dozen years I've been travelling around the world, speaking to schoolkids about the Ancient Romans and my writing. Everywhere I go, I carry my talisman, my good luck charm, my fave artifact: a sponge-on-a-stick. It's ANCIENT ROMAN TOILET PAPER!

This is how you used the sponge-stick
But recently some respected scholars have totally rained on my parade. Yes, Mary Beard, I mean YOU! And yes, Professor Mark Robinson and your bright and beautiful bevy of research assistants, I mean you, too! lol!

So what if they haven't found any sponges in the sewers or septic tanks of Herculaneum? They didn't even import shellfish from Pompeii only ten miles distant! As Prof. Robinson said in a recent lecture at the British Museum, "There probably wasn't a central market." In other words, they bought goods locally. Very locally.

But all right: I admit the SPONGIA or SPONGE-STICK would have been incredibly luxurious and costly. And if they hadn't had a sponge delivery from the Greek island of Symi for a decade or two the Herculaneans would have needed some alternatives to wiping their bottoms.

So here is my list of TEN things apart from a SPONGE-ON-A-STICK that the Romans might have used to wipe their derrières!

I. THE LEFT HAND - yes, the manus sinistra was always "at hand". This is why it was incredibly rude to point at someone with the left hand. In many cultures it is still a big no-no to hand something to someone using this sinister hand. It was also the sign against evil: procul este profani! ("Stay far away, you unholy creatures!")

II. LEAF FROM A FIG TREE. Or other suitable tree. But not poison ivy or nettles. Yowtch!

III. MOSS. Kind of crumbly but I guess it was absorbent.

Romans had no puppy-soft Andrex
IV. SCRAPS OF CLOTH. This is what Prof. Robinson and his fragrant staff found in the Cardo 5 Septic Tank of Herculaneum. Considering you had to spin and weave cloth by hand this would have been almost as expensive as a sponge-stick. Maybe even more so, seeing as cloth is not reusable. Or was it? Brrr. 

V. PEBBLES. You know those "game counters" we're always finding in archaeological deposits? According to recent scholarship, pebbles were used by Greeks to wipe their bottoms. The proof? A proverb: Three stones are enough to wipe your behind and possible evidence from excavations at Athens. And there's stuff in the Jewish Talmud about using pebbles on the Sabbath. Gives a whole new slant to Andrex toilet paper's Natural Pebble edition!

This is my pine cone. Stay away!
VI. PINE CONES? This pebble business has got me wondering about pine cones. They are like little flat pebbles on a holder! Pluck one off and wipe. Mmmm. Nice pine-woodsy freshness, too! Is that what those mysterious pine cones were doing in the Herculaneum septic tank? (And no jokes about "pine nuts", please!)

VII. WATER. Ahhh! Find a little babbling brook or even the surf of the Tyrrhenian Sea and let nature do the work. Many Turkish and Greek toilets have little spigots that will replicate this effect today.

VIII. SPONGE WITHOUT A STICK. Why even bother to put the sponge on the stick? For ease of use in public latrines like this one (below) in Ostia!

IX. STICK WITHOUT A SPONGE. Yowtch! Is this what they mean by "getting the wrong end of the stick"?

X. NOTHING! Yes, you heard me. Just squat and go, then stand up and go. Urgh! Now that really is revolting.

Thank goodness we live in the age of Puppy Soft Andrex® and Ultra Soft Charmin!

poo-stick prop from Spartacus
P.S. If this has whetted your appetite for more, check out my Pinterest Page on Roman Toilet Habits!

P.P.S. Still want more? Read this great piece about Latrines Throughout the Roman World.

P.P.P.S. Apparently they use "three seashells" in the future, according to the movie Demolition Man. Maybe Romans used three pine cone scales!

P.P.P.P.S.  This poo-stick prop from the TV series Spartacus recently fetched $155 on eBay. It's a cloth-wrapped stick with a little handle. Cool, huh? 

Caroline Lawrence is a graduate of UC Berkeley, Newnham College Cambridge, SOAS and UCL, but has the mentality of an 11-year-old thus making her eminently qualified to introduce kids aged 7+ to the world of Ancient Rome. Best of all, she teaches through stories: The Roman MysteriesThe Roman Mystery Scrolls and the new Roman Quests series, set in Roman Britain!


  1. Debbie Watley3:36 PM

    Thanks, Caroline! I love learning more about daily lives of past people. I wouldn't have wanted to be the slaves who had to empty the chamber pots or wash soiled fabrics. I'm assuming the babies had some sort of cloth diaper, yes?

    I'm also curious about how Roman women (and American frontier women) handled hygiene during menstruation. Like you said, cloth would be expensive.

    1. Women might have used sea-sponge "tampons" and/or cloth pads, both washable (by slave if you had one) and re-useable.

  2. This article was so hilarious to me!! BWAHAHAHAHHAA. "Always at hand". I stumbled across this, reasearching the importance of Gods hands. This put a WHOLE spin on things! This article shines light on the Words, cleanliness is next to Godliness", and the right hand side being reserved for His Righteous(so they dont exposed to the death that accompanied the left-if not death due to bacterial ingestion - death of the smell..) Very informative.

  3. Snortle. A glorious combination of ick & snigger. Thanks.

  4. Caroline,
    I assume you havent been to a Tropical Asian country with plenty of water. Thats places close to the Equator, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia.
    They all use water, liberally.
    Poorer households will have either a tap, empty tin or plastic. Fill tin with water and wash posterior into toilet bowl, squat toilet.
    Middle class will have a hand held bidet faucet near the toilet bowl. Just like a hand shower. Self explanatory. Press button and water jet washes posterior and for women the font too.
    Upper middle class will additionally have toilet paper to dry off.

    1. Thanks for that info. You're right: I've never been to Asia so it's useful to know! :-)

  5. "Maybe even more so, seeing as cloth is not reusable. Or was it? Brrr."

    As reusable as cloth diapers are. And they were used for centuries.

    1. Yes, Brett, I'm sure you're right. They probably got slaves to wash the pieces of cloth. So I can go Brrrr again! ;-)

  6. Some modern backpackers advise stones, especially in pack it in, pack it out, parks. Stones you can leave in your cathole.

  7. To add, if you go to a house of Malaysian, Indonesian Sri Lankan living in the US, you will see a container lying around the toilet. Either on the top of the cistern or discreetly hidden away but reachable from the toilet bowl.
    Same thing, fill bowl with water and wash posterior. Just plain paper just does not cut it for people from the tropics.

    When Tropical Asians hit US public toilets, they get around non availability of container by soaking the toilet paper with water before using.

    1. Fascinating. Thanks again! I'm going to see if there are any literary clues that Romans did this, as the archaeological evidence would obviously be negligible...

  8. Might give a totally new slant to Ecclesiastes 3:5, too!

    1. Yes! A time to cast away stones... :-)

  9. Anonymous5:16 PM

    Nitpicking: we don't have poison ivy in Europe, do we? Greatly enjoyed the article nevertheless ;)

    1. Excellent call. I love nitpicking like this! :-) Better just leave it as nettles!

  10. fascinating post and I see why kids would be asking these questions--anything to get folks interested in history ;-)

  11. Anonymous1:37 PM

    I'm very excited to see that Caroline is giving a talk on 31/05/2103. Not sure I'll be around to see it though. :D

  12. It's at the British Museum in the BP theatre downstairs from the Great Court. Show up just before 1pm and lady with a clipboard will let you in if there is space. And there should be!

    I'll be writing a blog about it afterwards but not as much fun as being there!

  13. Thank you Caroline for your helpful article ! I have read that the ancient Chinese used sticks, ouchie. There is a plant out west with long fuzzy leaves that grow from a central stalk dubbed "Indian Toilet Paper." I have used it, sometimes if you're out in the woods ... Then bury if at all possible. Still, the matter is perfectly applicable. Thanks again. So refreshing when people can maintain a sense of humor !

    1. Indian Toilet Paper! I love it! Thanks for this fab bit of info, HerreH!