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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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1.5 What did the Romans use for toilet paper?

‘What the Romans used for toilet paper’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , by novelist Caroline Lawrence, is one of the most popular articles on the ‘Wonders and Marvels’ history blog. The options she gives are a leaf; the left hand; moss; or a sponge on a long stick. She suggests that, after rinsing the sponge, it would be left for the next person to use. Some scholars suggest that all the sponges would be put back into a large jar filled with water, or perhaps a vinegar and water solution.

This sounds very unhygienic, but travelling around with a personal stick also seems very unlikely. The Romans used an ancient Greek word for this object: xylospongion, literally ‘wool-sponge’. But this is a very rare word, and sometimes just ‘sponge’ would do. In a fifth century BCE comedy written by Aristophanes, a character who has opened his bowels from terror and is feeling faint asks for ‘a sponge for my heart’ and then uses it to wipe his bottom. This leads another character to express surprise as to where his heart is located, to which the reply is that his heart was scared and sneaked down into the lower part of his gut (Aristophanes, Frogs, 479–490).

Decoration on a drinking cup, depicting a bearded man with cloak and staff, squatting and defecating.
Figure 5 Figure from a drinking cup

Finds of scraps of fabric in latrines have also been interpreted as toilet paper. More controversially, so have some small ceramic discs. When a later ancient Greek writer was trying to explain the jokes in Aristophanes’ comedy, Peace, he explained a reference to putting three stones next to a breast-plate before using it to defaecate in by writing, ‘Three stones are enough to wipe one’s arse’ (Peace, 1230).

Archaeology has found some support here. In an article published in the British Medical Journal in 2012, a team led by Philippe Charlier, a forensic medicine specialist and anthropologist, reported on various pieces of ceramic found in latrines from the Greek and Roman worlds. The team noted that these were ‘re-cut from old broken ceramics to give smooth angles that would minimise anal trauma’ (Charlier et al., 2012). Analysis confirmed the presence of faecal material on them. As a result of this research, some ceramic discs in the museum at Fishbourne Roman villa in Chichester, England, were immediately reclassified as toilet ‘paper’. Previously they had been thought to be pieces from a board game.

Next you will look at how sewage systems and bathing contributed to the levels of health in ancient cities.