Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2 Keeping clean: sewers and bath houses

How much solid human waste would the city of Rome have generated at the height of its power? If you search for a guesstimate of its population, including citizens, women, children, slaves and visitors, you will find figures in the region of 1 million. If one person produces 50g of solid matter daily, that makes 50 000kg for disposal every day!

Not all of this, of course, would have happened in a toilet. One piece of graffiti from the Roman city of Pompeii reads, ‘Apollinaris, medicus Titi Imperatoris hic cacavit bene.’ This translates as ‘Apollinaris, doctor to the emperor Titus, had a good crap here.’ In Herculaneum, a notice painted on a water tower at a crossroads was originally placed there before 60 CE. It announced that if free citizens did something – the words cannot now be seen – they would be fined 20 sesterces, but slaves would be punished with the lash. In the following decade or so the sign was repainted and the name of the current Roman official was added; this time the notice is clear that the ‘something’ is dumping excrement in the area around the water tower.

Roman cities had both underground drains and open sewers served by gutters or trenches in the street. In Rome, the main underground drain of the city was the Cloaca Maxima, built in the sixth century BCE and eventually linked to other drains. Recent archaeological work suggests it was not primarily a way of getting rid of human waste, but instead served as a storm drain, removing excess rainwater from the streets. At street level, gutters collected rainwater and any other things lying in the street, which passed into the underground drains and then into the Tiber.

Open sewers were accessible to all the inhabitants of the city wanting to get rid of waste or rubbish. But because they were often not covered at all, people could fall into them; for example, Crates of Mallos fell down one in the Palatine quarter of Rome and broke his leg (Suetonius, On Grammarians, 2).

St John Chrysostom, an early Christian writer who was a priest in the city of Antioch in the fourth century CE, mentions the sewer cleaners (koprônai) who cleared these open sewers with poles or mattocks so they would not be blocked and overflow. The satirical poet Juvenal mentions men who took out the contracts to operate the public urinals (foricae) and suggests that, in the job market, this is about as low as you can go (3.38). In the first century CE, the Roman writer Pliny the Younger mentioned older convicts being used for this job, stating that ‘cleaning public baths and sewers, or repairing streets and highways’ were ‘the usual employment for men of this type’.

Chrysostom also describes the trenches in the street, which could easily be blocked up by straw, branches and rubbish. Where Cicero (as you saw in Section 1 Toilets and waste) compared the body’s architecture to that of a house, Chrysostom compared it to a city. He described the body, seeing the bowels as ‘sewers’ and suggesting they should be cleared out just like the sewers on the streets. His use of the language of ‘filth’ also served a rhetorical purpose – he represented Greco-Roman customs and wealthy people as ‘filthy’. He wrote that ‘the more luxuriously we live, the greater the stench we accumulate’. This applies to the mind as well as the body and, for Chrysostom, the role of the preacher is like that of a sewer flusher.

Those who lived in the Roman tenements would sometimes have a vat into which they could empty their chamber pots, or they could just empty them on a dung heap, or into an open sewer. Houses could also have a cesspit, a deep hole approximately three metres deep, into which they could throw anything. This was usually entirely separate from the sewer system, although home-owners were entitled to make a connection at their own expense. Certainly in Rome itself, there may have been some advantage in not being connected to the sewers. If your toilet was connected and the Tiber flooded, then the filth would all come back up into your house. In Pompeii, most houses had an individual toilet in or adjacent to the kitchen, unventilated, and opening on to porous rock which would at least allow the liquid waste to drain away.

One of the most striking stories from the ancient world concerning sewers comes from Aelian’s Nature of Animals (13.6). He tells the story of a giant octopus which would swim up a sewer to a cargo store and smash the storage jars to get access to the pickled fish. The merchants of the city couldn’t work out how this could happen when there was no sign of access by the doors, roof or walls. Only when a servant offered to stay in the store overnight to see who was doing this was the culprit identified!