Cloaca Maxima

Cloaca Maxima


The Romans did build many structures seemingly dedicated to improving sanitation—in addition to public toilets, they had bathhouses and sewer systems like the giant Cloaca Maxima in Rome.


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Though the ancient Romans may be more well-known for things like military prowess and leafy hats, they have also been lauded for being awesome at toilets.

The book 100 Ideas That Changed the World cites the flush toilet as one of those ideas and calls the Romans "ahead of their time" for their adoptions of public toilets.

"After the collapse of the Roman Empire, toilet technology came to a bit of a standstill," the book reads.

The Romans did build many structures seemingly dedicated to improving sanitation—in addition to public toilets, they had bathhouses and sewer systems like the giant Cloaca Maxima in Rome.

"They [also] introduced legislation so that towns had to clear away the waste from the roads and things and take all that waste mess outside towns," says Piers Mitchell, a paleopathologist at the University of Cambridge. "You'd expect those things to improve the health of the people that lived there as a result."

But they didn't.

In a new paper published in Parasitology, Mitchell reviews several decades of archaeological research to track the presence of parasites before, during, and after the Roman Empire. The evidence suggests that certain parasites—like whipworm, roundworm, and the parasite that causes dysentery—were just as prevalent in the region under Roman rule as they had been during the earlier Bronze and Iron Ages.

Scientists have also found ectoparasites, or parasites that live outside the body—lice, fleas, and bed bugs—suggesting the Romans' bathhouses weren't keeping them much cleaner than people who lived in Viking or medieval times, who also had lice, but no public baths. Archaeologists have excavated fine-toothed combs from the Roman period, presumed to be for removing lice.

Mitchell speculates that perhaps the steamy bathhouses made a good environment for parasites to grow. "In some baths, the water was only changed intermittently, and could acquire a scum on the surface from human dirt and cosmetics," he writes. The parasites also could have benefitted from the Roman practice of fertilizing crops with human poop. This is still done today in some places, and it is good for the plants if you first compost the poop long enough to kill off any parasite eggs. But the Romans didn't know that.

The ancient Romans' sanitation structures may not actually have been that sanitary, at least by our modern standards, says Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, a professor of classical studies at Brandeis University who has been visiting and studying Roman sewers and latrines for more than 40 years.


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