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Roman Baths and Hygiene in Ancient Rome

Toilets, etc.

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Reconstructed Roman Latrine

Reconstructed Roman Latrine

CC Flickr User Alun Salt
Frigidarium at the Bath UK Roman Baths

Frigidarium at the Bath UK Roman Baths

CC Flickr User Alun Salt
Heating Holes for Food Vendor at Ancient Pompeii

Heating Holes for Food Vendor at Ancient Pompeii

CC Flickr User virtusincertus

Hygiene in ancient Rome included the famous public Roman baths, toilets, exfoliating cleansers, public facilities, and -- communal toilet sponge (ancient Roman Charmin®) notwithstanding -- generally high standards of cleanliness.

When trying to explain to children, students, readers, or friends what life was once like, nothing gets to the heart of the matter more poignantly than intimate details about daily life. Telling young children that there were no televisions, movies, or radio, no electric or traffic lights, no refrigerators, or air conditioners, no cars, trains, or airplanes, doesn't convey the "primitive" conditions nearly so well as explaining that instead of using toilet paper, they used a communal sponge -- dutifully rinsed out after use.

In reading about the ancient practices, it is important to put away preconceived notions. Did urban centers like ancient Rome stink? Certainly, but so do modern cities, and who's to say whether the smell of diesel exhaust is any less overwhelming than the smell of Roman urns for collecting urine for the fullers (dry cleaners)? Soap is not the be-all and end-all of cleanliness. Bidets are not so common in the modern world that we can afford to scoff at ancient hygiene practices.

Threads on ancient hygiene generated enormous interest in the Ancient/Classical History Forum. The following are some of the points made by those interested and knowledgeable about ancient Rome.

Access to Toilets

"According to O.F. Robinson, Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration, there were 144 public latrines in Rome in the later Empire. Apparently mostly concomitant of the public baths, which only makes sense as they could share water and sewerage. There may have been a token payment if they were separate from the baths, she conjectures. She also writes that they were comfortable places, where one might sit and read, or otherwise "amuse oneself sociably," hoping for [dinner] invitations. She cites a ditty by Martial:

Why does Vacerra spend his hours
in all the privies, and day-long sit?
He wants a supper, not a s**t.
"

[Urine tax] "Public urinals consisted of buckets, dolia curta. The contents were regularly collected and sold to the fullers for cleaning wool, etc. That's where the tax story comes in. The fullers were the ones who were taxed. The collectors had public contracts and could be fined if late." ROMAHOST

Access to Hygiene Facilities for the Rich

"Readings from The Visible Past, by Michael Grant, indicate that hygiene in the Roman World was limited to the rich and famous, except for those who could afford the public baths or thermaes, as running water did not reach the poor's tenements from the aqueducts; these lesser folks relieved themselves in pots or commodes which were emptied into vats located under staircases and these emptied into cesspools throughout the city. The rich and famous, from the emperor on down, enjoyed running water in palaces and mansions from lead pipes connected to the aqueducts. At Pompeii, for instance, all houses except the poorest had water pipes fitted with taps, and the waste water was piped away into sewer or trench." ANDRESGRANA

Access to Hygiene Facilities for the Poor

"Florence Dupont (Daily Life in Ancient Rome) writes that it was for reasons of ritual that the Romans washed frequently. And she adds that ". . . even in very ancient times and even in the depth of the country, Romans, including women and slaves, would wash every day and would have a thorough bath on every feast day if not more often. At Rome itself, baths were taken daily.
"According to her, the admission fee at public baths was one-quarter as. [Affordable for pretty much everyone.]
"Joachim Marquardt (Privatleben der Römer) writes that fees differed, mentions one-quarter to one as for men, but always one full as for women, and that children got in free. He also writes that life-long free baths might be bequeathed in wills. That in itself seems to stress the importance of bathing."
ROMAHOST

Roman Way of Cleaning Clothes

"I have read that the Romans learned of soap from the Germans some time in the first century CE, and that previous to that they used urine (ammonia) for clothes. Using the two in combination, of course, would be even more effective. Urine was apparently treated in some way before use, but I do not know how. It may have been either a chemical process or a distillation." RMARTINEK

Hair Care in Ancient Rome

"Ovid's advice on grooming includes hair removal, and not just men's beards. Whether this was accomplished by shaving, plucking or other depilatory practices is sometimes hard to tell. Julius Caesar was noted by Suetonius to have been meticulous in hair removal. Seems he didn't want hair anywhere except where he didn't have it (the crown of his head, hence the famous comb-over).
"Not that hair is inherently dirty or stinks; but there was an aesthetic of cleanness, of refining the surface. I've read somewhere that pervasive hair removal was characteristic of Egyptian priests, maybe as a form of purification; for practical purposes, it reduces susceptibility to lice, for instance.
" CYNWOLFE

Tools For Cleaning

"As Romahost has already said, [a strigil] is an instrument for scraping the skin. Bear in mind that oil was used in classical times for removing grime, and unlike soap which forms a lather with water and can be rinsed off, the oil had to be scraped off; thereafter, in a water-rich area (eg Italy) a bath could be taken, and in other cases clean (scented) oils could be used to finish off the job.
"The strigil at first glance looks a bit like a clasp-knife, handle and blade being in total about 8" (if memory serves) in most cases. The blade is gently curved to accommodate the curves of the body and the handle is sometimes of another material such as bone or ivory.
"I have read somewhere that Augustus' face had sores caused by excessive use of the strigil.
"The museum at Thessalonica in N. Greece has plenty of them; They must have a website, so I am sure you will be able to get all the info you need.
THEAGENE1

Cleansers vs. Soap in the Ancient World

"A respondent later in this exchange reminded readers of the Roman use of olive oil, along with the strigil to exfoliate. Soap is mainly just processed fat. The Celts of Gaul are sometimes credited, I think by Pliny, with the invention of soap (sapo) and may have used sheep tallow to make it. I'm not sure rubbing one's body with a product made from the fat of slaughtered animals is inherently more aesthetic or clean than using olive oil.

"It occurs to me that sitting on the edge of my own bathtub is a commercially prepared exfoliating rub made from olive oil, coarse salt, and sage extract, which would have been quite at home in another of Ovid's treatises, the one on making cosmetics. And at my local holistic grocery store or international market, I can buy a gentle, emollient soap made from olive oil, to confuse the distinction between oil and soap further.
CYNWOLFE

More on Soap

"Further to the writer's discussion about soap, (and urine as a cleanser, etc.), and having just seen a programme about the Colosseum where a comment was made about death being a constant companion, tombs by the entrance to the city and the smell of burning corpses... (How the heck did they put up with the stench?) how much of a sense of hygiene did the Romans have? I know they didn't have the modern understanding of germs etc. Did their obsession with bathing extend to their clothes and homes? Did they have social/religious rules or customs (like the Jewish religious guidelines) that, by default, resulted in reduced spread of disease? Did their strict military camp setup result in improved hygiene?" AB_DRAWSKTCH

 

History of Shaving

"Here is an interesting webpage about the history of shaving. I am not too sure about all of the information. The author seems to think that because high foreheads were fasionable for women during the first half of the fifteenth century, that high foreheads were fashionable from 476 - 1270 A.D." KIRKALAN
Also see: Major People in Ancient History
 

 

Daily Life in Ancient Rome
Pompeii
Bath Glossary
Bath Thieves
Water and Wastewater Systems in Imperial Rome
• [url= web.archive.org/web/20050907024440/http://www.brandeis.edu/news/ostrow.html ] Classicist digs deep for truth about hygiene habits of ancient Romans
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