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Rome’s Greatest Work? An Assessment on the Sewers, Latrines and Hygiene in the City of Rome – T.Teske (2013)

Rome’s Greatest Work?

An Assessment on the Sewers, Latrines and Hygiene in the City of Rome 

Taylor Teske

BA University of Maryland, MPhil University of Dublin

“In my opinion, indeed, the three most magnificent works of Rome, in which the greatness of her empire is best seen, are the aqueducts, the paved roads, and the construction of the sewers.”[1] Dionysius of Halicarnassus was not the only writer to admire the grandeur of Rome’s urban infrastructure, for Strabo also mentioned that Rome’s repute had derived from her foresight and concern for the construction of similar technologies.[2] In fact, many of these structures survive today, either in ruins or still in use. One such amenity, which is presently being utilized, is one of Rome’s most famous and oldest achievements, the Cloaca Maxima. Sources say that either Tarquinius Priscus or Tarquinius Superbus capitalized on an already existing stream for the purpose of draining the marshy land that was to become the Forum Romanum and the Subura.[3] The swampy water emptied into the Tiber River, as did much of the waste of Rome’s populace. The types of waste and sewage increased, as the city expanded in the Late Republic and Early Principate. Although drains and sewers became a necessary commodity and was governed by state laws at this time, it was not the only source for Roman citizens to dispose of their waste. More precisely, most Romans did not have a private drainage system and so found other ways of discarding waste before it ended up being reused or dumped in drains and sewers. A large portion of human waste was discarded in latrines (foricae or latrinae). The literary sources provide a large amount of knowledge on the conventions and administration of these drainage facilities in the city of Rome, but little is described for latrines. Unfortunately, the archaeological remains of latrines are also limited in Rome; evidence from Ostia and Pompeii must be assessed in order to attain a clear overview of the function of both private and public latrines. A thorough review of the evidence suggests that Rome possessed a drainage and sewage system, but lacked the required methods of sanitation for its citizens, especially those living in slums. Their restricted knowledge of proper disposal methods of waste led to several health problems, including disease and bodily injury.

The modern perception of waste or rubbish is quite distinguishable from the ancient notion. Viewpoints on waste may be differentiated once more into personal reflections: “one person’s rubbish may be part of another’s livelihood.”[4] In reality anything could be designated as rubbish depending on the individual’s social or gender distinctions. This is why it can be difficult to identify waste and disposal pits in an archaeological context. Archaeologists tend to follow typological characteristics: “If it occurs outside, versus inside buildings, if many different materials are mixed together, if there is a high density of material…if the finds tend to be broken or if they are ashy, but not in situ.”[5] Nevertheless, these typologies still present problems of flexibility. Literary sources can only provide scholars with some awareness, for these texts are typically written by the middle and upper echelon of Roman society, not by the many living in the slums. Therefore, what is outlined as waste should not be a permanent impression of both modern and ancient judgments.

According to a U.S. Geological Survey, the contemporary designation of what constitutes wastewater comprises of: bodily fluids, such as urine and excrement; toilet paper; chemical residues, oils, and liquids from rainstorm run-off; and food scraps discarded into sink garbage disposals. These materials are usually treated at a facility or plant. However, some wastewater and other various items occasionally wash into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.[6]

The Romans had no specific facilities. In Rome, almost all waste was disposed of through various drainage systems that ultimately and intentionally flowed into the Tiber. Essentially, the Tiber was Rome’s final dumping ground or “facility treatment plant.” Much of its refuse and sewage came from the streets, the populaces’ “rubbish bin.” From the 2nd c. BCE on, the public basins produced overflow at night when barely in use and helped wash away some of the filth from the streets.[7] Anything was dumped into the Tiber, from bodily fluids to dead bodies. Herodian mentions two instances of human bodies being discarded: after Commodus killed Cleander, his children, and associates, “They dragged their bodies through the streets, subjecting them to every indignity, and finally brought the mutilated corpses to the sewer and threw them in;” the other matter occurred after the death of Heliogabalus and Soaemias, “When the bodies had been dragged throughout the city, the mutilated corpses were thrown into the public sewer which flows into the Tiber.”[8] Based upon the lack of formal burial arrangements for all Roman citizens and pre-industrial European urban populations, some scholars have conservatively estimated that 1,500 unwanted bodies were abandoned in the streets of Rome each year.[9] It is more difficult to assess how many of those would have been dumped into drains, however. There are other forms of unusual waste. In one of his satires, Juvenal depicts how dangerous it can be for an individual to walk the streets of Rome at night because people emptied their chamber pots and threw away cracked or leaking containers.[10] Many of these containers probably incorporated several different items, such as animal bone, metal objects, plaster, glass etc. In a rubbish deposit located in the House of the Vestals at Pompeii, a private establishment located along the Via Consolare, archaeologists found painted plaster, animal bone, 30 metal artifacts, shell, glass, and loom weights.[11] Animal waste and carcasses would have also found their way into Rome’s drainage systems, since stray and domestic dogs were prevalent throughout the city of Rome.[12] Draft animals would have also produced more urine and feces, which would drain into the Tiber. Since Rome did not have centralized slaughterhouses, animals were slaughtered, disemboweled, and dismembered directly at a butcher shop or private home and their unwanted remains likely thrown into the streets. In fact, a prohibition in the law codes against throwing animal skins on to the streets suggests that individuals dumped their carcasses and any other unusable remains on a daily basis.[13] All of this wastewater even caused a build-up of rubbish in the Tiber and created several problems for the inhabitants of Rome. Therefore, Augustus and his successors undertook several initiatives to clean out the rubbish from the drains and Tiber.[14]

Various types of waste traveled through the Cloaca Maxima, Rome’s earliest drain. In antiquity it was a very large, all-purpose storm drain consisting of three functions: rainwater removal, sewer, and swamp drainage. For much of the Republic, the drain was uncovered. In the 1st c. BCE, the Cloaca Maxima measured 4.2 m high by 3.2 m wide in some places and, as claimed by Pliny, was large enough for a wagonload of hay to pass through. Agrippa was also said to have sailed through its underground passages for an inspection on a boat tour.[15] The surviving masonry of the Cloaca Maxima reveals that it was built in multiple techniques at different stages. The drain began as an open ditch. Thereafter, it was covered by stone vaulting and paved like a Roman road.[16] Due to its size and centrality, modern scholars have characterized the Cloaca Maxima as a main ‘collector drain’ that was fed by smaller conduits in the form of covered drains, subterranean pipes, or open sewers in the middle of the streets throughout the city.[17] Most waste would have passed either through covered drains or open sewers in Rome. However, there is very little archaeological evidence from the city that suggests houses or tenement blocks had main drainage pipes leading into sewer systems.[18] Rodolfo Lanciani, an Italian archaeologist writing in the late 19th c., pointed out that he had never come across any connections between private and public drains during his systematic analysis of the city.[19] All of the smaller conduits, which drained into the Cloaca Maxima, belonged to streets or public infrastructures, such as the Forum Augustum. The same arrangement also became evident for sewers located on the other hills of Rome, such as the Esquiline and Viminal. This has led several archaeologists, including Lanciani, to believe that private dwellings utilized cesspits rather than drains.[20] However, the law codes suggest that private drainage was possible for certain citizens:

The praetor has taken care by means of these interdicts for the cleaning and the repair of drains. Both pertain to the health and safety of cities. For drains choked with filth threaten pestilence of the atmosphere and ruin, if they are not repaired. This interdict is provided for private drains, as public drains deserve public care. … And Pomponius also writes that if anyone wishes to make a drain so that it has an outlet into the public drain, he is not to be hindered…[21]

From these interdicts, it appears that any private individual could construct a drain leading from their house into a public one if they had the ability. Since few connections between private and public drains have been found in the archaeological record, it is possible to propose with the present evidence that the Romans used a combination of nature, technology, and manpower to flush most of the waste that accumulated in the streets from passersby and tenants living above in apartment blocks.

In the early stages of the Republic, the Cloaca Maxima had to rely on both runoff from the surrounding hills and the continuous flow of swamp water to remove sewage and waste from the drain. Any other open drain at this time was usually dry and relied on flushing from rainwater; the hilly nature of the city also provided the drains with a steep gradient for the allowance of easy passage. As time progressed, more drains were constructed and probably covered over similar to that of the Cloaca Maxima. These early drains were built with two types of material, lapis Albanus and Gabinus (peperino). A perfect example for the use of lapis Gabinus is found at the corner of the Via Paganica near the Circus Flaminius. However, the Romans changed materials to brick in the Imperial period. The drains’ roofs were formed with two tiles situated adjacent to each other in a diagonal pattern, while slightly convex, large tiles made up the floor.[22] The Romans created an early type of gravity sewer, but their design remained vulnerable to the formation of slime and sludge since the Romans were incapable of measuring water velocity. Modern gravity sewers are developed to achieve self-cleansing velocities that would relieve drains of any accumulation of waste.[23]

When the Romans began engineering aqueducts from 312 BCE and onwards, the city established a type of sluice system for cleaning streets and drains.[24] The aqueducts reached from far distances outside of Rome to the city’s fountains (salientes) and public basins (lacus). These aqueducts were never shut off, even if unused; they had a continual flow day and night. Frontinus urged that this continual surge, which resulted in overflow (aqua caduca/otiosa), was necessary for purging the city’s streets and sewers and maintaining a healthy living environment.[25] Again, it should be noted that the lack of personal drains caused people to dump their waste in the streets, for the overflow to wash away. Whether the overflow was intentional or not, it still appears to have helped clean the filth from the streets wherever basins were located. Pompeii – particularly the area around the forum – is one of the only Roman cities that have yielded some archaeological confirmation for Frontinus’ statement. The combination of steep gradients, like Rome, and overflow from both public and private cisterns and fountains washed Pompeii’s streets.[26] Evidently, the raised sidewalks so pronounced at Pompeii’s street corners, sometimes measuring up to 50 or 60 cm high, indicates that this overflow caused a surface water problem in the streets. Additionally, stepping-stones were placed at these same corners to give pedestrians a safe crossing.[27] There are even mentions in literature of the streets having been unsafe and unhealthy for travel: Juvenal describes his shins covered in mud and Petronius talks of his heroes cutting their feet on jagged stones and fragmented pottery shards.[28] Initially, the resulting overflow of the basins and fountains in Republican Rome was a byproduct of the aqueducts. Eventually the overflow became a necessity for cleansing the streets to a certain extent, specifically by the 1st c. CE when Frontinus wrote his treatise, On Aqueducts, and Rome’s population was around 1,000,000 inhabitants.[29] Nevertheless, Rome could not just depend on nature and technology to rinse away the 40,000-50,000 kgs. of body wastes amassed per day.[30]

For the Early and Middle Republic there is no available evidence concerning laws and duties established for the upkeep of the city’s drains and sewers. It is not until the Late Republic that we hear any reference regarding the regulations and maintenance of civil works. These directives were compiled into one account called the tabula Heracleensis or the Julian law, since Julius Caesar proposed the legislation in the 1st c. BCE.[31] The charge of cleaning, constructing, and repairing public drains came under the supervisors of the streets. Responsibility fell mainly to the censors and subsequently towards the end of the Late Republic, to the aediles as part of their cura urbis.[32] The Senate supplied funds, which were raised from tribute or taxes, to the magistrates charged with overseeing the work completed. Once the money was available the magistrates held an auction in the Forum for the job’s contract. Anyone could theoretically purchase the contract as long as the magistrate agreed to the final bid and was provided with an offer of security. These contractors only dealt with the infrastructures that were deemed public property, not those streets lined with private establishments. In fact it was the duty of the frontager within one mile of Rome to keep their “portion of the street in repair at the discretion of that aedile who has jurisdiction in this quarter of the city by this law.”[33] The frontager must also not allow any freestanding water in the streets preventing the convenience of public access.[34] Therefore, the drains reaching up to the junction with the main drain must not be obstructed or impaired in anyway and cleaned on a regular basis.[35] If the frontager did not perform his duties because of absenteeism, age, idleness, incompetence, or poverty, the aedile had the responsibility of contracting out the maintenance to a private party. The frontager was then required to pay the chosen contractor within thirty days; otherwise the frontager had to pay both the tender and a penalty of 50% of the new contract.[36] According to Frontinus, the frontagers were only allowed to use aqua caduca for the purpose of cleaning out the waste in front of their establishment, which could include a private drain. Laws prevented private individuals from tapping water supplies because water brought to the city was only intended for public use.[37]

Supervision and management of the drainage system remained relatively the same in the Early Principate and was still regarded under the care of the streets. Augustus created the curator aquarum, head of the cura aquarum, to manage Rome’s water supply. As part of their duties this office had to ensure that there was a surplus of water to flush the streets and sewers.[38] Tiberius instituted the curator alvei Tiberis to care for the Tiber; it was under Trajan that full responsibilities of the drainage system were transferred to this office.[39] Maintenance was probably completed in the same fashion as before: private professionals bid for contracts and frontagers cleaned their portion of the street.[40] Additionally, if a frontager rented out the property, the tenant had to maintain the sewers in standing order and was liable to pay for any outstanding fees caused by prolonged negligence.[41] However, in a letter to Pliny the Younger, Trajan refers to the utilization of criminals in Rome to clean the baths, sewers, and streets under the appropriate office.[42] Restrictions on the private tapping of public water supplies established during the time of Augustus were lifted, allowing private parties to utilize public sources for cleaning out their own drains. Under Trajan citizens still were not allowed to divert water from the public supply at will, but required special permission from the emperor together with other restrictions on connection points and sizes of drains. Also, these special grants persisted as long as the property remained in the proprietorship of the grantee.[43] Several operations from the literature are still uncertain; for example, did all frontagers have drains, how often would these drains need to be cleaned, did frontagers perform their duties regularly, and were the Julian laws frequently and harshly enforced? The answers to some of these questions may become aware later in a discussion of sanitation.

Literary sources provide even less information on the form, administration, and usage of public and private latrines. Most of the larger bathing establishments, like the imperial bathhouses in Rome, systematically incorporate latrines into their designs, since baths can theoretically maintain a constant water supply for flushing toilets.[44] Ancient authors discuss different methods of ridding and profitably recycling human waste that accumulated in cesspits or streets. Slaves sometimes removed from Rome the heap of excrement known as night soil, if it was not disposed of in the sewers. Valerius Maximus supplies an account concerning a murdered man being carried away in a wagon full of night soil.[45] Some dumped the night soil on the Esquiline hill into large refuse pits, while others, such as farmers or gardeners, made use of the night soil as manure; archaeologists found these refuse pits on the Esquiline during excavations in the 19th c. There were many gardens in the city of Rome that could cheaply exploit night soil. Columella says that human excrement was used as a supplement to animal fertilizers as long as it was aged properly.[46] Reselling human excrement as fertilizer is a common practice in all ages, including modern times; the large amount of rich ammonia helped vegetation growth.[47] Urine was also a rich commodity to some of Rome’s populace. Columella writes that urine could be utilized as a fertilizer because it enriched the flavor of wine and fruit.[48] The individuals running public latrines profited from selling collected urine to fullers. Even fullers themselves removed the middleman and placed terracotta jars – dolia curta – on the streets usually near their shops for public use. Vespasian also placed a tax – urinae vectigal – on urine.[49] Although these pieces of information are beneficial, there is still no clear picture on the provision of Roman latrines.

Archaeological information on latrines for the city of Rome is also limited. The Regionary Catalogues from the 4th c. CE record 144 public latrines for the city, but only a few can be accounted for archaeologically.[50] A semicircular latrine dating to the time of Hadrian is still visible on the upper level of the southwest side of the Forum Iulium. Another latrine can be seen in the Portico of Pompey.[51] A lavishly decorated public latrine was found in 1963 on the Via Garibaldi in Trastevere. Not only are the walls adorned with painted paneling, the floors are embellished with black and white mosaics and the walls scribbled with graffiti, exhibiting a different aspect of the latrine experience.[52] The Severan Marble Plan, the Forma Urbis Romae (FUR), helps pinpoint other areas where public latrines are situated. For example, slab VII-7 and X-5 both contain public latrines on the plan in a Subura neighborhood and near the Templum divi Claudi, both represented by the same convention used for the latrine in the Portico of Pompey in slab IV-6.[53] Archaeologists have excavated a few other latrines in Rome, although these ones appear to be on the borderline of public and private. The Domus Transitoria – an imperial home – included a latrine, possibly for servants, guests, or the inhabitants.[54] Additionally, Lanciani notes a latrine found in 1873 near the drilling grounds of the Praetorians.[55]

From these few sources, it is possible to acquire a reasonably clear image of some of the operations of a public latrine. The aediles probably concerned themselves with the supervision and regulation of public latrines because they were in charge of monitoring the baths. Access to latrines attached to bathhouses was likely free for patrons, but an entrance fee or token was possibly needed for those separate from such establishments.[56] According to the evidence at Via Garibaldi, some public latrines were clearly welcoming, highly decorated, and places of social interaction. Martial even tells of a man named Vacerra frequenting the latrines for an invitation to dinner parties.[57] After the patrons finished with their business, ancient writers as well as archaeological finds from the Church Street Sewer System at York in Britain suggest that Romans cleaned themselves with sponges equipped with a wooden handle.[58] Nonetheless, it is unknown whether or not the method of cleaning oneself with a sponge after using the toilet was the preferred procedure because such little evidence survives.

From the available evidence, the layout of a public latrine was probably an open rectangular, semicircular, or linear room, containing marble or wood seating along the walls suspended over a canal of flowing water. The number of seats varied from ten to forty. In a bathhouse recycled wastewater maintained a continuous stream of water for flushing.[59] Latrines not connected to a bathhouse may have been flushed with endless running water from the public water supply. In Republican times, the surplus water came at a price, but towards the end of the 1st c. CE businesses needed an imperial beneficium.[60] Directly in front of the seats running along the floor was a runnel carrying another stream of clean water for the purpose of patron hygiene: one could bend forward and clean their hands.[61] The runnel could also help in cleaning the latrines’ stone floors or even soiled sponges, but this remains to be clarified.

Specific types of water could only be used for the service of the latrines. Frontinus and several other sources distinguished between drinking and service water. Drinking water had to achieve a standard of frigor and salubritas: cold, odorless, and clean; anything less was meant for businesses, or non-human consumption.[62] In his treatise, Frontinus compared different aqueducts by their qualities of salubritas. For example, he wrote that the water from the aqua Alsietina met none of the requirements described, while the aqua Marcia satisfied all. These water sources were evidently being used for the wrong purposes: the aqua Alsietina for drinking and Marcia for service. So Frontinus adjusted the usage of water sources, resulting in specific aqueducts, such as the aqua Alsietina, Anio Vetus, and Anio Novus for the operation of running water in public latrines.[63]

The qualities of domestic water supply would vary from domus to insulae for flushing latrines since most Romans had to fetch water from street fountains. However, flushing was only possible if a private residence even had their own latrine attached to a sewage system. Due to the lack of evidence, most scholars assume that many private dwellings did not have either.[64] Even if it was possible to have a domestic toilet connected to drainage leading into the public sewer, the literary and archaeological evidence for the city of Rome does not indicate such an occurrence. Some ancient sources specify the usage of commodes or chamber pots, which would have been emptied down the public drains, tossed out windows or loaded on wagons collecting night soil.[65] Lanciani noted that residences must have used cesspits located nearby rather than public drains, but he could only pinpoint one instance from excavations of a building along the Via Cavour on the Esquiline hill.[66] Very few remains of residential homes have endured the test of time in Rome, except for those of the wealthy along the Palatine hill and others incorporated into modern designs. In order to obtain a possible understanding of private latrines in Rome, we need to observe the archaeological finds of two well-preserved Roman towns, Ostia and Pompeii.

Ostia provides many examples of well-preserved domestic latrines. A large number of single and two-seater latrines have been found on ground floors below staircases in the House of the Porch (3rd c. CE), House of Fortuna Annonaria (2nd c. CE), and House of the Well (3rd c. CE). The seats are also constructed out of marble, similar to public latrines. Placing private toilets below staircases seems to be a popular choice, for it is also noticeable in Herculaneum and occasionally in Pompeii.[67] Some apartment blocks, such as the Garden Houses, at Ostia also contain upper storey toilet facilities in the form of vertical terracotta pipes covered with concrete.[68] These pipes most likely flushed wastewater from the upper storey latrines into another source on the ground floor. It is still unknown whether these facilities drained into a main conduit, but the insufficient amount of evidence indicates that cesspits were probably favored more.

Pompeii also presents another varied perspective on the matter of private drainage and latrines. Pompeii’s favored place is the kitchen or, at least, a small room nearby. These rooms were doorless, unlit, and by modern standards, without adequate ventilation. The close association with the kitchen was mainly for convenience in disposal of food scraps.[69] Although most of the dwellings in Pompeii had a drain connected from the impluvium to the street, these latrines – with the exception of a few cases – were neither flushed nor maintained conduits linking to the impluvium system. All contained cesspits of varying depths placed directly beneath or a short distance from the latrine. Human fluids eventually drained away, while solids would have to be removed frequently in order for the latrine to remain in operation.[70] Pompeii supplies more ample evidence in regards to the situation of upper storey latrines seen at Ostia. For instance, the down pipes are much more visible throughout the city, enclosed within the walls, buttresses, or corners of various buildings. Some scholars believe that the down pipes drained directly into the streets; however, there are more traces of pipes emptying into cesspits within or outside of buildings.[71] Down pipes essentially consisted of large-gauge terracotta pipes with a diameter of 13-15 cm and mainly relied on gravity to drain sewage.[72] Archaeologists at Pompeii have found fifteen upper storey latrines so far in Regio V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX.[73]

The circumstances at Ostia and Pompeii only impart a possibility of what may have occurred in Rome. It is still difficult to make a definitive statement on the matter of private latrines. From the short supply of surviving evidence it appears that the citizens of Rome did not rely on a systematic procedure, but rather utilized a combination of various repositories for relieving themselves, depending on their social standing or even preference. It is also possible to surmise that Rome consisted mainly of malodorous cesspits and streets, since most of the evidence from Ostia, Pompeii, and Rome does not reveal a substantial arrangement of drains with connections to the main system. Therefore, Rome would have been a very foul-smelling and noxious environment to experience.

The main components contributing to the unhealthy living conditions in Rome are location, lack of urban planning, and population. Residents lived in the low-lying valleys of the city because much of Rome was uninhabitable and used for the grandiose display of public buildings. The poor – a significant proportion of the population – intensified in low-lying areas, such as swamplands in the early Republic, and places near the Tiber. All of these areas would be inundated. According to several writers, Rome appeared to be a filthy, wet, and dim maze of a city.[74] Almost 1,000,000 people squeezed into the small confines of this maze at the end of the Republic, resulting in overcrowding throughout succeeding centuries. These factors created many more troubles for the citizens. For those reasons, the absence of a hygienic drainage system emerged and contributed to the insalubrious surroundings.

Roman drains lacked any trapping system for quarantining noxious gases like hydrogen sulphide and methane from escaping sewers, causing foul odors and even explosions.[75] Also, the constant flushing from the aqua caduca referred to by Frontinus appears to have either been infrequent or a problem.[76] Martial suggests the street conditions were always muddy and filled with water at least up to ankle-height: “…I must surmount the track up the hill from the Subura and the dirty pavement with its steps never dry. …Such is the result of misspent toil, and my poor toga drenched!”[77] Overloaded wagons could cause sewers and drains to collapse, resulting in the build-up of filth.[78] Despite the fact that some of the texts may exaggerate the circumstances, the poor conditions in the city still warranted a few complaints from ancient writers.

The open sewers and cesspits as well as the domestic cesspits of the city also generated bodily harm on a physical and biological level. Crates of Mallos is said to have broken a leg in an open sewer in the 2nd c. BCE.[79] Malaria was rampant in the summer months when the Tiber was at its lowest point and sewage accumulated within the river since it could not be transported downstream. The spread was rapid and must have devastated the overcrowded population. Writers divulge several occasions of outbreak and archaeological evidence indicates that Tiberius even constructed three temples of Fever: on the Palatine, near the church of S. Eusebio, and another near the church of S. Bernardo.[80] Placing the outdoor cesspits near the main streets was extremely unhygienic. Even the internal cesspits, which needed to be emptied on a regular basis, could cause diseases and offensive smells, especially those located near the kitchen. The spread of bacteria and food contamination in these homes must have been extremely high. Additionally, anyone who handled the contents of cesspits either by emptying or selling their contents had a higher health risk of catching several diseases: cholera, dysentery, gastroenteritis, infectious hepatitis, leptospirosis, and typhoid.[81]

In spite of the fact that several emperors, like Tiberius and Trajan, tried to establish commissions to clean and maintain the Tiber, the river still caused health risks when it flooded frequently.[82] Inundation could cause the drains to congest and force wastewater back up into homes connected with the network. Aelian reports an interesting event where vermin and other critters would enter a home through drainage connections.[83] Also, several of the low-lying areas would be contaminated with stagnating sewage, producing even more pestilence for the population to endure.[84] All of the human and animal waste would disperse throughout those parts of the city and generate severe health risks to the population. The general sense from the literary and archaeological evidence suggests that the Romans lived in a disease-ridden environment caused by their own attitude for comfort over hygiene.

After analyzing Rome’s sewers further, Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ quote respecting the construction of the sewers as one of the city’s most magnificent works might be exaggerated. There is no question that this urban infrastructure was well ahead of its time in comparison with other contemporaneous cities. The sewers allowed the inhabitants to live comfortably to a certain extent since anything could theoretically be disposed of in its system and carried away down the Tiber. Laws and commissions were established for repairing and cleaning the drains privately and publicly, but were not enforced and completed on a frequent basis. Public and private latrines contributed a large quantity of human waste that was either emptied into the Tiber or resold and repurposed for farmers and fullers. In fact, city dwellers used whatever was available to relieve themselves, including the inexpensive public latrines, the uncommon and foul-smelling private toilet, and the cost-effective and least burdensome chamber pot. Unfortunately for the Romans, none of these facilities were hygienic by modern standards, properly sanitized, and could satisfactorily drain during times of inundation, resulting in the spread of several diseases and ultimately death. Nevertheless, the Romans were able to endure these hardships through their own solutions and establish an infrastructure that has persisted throughout the ages.



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Lanciani, 1899, The Destruction of Ancient Rome: A Sketch of the History of the Monuments, New York

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Nash, 1968, ‘Domus Transitoria’, in E. Nash (ed), Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome, London

I.D. Portella, 2000, Subterranean Rome: Catacombs, Baths, Temples, Cologne

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[1] Dion. Halic. Ant. Rom. 3.67.5

[2] Strab. Geogr. 5.3.8

[3] Plin. NH. 36.24; Liv. 1.38.6 & 1.56.2; Juvenal 5.104-6

[4] Hobson 2009, 89

[5] Martin and Russel 2000, 59

[6] Water Science For Schools, Water Use: Wastewater Treatment 2013

[7] Scobie 1986, 418

[8] Herodian 1.13.6 & 5.8.9

[9] Bodel 2000, 128-129

[10] Juvenal 3.268-77

[11] Hobson 2009, 91

[12] Justin. Dig.; Martial 3.82 & 7.20

[13] Justin. Dig.; Scobie 1986, 421

[14] Suet. Aug. 30.1

[15] Plin. NH. 36.24; Dio Cass. 49.43

[16] Hodge 2002, 333 and 337-339; Dodge 2000, 193

[17] Hodge 2002, 333

[18] Robinson 1994, 119

[19] Lanciani 1897, 31

[20] Ibid.

[21] Justin. Dig. & 9

[22] Hodge 2002, 333-334; Lanciani 1897, 30

[23] Scobie 1986, 412, n. 100

[24] Frontin. Aqu. 1.4-5; Evans 1994, 65

[25] Frontin. Aqu. 2.111; Scobie 1986, 408

[26] Hobson 2009, 117-118; Hodge 2002, 340

[27] Hodge 2002, 335

[28] Juvenal 3.247; Petron. Sat. 79

[29] Hopkins 1978, 98

[30] Scobie 1986, 413

[31] Robinson 1994, 59, n. 3

[32] Cic. Leg. 3.3.7; Robinson 1994, 49 and 118

[33] Tab. Heracl. 7 & 11

[34] Tab. Heracl. 7

[35] Robinson 1994, 60

[36] Tab. Heracl. 10

[37] Frontin. Aqu. 94.3; Kleijn 2001, 93

[38] Frontin. Aqu. 99.4-5; Robinson 1994, 72-73

[39] Dio Cass. 57.14; CIL VI 31549 & 31553

[40] Robinson 1994, 118

[41] Justin. Dig. & 30.39.5

[42] Pliny Ep. 10.32

[43] Frontin. Aqu. 106.1-2; Kleijn 2001, 100-101

[44] Dodge 2000, 191; Hodge 2002, 271

[45] Robinson 1994, 122-123; Val. Max. 1.7.ext.10

[46] Robinson 1994, 122; Lanciani 1899, 14; Scobie 1986, 408; Colum. Rust. 10.81-5 & 11.3.12

[47] Hodge 2002, 336

[48] Colum. Rust. 2.14

[49] Juvenal 3.32; Martial 6.93; Suet. Vesp. 23.3; Robinson 1994, 121

[50] Blake 1973, 18-9

[51] Blake 1947, 135-136; Dodge 2000, p. 191

[52] Portella 2000, 258-261.

[53] FUR, Slab # VII-7 2003; FUR, Slab # X-5 2003; FUR, Slab # IV-6 2003

[54] Nash 1968, 375

[55] Lanciani 1897, 31

[56] Robinson 1994, 122 and 120

[57] Martial 11.77

[58] Ibid., 14.144; Sen. Ep. 70.19-23; Buckland 1976, 14

[59] Hodge 2002, 271

[60] Frontin. Aqu. 94.4 & 110.1; Kleijn 2001, 80

[61] Hodge 2002, 271

[62] Plin. NH. 31.37 & 31.39; Kleijn 2001, 87-88

[63] Frontin. Aqu. 11.1, 91.5, & 92.

[64] Dodge 2000, 191

[65] Hor. Sat. 1.6.109; Petron. Sat. 41; Martial 6.89; Robinson 1994, 120

[66] Lanciani 1897, 31; “Recenti Scoperte di Roma,” 284-5

[67] Hobson 2009, 2-5 and 10

[68] Hobson 2009, 71

[69] Scobie 1986, 409; Hodge 2002, 336

[70] Scobie 1986, 409

[71] Hobson 2009, 72-3

[72] Hodge 2002, 337

[73] Hobson 2009, 74-5

[74] Martial 3.36 & 4.18; Dion. Halic. Ant. Rom. 1.68.1; Ramage 1983, 62-6

[75] Scobie 1986, 412

[76] Frontin. Aqu. 2.111; Ramage 1983, 68

[77] Martial 5.22.

[78] Plin. NH. 36.6

[79] Suet. Gram. 2.

[80] Plin. NH. 26.115-7; Lanciani 1897, 6; Ramage 1983, 70

[81] Scobie 1986, 410 and 421

[82] Dio Cass. 57.14; CIL VI 31549 & 31553

[83] Aelian NA. 13.6

[84] Ramage 1983, 71


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