Rome is claimed to have been originally ruled by a lineage of seven long-serving kings, its foundation mythology suggesting that the very first of these was Romulus in the eighth-century BCE. The last of these kings, had the delightful name Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, aka Tarquin the Proud (Superbus being Latin for proud or arrogant). He unwisely tried to introduce the notion of his role as being hereditary, this and his excessive construction programme and general belligerence led to him being overthrown and supplanted by the Roman Republic in 509 BCE
The Republic was of course not simply the city-state of Rome itself, but an alliance of independent ‘Italian’ city-states. The Roman Republic advanced by alliance, annexation and military conquest, initially of their Latin and Etruscan neighbours then it expanded to control much of the Mediterranean region.
Romans carried our extensive acculturation of their vassal states which in most cases introduced cities, roads, architecture and water management for the first time.
This prompts memories of the Monty Python Life of Brian skit with militant Jews calling out ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ – here we are progressively developing rather a long list.
The Republic ruled for almost half a millennium before the Roman Empire took over control in 27 BCE for another half-millennium. They used Iron Age technologies, they had no energy source other than that provided by human or animal power, barring fire and water.
Studying the history of Italy is rather overwhelmed by tales of the Romans, but it was in fact their predecessors the Etruscans who created the original water supply and sewerage technologies. Etruscans emerged along the Po valley, living in an area encompassing today’s Tuscany and parts of Lazio and Umbria. Romans called them the Etrusci or Trusci, the origin of the region’s name Tuscany.
Etruscan architecture was based on classical Greek techniques but with their own particular twist, and it was this that was adopted by the Romans, many Roman cities were built directly over original Etruscan sites. Etruscans might be considered as the ‘missing link’ between the Greek and the Roman approaches. So when we herald our classical roots as Greco-Roman, perhaps it should in fact be Greco-Etrusco-Roman?
Roman mythology was largely derived from their Greek precursors, usually with a simple name change applied to their god. Neptune was their Poseidon, god of the sea, and they had Voltumus the god of waters, Fontus the god of wells and springs, Jutuma goddess of fountains, wells and springs… They , like the Greeks, believed naiads were resident in the proximity of springs and wells.
Italy proved rich in a compressed volcanic ash material called tuff or tufa. It was a soft yet waterproof material that could be worked readily. (The Easter Island moai statues used the same material – not a conspiracy theory just an interesting fact.) Romans cut bricks from tufa to build bridges and buildings and even carved out the material in situ to create desired facilities and features.
The extensive removal of tufa for construction created caves that were subsequently used as catacombs for secret religious worship (Mithraism and Christianity) and places for burial. Etrusans had always buried their dead but Romans had originally preferred cremation. From the second-century CE the fad for sarcophagi (derived from Egyptian and Greek traditions) and graves developed around the Roman Empire.
A decomposed version of tufa known as Pozzolana became significant too. Its name derives from its original discovery at Pozzuoli near Naples, a port from which Greek grain ships had operated, originally as a Greek colony.
A similar material, Santorin earth, had been discovered by the Greeks in the eastern Mediterranean and had been used from 500 BCE for construction, but it was the Romans who fully exploited its characteristics. The Romans took over Pozzuoli to export Campania goods like blown glass, mosaics, wrought iron and marble. They renamed it Puteoli, possibly from puteo, meaning to stink, because of a regular smell of sulphur in the area.
It was discovered that if Pozzolana, a silicon and/or aluminium based ash, when mixed with calcium hydroxide and water, at room temperatures, created an early form of concrete. The mixture could be mixed with aggregate and this proved to be good for load-bearing structures and could even be applied under water. For example, the Roman port at Cosa was formed (273 BCE) by pouring Pozzolana down through tubes to underwater locations to form its three piers.
But the most striking application is perhaps the cupola of Rome’s Pantheon, built 118 – 128 CE, this remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
For over 400 years after the foundation of Rome its inhabitants drew their water from the River Tiber but this became non-potable through pollution, the sewage it increasingly contained led to regular outbreaks of sickness. The city did have some springs within its confines but these were usually privately owned and thus not available generally.
Given the city’s growth it had to seek out and gather water from the nearby Anio highland springs, the Aniene river and elsewhere. The Romans had learned aqueduct building from the Etruscans and the Greeks, but they soon took the technique to a new level.
They used them to bring water for their public and personal baths, for flushing latrines, for agriculture and gardens and for industry – milling, mining…
By 312 BCE this water-supply was finding it difficult to keep up with the population growth and a public official, Appius Claudius Caecus, was appointed to supervise two major projects. One was an important new road, which would eventually be named for him, as the Appian Way. Roman roads were built to allow rapid movements of their army. But beneath this new road he laid a conduit to carry water securely beneath the regularly-used and protected route.
This very first aqueduct in Rome was also named for the official, the Aqua Appia. It stretched for over 16 kms (10 miles) from a distant spring to serve one fountain in Rome’s cattle market, the Forum Boarium. The aqueduct was gravity-fed, dropping some ten metres along its route to what was a low-lying part of the city. It delivered 75,500 cubic metres of water every day at a consistent flow but because it entered at a low-point of the city it could not be directly connected onward to homes or baths. The elite sent slaves to fill storage jars and carry them back to their users, others would have to do this for themselves. There is a suggestion that the fountain would have had two outlets one for human use and one for the cattle. Any surplus supply would wastefully drain away into the Tiber.
The second aqueduct constructed was in 272 BCE, called the Aqua Anio Vetus. It was delivered to the city across raised arches which permitted the delivery at a higher pressure and volume. Being higher a distribution around the city became possible and this did much to prompt the emergence of public baths around the city.
Wealthy homeowners could afford a direct water supply to their homes which was charged based upon the bore of the pipe used, which defined the volume it could deliver. Less well-off people continued to use an increasing number of fountains created for their supply.
This Roman focus on water engineering created the world’s first plumbers or plumbarius. The name derived from the fact that gutters, tanks, pipes and valves were fabricated in lead (Pb, plumbum). For these components they created sand or clay moulds and poured in molten lead, as a result their pipes tended to be elliptical, rather than circular, in profile. The opulent also used marble, silver and gold for their supply accessories and embellishments.
These early aqueducts used ashlar masonry, stone that had been cut and worked usually into blocks often laid in horizontal courses. The stone was fashioned so accurately on all sides that the joints were very narrow. Aqueducts were flat-bottomed and arch-sectioned, in human proportions to permit access for maintenance. At regular intervals inspection and access points were built, usually covered with a slab. By the late Roman Republican era these were fabricated in concrete with a brick facing for better water-proofing. They were usually constructed to run at two-thirds-full in normal supply conditions.
Aqueducts were built with a slight downward elevation to gravity-feed spring water, Vitruvius recommended a gradient of not less than 1 in 4,800 to minimise the damage from water erosion. For example and remarkably, the Pont de Gard aqueduct in France drops just 17 metres across its 50 kilometres in length.
In 145 BCE Quintus Marcius Rex, a praetor, was appointed to restore the two existing aqueducts after an official commission had established that the conduits were badly decayed and prone to leakage. This exercise also established that there had been illegal tapping of the water at various points.
He then built a third aqueduct, the longest, named for him as the Aqua Marcia. Its source was several springs on the right bank of the Upper Anio near Agosta. It derives from rainwater along the Simbruini ridge and its major peak, Mount Autore (1,850 metres). The springs are the result of months of filtering through the limestone. Its course was built largely underground, following the river on its right bank then crossing to the left. The route, of necessity, was circuitous and took over 94 kms to reach Rome entering via the Porta Tiburtina of the Aurelian Wall – a trip of just 61 kms by road on via Sublacensis. It supplied almost 195,000 cubic metres of water every 24 hours. But perhaps more importantly it was built to supply the higher parts of Rome on the eastern hills of the city. Aqua Marcia supplied the prestigious Capitoline Hill and Palatine areas and, by the use of a siphon (more later), the Aventine, the Caelian and the Forum Romanum.
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was appointed an aedile, a public role tasked to maintain public works. He supervised the building of ports and was also responsible as an architect for a number of attractive public buildings in Rome. Interestingly he designed a new form of grappling hook for naval engagements that would later be responsible for the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the naval battle of Actium.
In 36 BCE Octavian appointed him as Curator Aquarum for life, to focus on maintaining and improving the aqueducts. Pliny the Elder described with some awe his engineering feats explaining that Agrippa both added ‘the Aqua Virgo [and] repaired the channels of the others and put them in order, and constructed 700 basins, not to speak of 500 fountains and 130 distribution-reservoirs, many of the latter being richly decorated. He erected on these works 300 bronze or marble statues and 400 marble pillars; and all of this he carried out in a year.’ (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 36 – 121-123)
Agrippa managed a large staff including engineers, artisans, inspectors and clerical personnel, and was able to bequeath 240 slaves to his emperor when he died in 12 BCE.
The Anio Vetus used the same supply region as the Aqua Marcia, as would the later Aquas Claudia and Anio Novus. The illustration above shows that by 33 BCE the arches built for the Marcia were later triple-decked to carry the waters from the Tepula and Julia aqueducts. The water is still used today, delivered by the modern Aqua Marcia Pia, and is still famed for its clarity, coldness and purity – however it is a hard water and its calcification needs to be regularly cleaned from the ducts.
Aqueducts would often use dams to store and regularise the flow of water through the duct. The Anio Novus had two dams at Subiaco to feed the system.
In the first century CE [Publius Cornelius] Tacitus, a senator and historian, recounts in his Annals an event when Nero offended the populous when he bathed in the reservoir up at the source of the Aqua Marcia, especially when he fell ill shortly after the episode.
Sextus Julius Frontinus was appointed water commissioner for Rome in 95 CE and his ‘On aqueducts’, De Aquis or De Aquaeductu, was a report to the emperor that described in two volumes the state of Rome’s water supply system and the quality of their waters. A copy of this was found at a library of Monte Cassino in the 15th century. He listed just nine aqueducts being used at this time:
- Aqua Appia – 16,445m – built 312 BCE
- Aqua Anio Vetus – 63,705m – 272-269 BCE
- Aqua Marcia – 91,424m – 144-140 BCE
- Aqua Tepula – 17,745m – 125 BCE
- Aqua Julia – 22,854m – 33 BCE
- Aqua Virgo – 20,697m – 19 BCE – Augustus reign (still feeds Trevi)
- Aqua Alsientina – 32,848 – date not supplied – Augustus reign
- Aqua Claudia – 68,751m – 38-52 CE – Claudius reign
- Aqua Anio Novus – 86,964m – 38-52 CE – Claudius reign
Frontinus then spent two years and 180,000,000 sesterces on remedial work, the money deriving from the Roman conquests of Corinth and Carthage.
There were eventually eleven aqueducts, serving the population of Rome, which had by now swelled to more than a million. The c.800 kms of aqueducts ran for only 47 kms above ground, delivering some 1400 litres/head/day (c.300 gallons/h/d). A rate that was eight times Rome’s usage today and over 125% of Bangalore’s modern-day supply to serve its six million inhabitants.
One of the two later aqueducts was the Aqua Traiana, named after its ‘builder’ Emperor Trajan in 109 CE. It would have the fourth largest discharge behind the Aquas Anio Novus, Marcia and Claudia.
As many of the aqueducts came from the same general area there was an engineering benefit in that the aqueducts when they reached the city could piggy-back each other over bridges and gates.
Their course would usually detour around peaks to avoid the need to tunnel.
Where valleys could not be avoided and had to be bridged a constricted soldered lead pipe was used to establish a siphon effect. A header tank would be filled at one side of the valley, higher than the receiving tank on the other side. This propelled the water through the venter across the bridge. The siphon approach is still used today. Vitruvius mentions these regularly becoming subject to blockage and leaks, unsurprising given the pressure build ups.
The downside became obvious retrospectively when modern research indicated that water through these systems contained a hundred times the lead content of lake/river waters; leading to speculation that the fall of the Roman Empire may have been less about invading hordes and more about a routine lead-poisoning of its citizens.
BRIEFER – Lead, plumbum, is an element in the carbon group, the heaviest non-radioactive metal, atomic number 82. Its first application has been traced to Turkey in 6,400 BCE. If it were not toxic enough in its own right, the Bronze Age routinely mixed it with antimony and arsenic! But the Romans were the first to use it on an industrial scale, producing it from many parts of their Empire including Britain, using some 80,000 tonnes per annum. Roman use for water piping, conduits, drains and tanks was the origin of the word plumbing and the person pursuing the trade was originally a plumbarus, shortened to plumber.
Pliny explained, ‘… the best way for water to be brought from a spring is in earth ware pipes two fingers thick, the joints boxed together so that the upper pipe fits into the lower, and smoothed with quicklime and oil. The gradient of the water should be at least [a quarter of an inch every hundred feet]; should it come to a tunnel, there must be vent holes every two actus [an actus was 36m, 120 ft].
When water is required to form a jet, it should come from lead pipes. Water rises as high as its source. If it comes from a long distance, the pipe should frequently go up and down, so that no momentum may be lost. […] At every bend of a hill where the momentum must be controlled, it is necessary to use a five-finger pipe; Reservoirs must be made as circumstances require.’
Pliny the Elder, Natural History 31 – 57-59
Aqueducts were publicly owned and their underground courses clearly indicated by stone markers called cippi, erected to alert locals that dumping might pollute them.
The water of an aqueduct was led through underground tunnels, over bridges and arcades and through a whole raft of basins. Basins were built for storage, but there were also settling or sedimentation tanks and others created in order to slow the pace of the water.
Sluices and pipes were often made of clay and stone but some used lead for its malleable and waterproofing qualities – this, however practical, may have led to a reduction in the Romans expectation of life.
ASIDE: In case we begin to feel superior, my wife’s uncle died in the middle of the twentieth century in his 30s, he was a painter, the UK finally banned the lead in paint from 1992 and only withdrew four-star leaded petrol as recently as 2000!
At the business end of the aqueducts they built a castellum divisiorum or distribution basin, usually built at a high point so that water could be distributed by gravity to their users perhaps the best preserved being one in Nimes, France which had five pairs of holes that could be opened or plugged as required.
Fountains were fed around the city for residents to refresh themselves or draw water:
Some affluent homes later had a direct feed from aqueducts, controlled by taps, one home in Pompeii was discovered to have had twelve such taps. It is believed that there was a licence and a fee for such a service, the diameter of the pipe defining the level of charge. But it is clear that there were many illegal outlets, widening of pipework beyond that licensed and it appears that aqueduct officials were not averse to bribery to turn a blind eye to all of this. Official lead pipes were usually inscribed with the emperor’s symbol and/or manufacturers mark.
Further water supply came from cisterns created in many houses, filled by rain water through a hole in the roof as a personal supply.
Some aqueducts had sealed openings leading to the suggestion they may have been used for rodding or pull-through devices, but little is known of the maintenance techniques applied. With many using hard water, a lack of maintenance would have caused problems.
Sometimes even the efficient Romans did things for fun. In Subiaco close to Rome in Lazio province, a dam was built to create an artificial reservoir for Emperor Nero (37-68 CE). This was for purely recreational purposes, a pleasure lake serving no other function. In its time the dam was the tallest in the world at 50m, and remaining so until 1305, when destroyed.
When the Roman Empire fell, the maintenance of aqueducts was not sustained by their successors so that many fell into disrepair. Rome itself became so poorly served that its 1m+ population in Imperial times had fallen to just 30,000 by the medieval era.
During the early period of the Roman kingdom and republic, bathing was something done for health purposes rather than as a luxury leisure pursuit. These ancient Romans were reported to wash their limbs daily and bathe the whole body once a week.
Romans were the first civilization to develop thermae exploiting natural thermal baths both at home and later in locations like Bath England, Baden Switzerland, Băile Herculane Romania, Serdica Bulgaria and around the Middle East. The Greeks had public baths but these were more like hip baths, the Roman thermae were altogether on a different scale.
At the beginning of the 1st century CE [Caius] Sergius Orata had made his money from commercial innovations in the breeding of oysters, a popular food of the time. He applied this wealth to become a developer and builder of expensive villas. He is credited by [Marcus] Vitruvius [Pollio] as the inventor of the hypocaust for underfloor heating and for warming baths, which led to the popularisation of bathing. In fact the invention seems more likely to be have been made at Mohenjo-dam in the Indus Valley some 2,000 years earlier, but the Romans promoted the term and the technique widely.
BRIEFER – A hypocaust (hypocaustum in Latin and hypókauston in Greek) creates a space beneath floors and through walls to circulate the hot air generated by a furnace, an early form of under-floor or central heating.
The aqueducts water quality was measured carefully and the most potable was reserved for human consumption by being directed to palaces, private homes and public fountains. The second-grade waters were directed to public baths and to sluice through public latrines running off waste to the sewers and thence the river.
The Bay of Naples in the last century BCE was where the fad for bathhouses took off, facilitated by architectural advances that enabled Romans to build roofs over wide expanses, by the development of hydraulic concrete and the cultural trends in cleanliness, health and cosmetic beauty. One of the earliest examples is the Stabian Baths in Pompeii, it was buried by the 79CE Vesuvius eruption and lay undisturbed until the 18th century.
Initially there had been something of a class divide with the wealthy having baths in their homes and the lower classes using public baths. The latter were not free but the price was maintained at a low level, just a quadrans or 1/16th of a penny, to ensure no-one was inclined to avoid bathing based on cost. Children were admitted free of charge.
It became popular for leading Romans to use bathing as a gesture to curry favour with the proletariat. For example Faustus, Sulla’s son, offered a free bath and oil for one day to the citizenry. Augustus funded a free bath and a session with the barber free of charge, and later a whole year of free baths to both men and women. This evolved into principal Roman leaders building bath-houses with ever-more facilities to make taking a public bath become a regular pastime.
Early Roman baths were commissioned and named for notable figures – Agrippa (33 BCE), Nero (64 CE) and Titus (81 CE).
Agrippa in Augustus’s reign built his baths within a park he created on the Field of Mars. Seneca the Younger, a philosopher and dramatist, was also tutor and advisor to Emperor Nero. He recorded the huge sums of money spent on building public baths. He wrote of baths with walls covered in huge mirrors and marble with water supplied through silver taps, he added ‘I’m talking only about the common people’. He reported that the baths of the rich often included waterfalls.
Titus’s baths were called a thermae. Thermae was the term used for the larger imperial bath complexes, the term balneae was used for smaller baths.
The Baths of Trajan (104 CE) were a quantum leap beyond that of Titus, though Trajan was merely finishing off the work of others. These were built in concrete from 104-109 CE and included a caldarium (hot), a tepidarium (warm), a frigidarium (cool), a nymphaeum (fountain room), an apodyteria (changing room) and a gymnasium (exercise room), There were also unctuaria (where fragrant oils were rubbed in) and a laconia (steam room). The baths occupied an area 340m x 330m and the baths’ cistern could hold eight million litres of water. The discovery in the 16th century of wall paintings within the old structure inspired Giovanni, Raphael and his pupils as they worked in the Vatican.
This then inspired two later notable thermae baths – the Baths of Caracalla (217 CE) and the Baths of Diocletian (308 CE). These had exercise areas and used a great deal of statuary. Today the remains of Caracalla’s baths house a museum and the ruins of where Diocletian ran open-air musical events.
The notion of cleanliness became an integral part of being civilised, dirty bodies were barbarian bodies. Several emperors (Commodus, Galienus, Gordian…) were reported to bathe six of seven times each day in the summer and two to three times a day in the winter.
These baths were free of charge and opened from sunrise to sunset, though it was an offence to luxuriate in bathing on a religious holiday and they were often closed in times of Republican misfortune. They were now used by both rich and poor, even the sick were urged to bathe as a suitable therapy. Just imagine sharing those waters with those with dysentery, lice and boils!
For the elite groups bathing separated the day’s business or work, negotium, from their evenings of leisure, otium. The implication is that negotium is the negation of otium. Otium was the more important, for eating, relaxing, contemplating and academic pursuits.
Bathing was a long process usually taking several hours, a man usually took off all his clothes, from an earlier era Cato the Elder had been shocked when he saw Greek bathers doing this. The naked bather went to the unctuarium where oils were rubbed in to his body, this was dried off with some dust and then exercise was taken in the gymnasium.
Romans did not use soap, instead the sweat and any residual oils would be scraped off with a strigil, a bone or ivory-handled instrument with a metallic curved blunt blade to follow the curves of the body. Augustus was once reported to have sores on his face because of an over-enthusiastic use of the strigil.
Baths were also built for the Roman army at forts.
The main physicians of the time, Celsus and Galen, disagree about the correct sequence but perhaps the usual bathing process was to go to the tepidarium, then the caldarium and finally the frigidarium to close the pores. This closing of the pores by pouring cold water over the body or dipping in the frigidarium or a river is attributed to Musa, the physician to Augustus. All of this was performed in public. Often fragrant oils were then applied to finish off the process.
BRIEFER: Pliny the Elder discusses ‘sapo’, soap, in his Historia Naturalis (79 CE) as a mixture of tallow and ash but only as a substance used to set hair. He scathingly notes that it was the Germanic and Gallic men, rather than their women, who tended to use it. Galen also mentions sodium and potassium-based hard soaps that had been copied from the Celts.
But Rome’s baths were as much about an extended social event as a cleaning ritual, the bath-houses offered shops, restaurants, wines, art galleries, libraries (books in both Greek and Latin) with reading rooms, meeting areas (exedrae), lecture halls – even brothels (this latter suggestion may have derived from prejudicial thoughts that circulated about the baths’ masseuses and baristas).
There were also barbers in attendance. This was not just for a haircut it usually also involved depilation, for example of the armpits. Julius Caesar was reputedly keen to remove hair from all over his body. The sparsity on his head was pattern baldness that he tried to conceal by developing an early ‘comb-over’.
Women also used the bathhouse though historians disagree about how much mixed bathing went on, the routinely-renewed regulations against this practice suggests therefore that it must have happened. Some suggested that this was permitted later in the Imperial period, both sexes still going unclothed but under a societal invocation not to stare! Beauticians were also on call for women, using tweezers, razors, pumice and depilatory creams to remove their body hair.
Emperor Caracalla was seeking favour among his public by building his baths (412 x 393m) initially called the Thermae Antoninianae, his real name – Caracalla was his nickname for the Gallic jacket he regularly wore. These baths were served by a new branch of the Aqua Marcia created primarily for this purpose.
The brick-built structure featured vaulted ceilings with a capacity of 1,600 bathers at any given time and served some 6,000 to 8,000 bathers each day. The whole was designed to be lavish with marble statues and reliefs, large mosaics on walls and floors. Included was an underground temple to the cult of Mithras. The baths included the features of Trajan’s baths and added a roofless natatio (swimming pool) that used bronze mirrors to reflect sunlight into the room.
Four kilometres of tunnels were built beneath the complex for the slaves to move around and maintain the facilities, to keep the hypocaust fuelled…
The Baths of Diocletian were the largest and grandest, by this time there were said to be nine hundred bath-houses around Rome. It was built to serve those living in the Viminal, Quirinal and Esquiline quarters of Rome. Diocletian is infamous for his persecution of Christians and it is said that some 10,000 Christian slaves were used in the construction of the baths and then executed thereafter!
The baths spread across 120,000 square metres, the building was 356m x 316m, the historian Olympiodorus stated that it could handle 3,000 bathers at a time (though this is questioned by some). It too was served by the Aqua Marcia, though there are accounts that the flow of the aqueduct had to be expanded to facilitate this new capacity. It is suggested that it was the first building to use external buttresses to support the vaulted ceilings, an advance in architecture.
Seneca describes the scene within a provincial baths rather unattractively,
‘…all those voices […] make you begin to hate your own ears. When those musclemen work out […] you can hear them groaning. Whenever you see a passive type who is content with a cheap massage, you can hear from the sound of the hand striking the shoulder if the hand was flat or cupped. A ballplayer running in to announce the score is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Then picture a troublemaker or a pickpocket being arrested and the man who likes to hear himself sing in the bath, and to that you can add those who plop down into the water with a loud splash. In addition […] you have to imagine the shaver […] continually shouting […] to attract the attention of passers-by. He never closes his mouth, except when he is pulling out armpit hairs and lets someone else shriek in his place. Then there are the alcohol vendors with their varied cries, the sausage sellers, the pastry bakers and the barmen, each one praising his services in every possible way…’
Piping was often fabricated in terracotta with joints sealed by concrete. The water used in baths were recycled to sluice through the latrines and out to the sewers and then to rivers.
Besides these well-used public baths there were reported to be in Rome of the 4th century CE some 144 public latrines and 856 of the well-off had private baths (Lawrence Wright, 2000, Clean and Decent). Private baths were termed as a balneum or balineum which implied more of a bathing vessel and thus distinguished these from thermae.
Baths were installed around the Empire as for example at Aquae Sulis (Bath in England) and at forts along Hadrian’s Wall. Bath’s public baths were built around 60 CE by the Romans, though the location had been popular with Celts long before this. Bath was dedicated to the Celtic/Roman mother goddess Sulis and the waters were reputed to relieve illnesses and complaints, including leprosy.
This ornate latrine from the Baths of Caracalla offers privacy which was far from the case in most Roman latrines, much more often a very communal occasion.
Records from Ephesus in Turkey suggest that the marble seats were often cold enough for the rich to have a slave sit on it to warm it for their master.
This high-class latrine would have been used with a tersorium aka spongia, a sponge attached to a stick. There was usually a raised channel or basin in front of the seat with running water into which the tersorium was dipped and then used via the slot at the front to wipe one’s backside, then place it back in the basin for the next user. The seat and the more common long bench of seats deposited its material into a gulley that used running water to clear the debris away to the sewers or rivers.
Seneca the Younger explained where there was no facility for running water they dipped the appliance instead into a bucket of salt water or vinegar water – wince! (Seneca, c65 CE, Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, moral letters to Lucillus.)
Where neither of these were to hand the use of pessoi, small pebbles, was recommended to be used in the Greek manner. A later hādīth, attributed to Muhammad, would recommend that three stones were a perfect sufficiency for the purpose.
BRIEFER – there is a dubious tale of a Roman god of flatulence, Crepitus. But there is no ancient source for this, rather a succession of vaguely satirical references from Christian and particularly French references (Baudelaire, Flaubert…). It is most likely a modern invention.
Some public latrines used buckets which were collected, these collectors also toured homes with personal latrines to glean their waste too. The (treated) urine was sold on to fullers for cleaning wool and to tanners for use in turning animal skins into leather. Human urine was also used to wash clothes because of its capacity to remove stains. The solids were sold on to farmers as fertiliser.
Vespasian was the Emperor of Rome from 69 to 79 CE, His reign followed the Civil War that ensued after Nero’s death and he was soon running short of revenue. To close the gap he introduced a urine tax on public toilets, though of course the payee was not the user but the fullers, launderers and tanners.
His son questioned the tax, in response Vespasian held up a coin and asked if his son could smell anything? When he confirmed he did not, Vespasian said Atqui ex lotio estor (Yet it comes from urine). A subsequent Latin proverb appears to have derived from this event – Pecunia non olet (Money does not smell). The emperor’s action has been ‘honoured’ by his name being applied to public urinals – vespasiennes in France, vespasiani in Italy and vespasiene in Romania! F Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby refers to Vespasian’s jest with a phrase that contains the term ‘non-olfactory money’.
By 315 CE it is said that Rome as a city had 144 public toilets which were flushed clean by running water. By then Roman forts were built with latrines and usually these had drainage and sewerage systems too.
Despite these facilities it was common at dinner parties in Rome to have slaves bring a silver potty to the table for important people to use without getting up from their meal. [Note to those who think this was a disgusting ancient practice – The Georgian House in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh has an ornate cupboard in its dining room that is full of potties for use at the table by the genteel in the 18th/19th century!]
In 71 CE the Roman Ninth Legion became frustrated by the rebellious northern tribes in Britain and built the fortress of Eboracum, today’s York. They located the 400 x 475m fortification at a defensible point between the Foss and Ouse rivers and made forays to police the region from their fort.
This development meant that roads were built and this led to the settlement becoming commercially significant. The fort evolved into a colonia, a residential settlement, where craftsmen were soon attracted to work and trade.
The Etruscans had developed a drainage and sewerage system from as early as 800 BCE. They created their drains beneath ground and this was the approach the Romans adopted. Drainage concerned itself with disposing of unwanted surface water and for drying out marshland. It was an important precursor to the notion of sewerage using the same techniques to deal with human waste.
The first really serious effort at resolving a thorough approach to drainage and sewerage in Rome was the Cloaca Maxima, literally meaning the great, or perhaps greatest, sewer. It was built following a severe flood in Rome around 600 BCE.
Constructed originally as an open-air canal by the Etruscans it emptied into the River Tiber and is still used today. One outlet is able to be seen near the Ponte Rotto and Ponte Palatino. There is another entrance visible at the Basilica Julia near the Forum with a staircase leading to a locked doorway.
The Etruscans established this open drain by drawing upon three pre-existing streams that drained the waters from the Esquiline, Quirinal and Viminal hills, it ran through the Forum Romanum and along the Velabrum into the Tiber.
Prior to the Cloaca the Forum had operated like a bowl and, after each flooding by the Tiber, standing stagnant water had become the norm, this is why most Romans built their homes high on Rome’s seven hills. The Forum’s level was raised to try to combat this problem, but the regular floods soon threatened to wash away the new land-fill.
The Cloaca was built to combat this while dealing with new marshy areas that had been created as a knock-on effect from the elevating of the Forum. The Cloaca’s success soon permitted the Forum to be re-paved.
Further there was an unexpected benefit of the drain, in removing the marshlands this also reduced the mosquito population. Mosquitos thrive in low-lying, warm environments where there is standing water, the Cloaca relieved this situation. Roman doctors had no idea that diseases like malaria were mosquito-borne, they advised only that ‘bad air’ in the valleys should be avoided by residing in Livy’s ‘most healthful hills’. (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 5.54.4). But they soon noted a reduction in malaria and other diseases.
BRIEFER: Rome was plagued with mosquitoes (and bandits) from the nearby Pontine marshes. In 160 BCE Cethegus had tried to drain them, Nero also attempted it in the 1st century CE, Pope Sixtus V tried again in the 16th century CE – all failed. It was to be Benito Mussolini who succeeded by using modern insecticides and larvicides, he also introduced mosquito-eating species, and these moves were backed-up by an enormous modern pumping station. Assisted by medical interventions, in nine years Mussolini managed to reduce the malaria rate in the area from 80% to 2%.
The Cloaca’s purpose was changed to dispose of sewage, so the Romans covered it using their arch-like barrel-vault technique. Notably Agrippa from around 33 BCE was charged with its repair and maintenance during the reign of the emperor Augustus. It runs for some 1.6 kms (one mile) and at one stage was estimated to have been carrying 100,000 pounds of human excrement every day (Gowers, 1995).
Frontinus, whose On Aqueducts report was the first to try to separate the aqueduct supplies so that the best quality was delivered for drinking and cooking and the lesser quality waters went to the baths, fountains and on to the sewers.
Most inhabitants used cesspools or dumped their sewage directly into the Tiber but from 100 CE the Romans did begin to connect the sewerage system to public latrines and then later to wealthy homes.
Strabo (Greek author, philosopher, historian and geographer) commented, ‘The sewers, covered with a vault of tightly fitted stones, have room in some places for hay wagons to drive through them. And the quantity of water brought into the city by aqueducts is so great that rivers, as it were, flow through the city and the sewers; almost every house has water tanks, and service pipes, and plentiful streams of water…’
The drain was protected by its own god, Venus Cloacina, the goddess of the sewer, her statue was placed on top of the Cloaca. Today only her base remains.
The aqueducts of Rome were eventually all connected to the Cloaca to take away their excess flow. Today the Cloaca is still linked as a functioning part of the main city sewer system.
Pliny the Elder praised the stability of the canal, ‘Seven rivers join together and rush headlong through Rome, and, like torrents, they necessarily sweep away everything in their path. With raging force, owing to the additional amount of rainwater, they shake the bottom and sides of the sewers. Sometimes water from the Tiber flows backwards and makes its way up the sewers. Then the powerful flood-waters clash head-on in the confined space, but the unyielding structure holds firm. […] for seven hundred years from the time of Tarquinius Priscus, the sewers have survived almost completely intact.’ (Pliny the Elder, National History, 36.104-106; J F Healy translation)
BRIEFER – Saint Sebastian was a victim of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. He was tied to a stake and shot at by archers until he resembled a sea-urchin, he was assumed to be dead but survived. When he recovered he harangued the Emperor which led to him being beaten to death and thrown into a privy. An apparition of him appeared to a Christian who was led to his body, she removed it to the catacombs. Thus, Sebastian is the saint who was martyred twice!
Despite all their good works in terms of water supply, baths, latrines and sewers the Romans were quite remiss in terms of rubbish collection. Garbage was simply tossed in to the road and rather than clear it they used stepping stones to walk above it. The net result was that road levels rose routinely with the compacted waste, requiring ever-higher stepping stones.
Although the Greeks claim to have invented the water wheel around 300 CE the Romans replaced the wooden cups of the Greek system with ceramic pots. This was termed a noria, a device to lift water to serve an aqueduct, basin, cistern or irrigation channels.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Roman author, architect and civil engineer (died c 15 BCE), was usually referred to simply as Vitruvius. He detailed in his De Architectura a whole series of watering systems from the Archimedes screw to water wheels.
The principle was soon applied to mining to enable flooded workings to be drained. At Rio Tinto in Spain they used sixteen wheels working in series to lift water more than 24 metres (80 feet) – it’s now in the British Museum. Other such drainage systems have been discovered in Rosia Montana in Romania and a gold mine in Dolaucothi in south Wales.
Muslim engineers would adopt and adapt the noria later by adding a flywheel to smooth the process, this became known as a saqiya. Some were huge, as for example those at Hama.
Higher volume aqueducts, leats or millraces, were used to supply industrial users, these were usually open topped with a wood or clay lining. These might be used with water-wheels driving stamps and hammers. In Barbegal (Gaul) a dam and aqueduct drove as many as sixteen water mills for grinding flour. Smaller scale versions have also been found in Caesarea, Venafrum and Roman Athens.
For hydraulic mining there were seven leats created in Las Medulas in Spain and five in Dolaucoth in Wales, one of the latter’s leats had a gradient of 1:700.
BRIEFER: By the end of the 3rd century CE Roman engineers had invented everything required to design and build a steam engine, They used steam power with a radial steam turbine in Hero of Alexandria’s aeolipile, they had developed a crank with a connecting rod in their sawmills at Hierapolis, they had pistons operating in cylinders in their metal force pumps and non-return valves developed by Ctesibius of Alexandria and they had created the process of gearing in their water mills and clocks. Though of course they never made the leap to combine these into a functioning steam engine because advances in metallurgy were required to achieve this.
Pompeii and Herculaneum
The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE froze Pompeii and Herculaneum in that very moment which has enabled historians and archaeologists to discover a great deal about Roman times from the artefacts and people that were swamped by the lava and ash.
It was established that most homes in Pompeii had been furnished with a direct water supply terminated by taps and that waste was led away by pipes to sewers or cesspits.
Not quite so high-profile was the discovery of a pit beneath Herculaneum by scientists in 2011. It was 70 metres (230 ft) long, one metre (three ft) wide, and between two and three metres (7-10 ft) deep. Initially considered as part of a drainage system it was discovered to have no output so was later redefined as a cesspit.
Fortunately, the scientists explained that the two-millennia old faeces and other flotsam had lost any scent or unpleasantness. They cleared and analysed ten tonnes of rubbish that had been flushed from dwellings and had been freeze-framed following the eruption. Coins, jewellery and semi-precious stones were found among the ordure, as were less valuable household items and pottery. The bones, nuts, seeds and shells have identified that the inhabitants enjoyed a diverse diet of chicken and mutton, fish, molluscs and sea urchins, fennel, figs and olives.
Some sources suggest that it was the Roman king Lucius Tarquinius Priscus who first introduced the razor to his people back in the 6th century BCE. That may have been the case but it took a further century before they became popular.
Roman ladies, who had previously used pumice stones to remove hairs had also adopted a simple razor by the 5th century BCE. Depilatory creams were also popular which featured resins and gums, fats from asses, bats blood and powdered snake (sounds rather more like witchcraft!). Roman prostitutes had to have yellow hair to avoid any confusion as to their trade. They used wigs or used a mixture of ashes of burned plants or nuts as a dye.
In 300 BCE Publicus Ticinius Maenas, a rich Greek businessman, brought tonsors, professional barbers, from the Greek colony of Sicily into Rome and shaving really ‘took off’. Particularly as these facilities soon became a focus for gossip and the spread of news. Philosophers and soldiers however eschewed shaving.
These barbers used novacila, thin-bladed iron razors, which needed routine sharpenimg with a whetstone. Initially they did not use soap or oil and the blunt blades inflicted much damage, plasters soaked in ointments or vinegar were applied to staunch the flow.
Julius Caesar made an alternative approach popular for a while with men choosing to pluck their facial hair with tweezers. Roman women also plucked their eyebrows with tweezers. There was a coming-of-age ceremony celebrated when a young man reached 21 years-of-age. He invited friends and family to watch his first shave and the attainment of maturity; gifts and drinks formed part of the celebration. However the Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) later popularised beards, but this was reputedly as much because he had a poor complexion which was conveniently hidden beneath his own.
With their aqueducts, baths and drainage systems Roman citizens began to demand improved standards of hygiene – and carried this demand through to all parts of the Roman Empire.