by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow
North Carolina (2015) h/b 286pp £53.98 (ISBN 9781469621289
Lucan the poet, according to Suetonius, once let rip in latrinis publicis to such effect that he cleared the room of his fellow sitters, as K-O relates, but it might have been Lucan’s quotation of half a verse of Nero’s (sub terris tonuisse putes—you would think it had thundered beneath the earth) that caused the evacuation: with no u-bends, Roman public latrines were open to the sewers, the gases that emanated from them were probably more than a match for Lucan, and no one in their right mind joked about Nero in public.
But this is one of many assumptions about Roman hygiene that we make because the evidence we have is so elusive. Sanitation heads the Monty Python list of what the Romans did for us, but there are many indications that Roman cities may not have been as salubrious as we are sometimes led to think. The cloaca maxima is more drain than sewer, the sewer recently excavated at Herculaneum went nowhere, and despite over 300 toilets known in private property in Pompeii, ‘the woefully inadequate number of toilets available to the public both in Herculaneum and Pompeii in the theater, near the amphitheater, in the forum, and in baths remains a problem for us to consider.’ (p.12) K-O’s approach is to present a selection of the evidence first before subjecting it to analysis. A hundred figures (plans and b/w photographs) illustrate the text, and her notes contain extensive quotations from ancient sources with translations. These are both particularly useful inclusions since the evidence is drawn from a wide variety of sources, many probably not immediately to hand.
K-O limits her investigation to Italy in the late republic and early empire and, although she considers aspects of hygiene beyond the mere disposal of waste, the topic of sanitation is too broad for a comprehensive survey in 122 pages (the size of her basic text). K-O is self-consciously academic in her approach and writes with frequent reference to the extensive scholarship that has mushroomed in recent years, but despite talking of ‘theoretical frameworks’ there is no obfuscation: ‘formation processes’ for example are ‘human behaviors and activities’ determining the toilet’s ‘construction, use and ultimate abandonment’. The evidence (both physical and written) for Roman toilets raises questions about their design and function. For example, the painting in the Baths of the Seven Sages depicts a multi-seat forica with all the seats occupied (in the surviving part) and Romans busily discussing the business at hand. Does this fine example of Roman humour give a false impression of the social use of the toilet? No women are shown. Did they have separate facilities? The word xylosphongium appears among the dipinti. Though a Greek word in origin, it describes the sponge on a stick we commonly associate with Roman toilet habits in particular. It is difficult to determine just how widespread the use of sponges was, but perhaps it’s time we naturalized the word in English: after the xylophone comes the xylosponge?
K-O, while being wittily self-deprecating (she envisages references to her book taking the form ‘K-O on the toilet’), can certainly expect her book to provoke more thinking and serious engagement with this topic of universal interest.