Roman plumbing wasn't all that

History books make much about the fact that the Romans had plumbing and public toilets, but you might be surprised to learn that Roman cities weren’t really all that sanitary. For all that the Romans did to promote public sanitation – baths, public toilets, sewers, waste removal and running water – these civic improvements didn’t really live up to the promise of a good, old-fashioned public works project. And they certainly didn’t improve the health and well-being of John Q. Publicus.

The Romans had the right idea, but they went about public sanitation in the wrong way, say researchers at the University of Cambridge, who actually spent some good quality time at the bottom of ancient Roman latrines. The evidence they uncovered strongly suggests that Romans had just as many human-unfriendly parasites as less fastidious civilizations that came before and after them.

Researchers found evidence of whipworm, roundworm and amoebic dysentery in about the same concentrations in ancient Rome as they found in earlier Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements. They also found these parasites in similar concentrations in settlements from the Middle Ages, well after the fall of the Roman Empire. Layer on the presence of pests like lice and fleas in ancient Roman baths, and the overall evidence implies that Roman sanitation practices weren’t really effective against some of the most significant health hazards of the time.

Where did the Romans go wrong? While some health issues can be traced to Roman hygiene practices – not changing out bathwater regularly and keeping the water steamy warm – a bigger part of the problem had nothing to do with their sanitation practices, but rather, their agricultural ones. Romans used human excrement as a fertilizer. This isn’t much different than us using cow manure as a fertilizer, but today’s manure fertilizer doesn’t come straight from the source, so to speak. An aging process kills the bacteria in the manure, rendering it safe (and sanitary) for use on food crops. Romans weren’t patient people, it seems. They didn’t age their fertilizer, which allowed disease-causing parasites and parasite eggs to survive and enter the Roman food supply over and over again.

We have a decided advantage over ancient Rome when it comes to understanding germs and germ theory, and we’re better equipped to keep germs and pests out of our homes and public spaces, but the ancient Romans also remind us about the narrow difference between what seems sanitary and what actually is.

PhC Klaus Sandrini, via