Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Roman Poo & Pee

Roman Poo & Pee:
"[WARNING: this blog entry contains excerpts from my talk today at the British Museum about "Ancient Romans & their Poo". It will make you go "Ewww!"]

When I first started studying Classics, I thought ancient Rome must have been nice and clean because of their marvelous engineering and the aqueducts that brought tons of water from miles away. I thought ancient Rome had luxurious bath-houses and sparkling white marble columns and steps, like this scene from the 1953 film Julius Caesar. I thought everybody wore nice clean tunics and no rubbish marred the streets. And of course Romans used sponges-on-sticks as toilet paper. The next best thing to puppy-soft Andrex. (read more in my blog So What's with the Sponge-Stick?) What could be more sanitary than a soft sea-sponge on a stick?

However, as I researched my books and travelled the world, I realized that Rome was probably more like a hot, crowded third-world city: Calcutta, Marrakesh or Cairo. Roman cities would have been colourful but also dirty, crumbly, smelly and very unsanitary. There would have been human and animal dung in the road, plus pee, dead animals, flies, sick and infected people, tainted water, sour wine, mud, blood, rotting vegetables and rubble. Romans didn't know about bacteria or germs, so in many Roman homes you often find the toilet is right next to the hearth in the kitchen. Very rarely do you find a toilet like this luxurious marble one from the Baths of Caracella, (shaped like a chariot in case you need to go in a hurry!)

In my first book, The Thieves of Ostia, Vespasian is Emperor.

One ancient Roman described Vespasian's expression as that of a man sitting on the toilet trying to do a poo. Here he is (right) with his son Titus. Both these portraits are upstairs in the British Museum. What do you think? Does Vespasian have a strained expression on his face?

When Vespasian was emperor he did several eccentric things, including putting a tax on pee. The ancient version of dry-cleaners were called fullers and they used urine (or pee) for part of their cleaning process. In fact the Latin word for pee is lotium and is linked to the word for wash. This is because Roman fullers used urine so much. Men would pass by the fullers and relieve themselves in jars set outside. Sometimes they had to pay a coin for the privilege. Could this be the origin of the phrase, 'to spend a penny'? Oh all right: probably not.

But it is true that within Vespasian's lifetime Roman wits were calling these piss-pots "vespasians". Embarrassed, Vespasian's son Titus asked his father why he insisted on making money by taxing smelly urine. Vespasian pulled out a sestertius and asked Titus to sniff it. "So?" shrugged Titus. "You see," said Vespasian. "Money doesn’t stink." Some Germans liked this story so much that they made a family board game based on going to the toilet in Roman times! It’s called PECUNIA NON OLET which means 'money doesn’t stink.'

In my second book, about the eruption of Vesuvius, I learned that Romans wrote graffiti on their walls. As well as the Christian graffiti that appears in this book they wrote things like DON'T POO HERE! We also know from inscriptions and graffiti that there were often queues outside the public loos! That meant the public latrines - the foricae - were heavily used and therefore probably quite filthy.

Romans didn't have soap. Instead, they had olive oil. They would go into the baths, strip off and rub scented olive oil all over their bodies. After some exercise and maybe a session in the steam room, they would then scrape it off with a bronze knife thingy called a strigil. Then they flicked this oily mixture of dead skin, oil, sweat and dirt (called gloios) onto the floor by the drains. They did this in the public baths. Imagine if you used your public swimming pool to get clean… along with all the neighbours on your block, young and old, healthy and sick. I used to belong to a health club until I found out people kept getting sick from going in the jacuzzi, the warm tub. If that can happen in today’s world, think how icky it must have been in Roman times!

In The Charioteer of Delphi, my characters Jonathan and Lupus go to the new Baths of Titus near the Circus Maximus in Rome. Jonathan finds something floating in the hot plunge. This probably happened a lot, unless pools were cleaned regularly. In addition to floaters, imagine a thin scum of dead skin, hair and scabs floating on top of the pool. As well as a scum on the water, think of what would cover the floor. Slippery gloios, spilled oil, and also crumbs from snacks, which we know people ate in the baths. It’s no wonder Pliny the Elder tells us that cockroaches loved the warm and steamy Roman Baths.

Because the Romans didn’t really understand about hygiene, there were probably flies everywhere. Vespasian’s younger brother Domitian used to amuse himself by trying to spear lazy summer flies with his stylus (the sharp implement used to write on wax tablets). One day a man went to see Domitian and asked his Greek scribe if there was anyone else in the room with the Emperor's younger brother. “Nobody,” replied the secretary dryly. “Not even a fly.”

My seventh Roman Mystery, The Enemies of Jupiter, has lots of gruesome facts about medicine and doctors. Doctors were called 'dung-eaters' because some of them sipped your pee and tasted your poo to diagnose what was wrong with you. In that book I also tell how one doctor bleached his teeth by drinking his own urine! When I was on Blue Peter a few years ago I convinced presenter Zoe to try some urine teeth-bleaching mouthwash. She didn't like the taste! (Of course she was just pretending.) You can watch the clip on YouTube; the Roman beauty bit starts 4 minutes in.

The Sirens of Surrentum is full of passion and poison. For this book I researched half a dozen deadly plants and their antidotes and learned some more fascinating facts. For example, everybody knows an antidote is something you take to stop poison taking effect. But what most books and TV shows don’t tell you is that an antidote counteracts poison by getting your body to expel it, either by vomiting or pooing! Or both.

In The Fugitive from Corinth, a Roman Mystery set on the Greek mainland, somebody accidentally empties a chamberpot out of a tavern window onto somebody down below! What is a chamberpot? It’s a pot you keep underneath your bed or in a corner of your room as a portable toilet. The Latin word for chamberpot is matella. A Roman poet called Martial wrote an epigram about a chamberpot 'peeing from a chip in the side'. (Epigram XII.32) Some scholars think chamberpots might have been more hygienic than toilets over pits or sewers. This is because animals might crawl out of the pit or sewer and track bacteria from poo onto food and bedding.

There have always been urban myths about creatures climbing up out of the sewers or toilet. You can read more about this on my blog called Demon in the Toilet. You might think the Romans were silly and superstitious to believe there were demons in the loos. But in her forthcoming book, Roman Toilets: their Archaeology and Cultural History, Dr Gemma Jansen, a Dutch archaeologist, suggests that demons were the ancient Roman equivalent of bacteria. I think that is a brilliant idea. Like demons, bacteria are virtually invisible, but frightening because of what they can do to you… If a demon possessed you, he could make you sick or even kill you. Just like bad bacteria, germs or viruses.

There may not be pigs, alligators or demons in the loo, but there are germs. We know what the poor Romans didn't know: to wash our hands after doing a poo or a pee!

P.S. Thanks to everyone at the British Museum, and to all the kids who brought their parents to my talk, and to all of you brave enough to touch my fake dog poo. It was "sticky and stretchy"... Ewww!


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