‘Cacator cave malum’: what communal latrines teach about ancient Rome | babelia

“I love this place,” he exclaims. Mary Beard in the third part one of his historical BBC documentaries, how did the romans live. The monument you are about to show can explain many things about ancient Rome, even if it is relatively unexpected: it is a public latrine. Defecation, for the Romans, was not always a private matter. They shared conversations, comments, jokes and even a sponge attached to a stick they used to clean themselves – the same one after another, which today would be considered quite unsanitary. “Splendid is your dinner, I admit it,” he explains. Martialthe liveliest and most cynical of Latin writers in his famous epigrams, in this case XLVIII (48), “very splendid; but it will be nothing tomorrow, still more, today, at this very moment, nothing that the unfortunate sponge of a disgusting stick knows”.

“If you want to understand the culture, look at their toilets,” says Mary Beard, sitting in a nearly untouched latrine in the ancient ostia, one of Italy’s best-preserved ruins, accessible from Rome by a commuter train that’s as beautiful as it is frustratingly slow. “In the center of Rome, according to an ancient preserved guide, there were 144 latrines, although we do not know how many seats each had,” continues the prestigious Cambridge historian, recently retired Princess of Asturias Prize winner and author. . books like SPQR oh Pompeii.

Latrines in Ostia Antica.
Latrines in Ostia Antica.Getty

Then, he expresses a series of doubts about the use of the public latrines: were they mixed, what were the small channels at the foot of the shitholes used for, and the second hole was only used to introduce the stick with the sponge? “It doesn’t matter. That’s how you have to imagine the old town: everyone shits at the same time. Toga up, pants down, chatting while continuing,” he says.

The scene of Mary Beard’s documentary is not strange among specialists of the ancient world: it is far from being the only one to have been interested in the enormous information that can be extracted from the defecatory customs of the Romans and, in general , their relationship with bathrooms. Historian Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, one of the leading experts on the towns destroyed by Vesuvius in AD 79, conducted an exhaustive investigation of the remains of excrement preserved in Herculaneum. He discovered lost objects in the almost fossilized shit and, in addition, he obtained a lot of information on food: chicken, lamb, fish, figs, fennel, olives, sea urchins and molluscs. “This is a pretty standard diet for ordinary city dwellers,” Wallace-Hadrill explained in a National Geographic documentary. “It’s a very good diet; any doctor would recommend it.

But no researcher is better than Barry Hobson, who spent 14 years excavating Pompeii and who is the author of the two reference works on the subject (unfortunately hard to find today and neither of them translated into Spanish) : Latrines and Foricae. Toilets in the Roman world (Duckworth, 2009) y Pompeii Latrines and Downpipes: A General Discussion and Photographic Record of the Toilets at Pompeii (BAR Editions, 2009). The latter requires a passion for Roman latrines within the reach of very few specialists. The first, on the other hand, is a very informative and entertaining book, which answers many questions raised by Mary Beard.

General view of some latrines in Ostia Antica.
General view of some latrines in Ostia Antica.Getty

The title of the essay, published in 2009, differentiates individual toilets (The bathroom) and collective (toilet). Analyzing both spaces, Hobson provides a lot of information about the Roman world, about its sense of intimacy, for example. Communal baths reflect a considerable move away from today’s Western world, where this matter is almost always private, although, on the other hand, many individual baths have also been found in Roman ruins.

Hobson reports, for example, that Seneca It tells of a gladiator committing suicide with a sponge on his way to the toilet unaccompanied, which would mean he is claiming privacy. “During a gladiator fight with the wild beasts, one of the Germans who was to take part in the morning show retired to the outhouse to evacuate – nowhere else was he allowed to go unescorted -” , writes the Stoic philosopher and adviser to Nero. . “There, the stick which, attached to a sponge, is used to clean the impurities of the body, pushed the whole thing into the throat and drowned.” However, both the archeology and the graffiti or epigrams of Marcial reflect a clear fraternization in the toilet. “Vacerra is in the bathroom at all hours, sitting all day. Vacerra doesn’t want to shit, he wants to be invited to dinner,” the Latin poet wrote.

The chapter devoted to graffiti is particularly funny, with a mysterious and disturbing that is repeated in several places in Pompeii: “Cacator cave malum“, “Cagador, be careful”, which warned of the hidden evil that could be found by those who used the latrines. Other graffiti indicate who had relieved themselves there – for example, Appolinaris, physician to Emperor Titus at Herculaneum – and in a number of places in Pompeii there are inscriptions warning against defecation there- low, which leads to the conclusion that the Romans did not always defecate. used the appropriate spaces for these tasks.

As a physician, Hobson also studied the concept of hygiene in ancient Rome and, above all, whether its inhabitants were aware of the danger posed by the accumulation of excrement, beyond the smell. “Did the Romans know about the health problems that human excrement could cause?”, he writes, without finding a clear answer, although he considers that “the transmission of diseases was poorly understood”. He points out, however, that London in the 19th century was not much more hygienic than the Pompeii 1st century. It is true that the Romans had a deep relationship with water, through aqueducts or baths, but their hygienic conception was very different. In the hot springs, for example, the water was stagnant and going there with a foot injury was a very bad idea.

One of the works that best analyzes the Roman world from the point of view of baths and water, but also of latrines, is a manga, roman baths (Editorial standard), of Mari Yamazakiwhich has also just been released as a series of anime on Netflix. It tells the story of a Roman thermal engineer who travels back in time to modern-day Japan, where he learns all sorts of tricks to improve his buildings.

With great humor and careful historical research, Yamazaki shows what unites two cultures for which hot springs are an essential element. But also the one that separates them: a toilet we are light years away from the obsession with cleanliness of Japanese toilets, which offer all kinds of buttons to improve the experience and hygiene. Indeed, one of the first chapters of the series shows the abyss which separates the toilet The Romans, with their disgusting sponges, technological Japanese toilets. Two worlds separated and united by both water and sanitary facilities.

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