Ancient Rome was one of the most seminal civilizations in human history. During its near 1,000-year existence members of the epic culture built monuments and technologies that still awe people today. The civilization’s latrine systems were, likewise, ingenious; easily still capable of inspiring reverence. As well as a serious amount of gratitude for modern-day toilets that don’t (usually) explode or spread parasites like the ones from the region did thousands of years ago.
In the video above, which comes via Laughing Squid, Garrett Ryan, a PhD in Greek and Roman history, explores how ancient Rome’s toilets and latrines functioned. And, as Ryan notes, they did so surprisingly well for the time period. Especially in regards to flushing away waste water and creating an “opulent” setting for squatting.
As Ryan notes in the video almost every city in ancient Rome had large public latrines. Latrines where many people—often 20 or more—could relieve themselves. In the forum of Julius Ceasar, for example, archaeologists discovered a latrine with 50 toilets. Like other latrines in ancient Rome, Ceasar’s had a heated floor. And many latrines in general had marble paneling, mosaics on the floors, and even decorative statues.
Along with the heated floors and decorations ancient Roman latrines also frequently had images of the goddess of Fortuna on the wall. Depictions of Fortuna, the goddess of fortune, were present as a way of guarding the health of those using the latrines. And latrine users really needed that protection.
Although the commodes were somewhat opulent, and largely function, they were still gross by today’s standards. The dark, dank collections of toilets frequently stunk terribly, and methane buildups beneath the facilities meant that there were frequent explosions; with flames rising out of the seats. Animals such as snakes, octopuses, and “clawing rats” were also able to get into the drainage system beneath the latrines. And, yes, the animals would sometimes come into contact with people.
The worst part, however, had to have been the way people cleaned themselves. Apparently “latrine sponges” like the one above were commonly used in place of what we use toilet paper for today. That, or seashells and pottery shards. Users also wet the latrine sponges before and after use—a truly disgusting thought considering people shared them. Frankly, it makes us happy we’ve traded Fortuna for the patron saint of Charmin Ultra.