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Sanitation in ancient Rome


Sanitation in ancient Rome has been investigated by historians and archeologists for centuries. Rome had a complex sanitation system much like those in modern societies, but the system itself and knowledge about it were largely lost during the Dark Ages.

 A system of eleven aqueducts provided the citizens of Rome with water of varying quality, the best being reserved for potable supplies. Lower quality water was used by everyone in the public baths and latrines much like an early form of modern toilets. System of latrines have been found in many places such as Housesteads, a Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall, in Pompeii and Herculaneum and elsewhere that allowed for the waste to be flushed away by a stream of water, along with sea sponges on sticks used after defecation. The Romans had a complex system of sewers that were covered by stones much like the modern covers found on streets. When waste was flushed from the toilets or latrines, it flowed through a central channel into the main sewage system, which then flowed into a nearby river or stream. The Romans were however not as sanitary as this system may lead casual observers to believe. It was not uncommon for waste to be thrown out of windows into the streets and onto people passing by. Despite this, Roman waste management is generally admired for its innovative feats.



The first sewers of ancient Rome are estimated to have been built between 800 and 735 B.C. Drainage systems had been slowly evolving and began, primarily, as a means to drain marshes and for storm water runoff. The sewage system as a whole did not really take off until the arrival of the Cloaca Maxima, probably one of the best known examples of sanitation from the ancient world. Most sources credit its construction as having taken place during the reign of the three Etruscan kings in the sixth century B.C. This “great sewer” was originally built to drain the low-lying land that ran through the Forum. Over time the network of sewers that ran through the city expanded and most of them, including some drains, linked into the Cloaca Maxima, the contents of which were emptied into the Tiber River. In 33 B.C., under the emperor Augustus, the Cloaca Maxima was enclosed, creating a large tunnel. From very early times the Romans, in imitation of the Etruscans, learned how to carry off by underground channels the excessive rains that might otherwise wash away the precious top-soil that farmers needed, and to drain swamps (such as the Pontine marshes) by ditches, or marshy regions by subterranean channels; the Cloaca Maxima (first built, according to tradition, under the kings, but probably actually built in the fourth century and reconstructed under Augustus) still drains the Forum Romanum and the hills about it. Strabo, a Greek author who lived from about 60 B.C. to 24 A.D., admired the ingenuity of the Romans in his Geographica by saying that,

The sewers, covered with a vault of tightly fitted stones, have room in some places for hay wagons to drive through them. And the quantity of water brought into the city by aqueducts is so great that rivers, as it were, flow through the city and the sewers; almost every house has water tanks, and service pipes, and plentiful streams of water...In short, the ancient Romans gave little thought to the beauty of Rome because they were occupied with other, greater and more necessary matters.

The latrines are the best preserved feature at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall. The soldiers sat on wooden boards with holes that used to cover the two big trenches. Water ran in the two small ditches at the soldiers' feet.


Stone pipes

Stone pipesStrabo might have given a little too much credit to the Romans as he ascribes to “almost every house” a hook-up to the sewer system. Although most homes in early Rome were not connected up to the sewers and wastes were thrown out into the street, due to a widespread street-washing policy (using water supplied by aqueducts) most human wastes wound up in the sewers nonetheless. Eventually a law, called the Dejecti Effusive Act, was passed to protect innocent bystanders from assault with wastes being thrown out into the street. The violator was forced to pay damages to whomever he hit with his waste, if that person sustained an injury. This law was only enforced in the daytime, presumably because one then lacked an excuse, such as the darkness, for injuring another by careless disposal of their waste. It was not until 100 A.D. that direct connections of homes to sewers started to be put into place. It was around this time that the infrastructure of the sewer system was, for the most part, completed. The sewers ran through the city serving public, as well as some private, latrines and which also served as the dumping grounds for those who were not fortunate enough to have access to the system through their own homes. It was mostly the wealthy whose homes were connected to the sewers through outlets that ran under an extension of the latrine.


Public latrines

The poor generally used pots, which they were supposed to empty into the sewer, or visited public latrines. Public latrines date back to the second century B.C. and became quite popular with the Romans. Whether intentional or not, they became places of socialization. Long bench-like seats with keyhole shaped openings cut in rows offered little privacy. Lord Amulree tells of an interesting anecdote: the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated, the Hall of Curia in the Theatre of Pompey, was turned into a public latrine due to the dishonor it had witnessed. The sewer system, like a little stream or river, ran beneath, carrying the wastes away to the Cloaca Maxima. The Romans “recycled” their water waste from the public baths by using it as part of the sewage that flowed under the latrines, serving as sort of a flushing system. Terra cotta piping was used in the plumbing that ran from the few homes that had it. The Romans were the first to seal pipes in concrete in order to resist the high water pressures developed in siphons and elsewhere. In addition, Romans had employed special officials called aediles in order to supervise the sanitary systems in the cities since the fifth century B.C. These officials were responsible for the efficiency of the drainage and sewage systems, for the cleansing and paving of the streets, prevention of foul smells, and general oversight of brothels, taverns, baths and other water supplies. During the first century A.D. the Roman sewage system was very efficient. In his Natural History, Pliny remarked that of all the things Romans had accomplished, it was the sewers that were “the most noteworthy thing of all”.



Remains of aqueducts Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus, integrated into the Aurelian WallIt was the Roman aqueducts which provided the large volumes of water needed to scour the sewers after that water had performed other functions, especially in providing the many public baths or thermae with copious amounts of water. The system comprised 11 aqueducts supplying the city with water from as far away as the river Anio, Anio Novus and Aqua Claudia being two of the biggest systems. The distribution system was carefully designed so that all the waste water drained into the Cloaca Maxima. The management and maintenance involved in keeping the aqueducts flowing is well described by Frontinus, a general appointed by the emperor Nerva as water commissioner towards the end of the first century AD. He described his work on the distribution system in De aquaeductu published at the end of the first century AD. He surveyed and mapped the entire system when first appointed, and strove to investigate the many abuses of the water supply, such as people tapping into pipes illegally. He also systematised the maintenance of the aqueducts with his gangs of specially trained workmen. He also tried to separate the supply so that only the best quality water was provided for drinking and cooking, while the second quality water was only used for the fountains, baths and finally, the sewers.


Pont du Gard in France

The system in Rome was copied in all provincial towns and cities of the Roman Empire, and even down to villas which could afford the plumbing needed. Roman citizens came to expect high standards of hygiene, and the army was also well provided with latrines and bath houses or thermae. Aqueducts were used everywhere in the empire to supply not just drinking water for private houses, but for supplying other needs such as irrigation, public fountains and thermae. The waste water ended up in the sewers, where the continuous stream helped keep them open and clear of debris. Indeed, many of the provincial aqueducts survive in working order to the present day, although modernised and updated with modern plumbing systems.

RubbishRoman rubbish was often left to collect in alleys between buildings in the poorer districts of the city. It sometimes became so thick that stepping stones were needed. "Unfortunately its functions did not include house to house garbage collection, and this led to indiscriminate dumping of refuse, even to the heedless tossing of it out windows." As a consequence the street level in the city rose as new buildings were constructed on top of rubble and rubbish.

Source: encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com

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