In these extraordinary times, it is hard to know where the world is going. But, as the children’s book title proclaims, Everyone Poops, so the world has to go somewhere. Apparently, this is innate knowledge to judge from the panic buying and hoarding of toilet paper (or “rolls” for the UK audience). But (pun possibly intended) we have not always had such luxury. It is obviously appropriate to review toilet practices of the ancient Roman world, because in the COVID-19 hoarding world we may find it obligatory to conclude “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” (pun perhaps intended). So, here we go (pun probably intended) . . .

Toilets of the Scholastika Baths in Ephesus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-05-20)

Public toilets in the Roman period were remarkably standardized. Ruins in various states of repair generally have the same features. A bench constructed of vertical slabs of stone and capped with horizontal slabs ran along two or three walls of an enclosed (and no doubt odiferous) space. The box thus created allowed visitors to sit in a row over regularly spaced holes with their backs to the wall. Below the box, a channel received the stuff that happened and could be “flushed” out with water supplied from the public aqueduct-fed supply. Many toilets had nice mosaic floors and/or painted walls. It all sounds so . . . civilized.

Ancient public toilets at Ostia (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-09)

Observers of these remains might note two features common to such facilities. The first is the curious extension of the seat hole to the front edge of the bench and down the vertical slab of the box. The second is the near-universal channel, apparently for liquid, that runs parallel to the box a short distance in front of it. These two features together answer the observers’ usually unvoiced question, “how did visitors clean themselves after doing their dooty?”

Toilets of the Scholastika Baths in Ephesus (Turkey): detail of the “fixtures” and “plumbing” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-05-20)

A few textual sources reveal the answer and provide the key to the holes and channels: the Roman version of toilet paper was a sponge on a stick.

Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, observer of life, and hapless advisor to the Emperor Nero (more on that strangely modern problem in this book review), relates a story about a Germanic gladiator slave who committed suicide rather than fight in the arena. Excusing himself to the toilet, the only time he was allowed privacy, the man used “the stick with a sponge, reserved for the vilest of uses,” to choke himself to death (Seneca, Moral Letters 70.20).

Philosophers (above) and toilet patrons (below) on the wall of the Baths of the Seven Sages, Ostia (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-09)

Confirmation that a sponge on a stick was the standard bum cleaner in Roman toilets comes from the “Bath of the Seven Sages” in Ostia, the early port for Rome. A room, probably used as a toilet (the seats have not survived) is painted with images of men sitting around the lower portion of the wall, apparently seated on the missing toilet box. Above them on the upper parts of the wall are paintings of the “Seven Sages,” philosophers of the sixth century BC. Each philosopher is labelled with name and city, and their sage advice on defecation: “Solon rubbed his belly to defecate well;” “Thales recommended that those who defecate with difficulty should strain;” and “The cunning Chilon taught how to flatulate unnoticed.” Other statements from the seated patrons below continue the scatological theme. Thales (who supposedly predicted a solar eclipse as related in this blog) is depicted holding a lecturer’s stick and below him is the quote, “No one gives you a long lecture, Priscianus, as long as you use the sponge on a stick” (Latin xylosphongio).[1]

Thales gives scatological instruction in the Baths of the Seven Sages at Ostia; reference to the xylosphongio is in the text at bottom (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-09)

We can now interpret the standard toilet features described above. The vertical part of the toilet hole allows access for the stick and sponge to one’s nether regions while still seated. The xylosphongio could be rinsed in the water channel a convenient arm’s reach in front of the seat. Well-preserved toilet remains show that the channel could have water flowing in and out of the chamber for “sanitation.” It follows that the sponge sticks were provided by the toilet and communally reused . . .

An artist’s reconstruction of a Roman-period toilet; tastefully done, but with a a plumbing error: the “dip-your-sponge-stick” water channel is depicted as having two entry water sources, when evidence indicates the water flow was one-way (in one side, out the other)—which meant that the prime spot to sit was next to the water inlet . . . (this pic has been duplicated a few times online so that I am not able to determine the original producer for proper credit . . . so, yes, I hoarded the toilet pic from the internet)

So, if the toilet paper supply fails, we can always “do as the Romans do.” No need for hoarding with communal xylosphongia! But, given the spacing of the holes, “social distancing” may be an issue . . .

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[1] The full text of all preserved inscriptions, with a description of the facility can be seen here.

3 thoughts on “Life, B.C. (Before Charmin): Toilet Practices in the Roman World (Or “How I Learned to Love the COVID-19 Toilet Paper Crisis”)

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