Magazine article The Spectator

'The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems', by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems', by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow - Review

Article excerpt

The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow

The University of North Carolina Press, pp.312, £63.50, ISBN: 9781469621289

When Ovid was seeking 'cures for love', the most efficient remedy, he wrote, was for a young man to watch his girl on the toilet. The American author of The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy begins with this worrying poetic advice. The evacuation of the human body has had little previous attention from historians of Rome, she says, but 'Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow on the toilet' should not become the citation attached by fellow scholars to her name. We might all be put off.

Her fear is well-founded. The reason that there are dozens of books about the Romans' baths and almost none about their latrines reveals much about us and nothing about them. High-minded archaeologists used to prefer their heroes as brave bathers discussing philosophy. Any awkward seats with holes could be prison chairs or hydraulic hoists. One early 19th-century excavator posited a form of 'medicinal steam baths' where the 'strength of the steam created a need to be seated'. This notion of Roman ladies communally experiencing the treatment recently revived by Gwyneth Paltrow did not find general favour. But its spirit lived on.

Some parts of the author's subject have an assured place in cultural history. The 'outside loo' has become a symbol of poverty. Civilisation is 'en suite'. In the debate between defecating far away from the rest of life or with the closeness of convenience, the conveniences have triumphed -- and not merely in language. The Romans too could see the benefit of convenience, but Cicero noted the success of the human body in separating the entry and exit of food. Architects, he said, should do the same. Nero's wealthy tutor, Seneca, saw moral virtue in the dark and dankness of a shed in the garden before foreign luxury arrived.

For the rich at home there was the best of both worlds, as satirised by Petronius at about the same time: a slave boy brings a silver pot to the dinner table; you piss in it, wipe your hands on his hair and he takes the pot away. For Trimalchio's guests in the Satyricon there are bowls just outside the door, regularly refreshed. …

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