Online Review: Book

Roman Toilets: Their Archaeology and Cultural History

Eric Poehler

116.4

Edited by Gemma C.M. Jansen, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, and Eric M. Moormann, eds (BABesch Suppl. 19). Pp. vii + 224, figs. 169. Peeters, Leuven 2011. €72. ISBN 978-90-429-2541-0 (paper).

For all the interest in the daily lives of the Romans, scholarship has tended to treat them like movie characters in one respect: they never seem to go to the toilet. Roman Toilets is an important step toward bringing this bodily reality into the mainstream of Roman archaeological and cultural studies. To accomplish this goal, the editors have endeavored to produce a handbook for both specialists and nonspecialists, bringing together the disparate but related subjects of Roman culture, Roman bodies, and Roman architecture.

Roman Toilets is divided into 12 chapters covering archaeological method (ch. 2); precursors to Roman toilets (ch. 3); literary sources (ch. 4); architecture, infrastructure, and decoration of toilets (chs. 5–6, 8); the culture of toilets and toilet use (chs. 7, 9, 11–12); and an economic perspective on ordure (ch. 10). These chapters are divided into multiple subheadings, many of which are written by different authors. Such an organization has positive and negative implications for the material. For example, no topic is discussed by fewer than two contributors, giving the reader multiple perspectives to consider. At the same time, some subjects are crowded by as many as eight different voices that overlap, ignore, and contradict one another. Because of this organization, a chapter-by-chapter review of the book is therefore impractical. I will instead attempt to summarize and synthesize some of the most valuable contributions of the volume with the intention of highlighting sections of reader interest.

What emerges from a full reading of Roman Toilets is the clearest and most detailed picture to date of the Roman experience of urinating and defecating in both public and private contexts. First, as objects of archaeological and architectural interest, the individual toilet (latrina) and multiseat latrine (forica) are described in exhaustive (and sometimes exquisite) detail, tackling the issues of accessibility (115, 123, 184–85), the location of toilets within public (113–18) and private (38, 123–28) architectural contexts, their physical functioning (53–5, 71–90, 99–109), and the decoration of the toilet environment (55–63, 165–70, 178–80). Together, these threads offer a number of valuable narratives. Elite Romans are shown in their homes using gendered (matella, scaphium) and generic (lasanum) chamber pots (53, 95–6), while nonelites perch over deep cesspits in cramped toilets within kitchens and under stairs to relieve themselves. At work in Ostia, laborers—even in the water-intensive and drainage-equipped fulleries—had to find a toilet elsewhere (127–28). Baths and other public latrines were therefore of particular value in Roman towns, where opportunistic defecators were rebuked at times by meter-high messages: Cacator cave malu (171). In the public latrines, exceptional archaeological observations have revealed not only an ingenuity in the water-use design (73–80, 104–7) as part of broader water conservation strategies (84) but also that a latrine’s decor was influenced more by the building’s status than by the room’s function (55–63).

As objects of cultural interest, Roman toilets are examined through a multifaceted interpretive lens, addressing the problems of privacy (115–16), the social status of toilet users (123–25, 131–44), and Romans’ attitudes and fears about toilets (165–76). The patient reader is rewarded with a fascinating picture of a biological function enacted through a cultural paradigm: a seated Roman reached up from a gutter of water to clean himself with a sponge, papyrus, potsherd, or even a stone and under the bunched up clothing that hid his genitals (101–5). While seated, he might have chatted with a neighbor (103, 178), admired the contemplative or risible images on the walls (57–60, 165–67, 178–81), consulted with the goddess Fortuna (49, 58–9, 167–70), or worried that some dangerous animal or even a demon might emerge from the chasm below to attack him or invade his body (161–63, 165–66).

The question of what happened to all the urine and feces is approached from an economic perspective, treating these objects as commodities and shedding new light on those who traded in them. Stercorari emptied cesspits and carried off the materials to fertilize gardens and extra-urban plots (147–48), while urine was collected and aged for use as an antiseptic, in veterinary medicine (including beekeeping), and of course in industry (148–51). The image of the Roman fuller gathering urine collected in streetside piss pots, however, is thoroughly demolished (151–53).

The evidence, observations, analyses, interpretations, and syntheses of the contributors to this book are remarkable. As a book, however, Roman Toilets does not live up to the quality of its contents. The greatest fault is the volume’s thematic organization. Although the arrangement creates some valuable analytical opportunities, it also undercuts the evidentiary basis for the themes and makes a work intended as a handbook far too difficult to use. Second, the decision to maintain a subdivision of individual author’s contributions creates complications for the reader: relevant information is both duplicated and separated in different chapters, toilets as a subject of inquiry are continually reintroduced, case studies are not well integrated, and editorial conventions are not strictly applied. Issues of execution also do harm to the work. For example, at two pages in length, the historiography of toilets in chapter 1 is far too sparse. Conversely, chapter 2 is a good methodological discussion, but its audience is inappropriate here: few readers will need to have a Harris Matrix defined for them. Finally, in light of the problems created by the organization of the book, it is very surprising that there is no concluding chapter drawing together these themes.

Perhaps these critiques judge the book too harshly based on its appellation as a handbook. Had it been called a conference proceeding, it might have appeared far more successful and well integrated. Nonetheless, “handbook” is in the book’s first sentence, and readers should be ready to employ the index rather than the table of contents to put the book to use. But use it they should. Despite its problems, Roman Toilets is a remarkably rich set of discussions that will earn its place through repeated citation as the seminal statement on the topic.

Eric Poehler
Department of Classics
University of Massachusetts–Amherst
Amherst, Massachusetts 01003
epoehler@classics.umass.edu

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1164.Poehler

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