Online Review: Book

Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World

Charalampos Dokos

115.1

By Barry Hobson. Pp. x + 190, figs. 130, plans 15. Duckworth, London 2009. $27. ISBN 978-0715638507 (paper).

In Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World, Hobson gives a new perspective on the social role of toilets in the Roman world. He escapes from strict academic boundaries concerning Roman archaeology and explores the daily life and activities of ordinary people in the Roman world. He was a general practitioner who promoted hygiene and disease prevention until his retirement, when he began to combine interests in medicine and archaeology at the University of Bradford. Hobson worked for 12 years with the Anglo-American Project at Pompeii (AAPP), developing a special interest in latrines, and this volume reveals his expertise in field excavation. It largely concerns the Pompeian evidence, but Hobson more generally examines Roman attitudes toward human waste and disposal, as well as the physical evidence for toilets.

The initial chapter covers latrines first at Rome, Ostia, and Hadrian’s Villa, expanding to southern Italy, Sicily, and finally across the empire. The second chapter investigates toilets for the army and civilians in Roman Britain. Here, Hobson distinguishes between toilets at Roman military installations and those in small British towns and villas. While chapter 3 is exclusively devoted to Pompeii, numerous other chapters cite Pompeian examples (dating to both before and after the installation of the Roman colony). The book features evidence unearthed by the AAPP, which shows that Pompeii did not have an extensive underground drainage system like Rome did. As a result, public and private latrines drained into cesspits, the larger of which were located under sidewalks.

In “Chronology of Toilets” (ch. 4), Hobson focuses on Pompeii, observing an apparent shift from wooden to stone seating over time. He also notes a trend to move toilets to upper stories of insulae in connection with repurposing the ground floors for bars and inns. The movement of living accommodations to upper stories, according to Hobson, may be a part of the social division between rich and poor (69). The following chapter (ch. 5) segues into a detailed discussion of the upper-story facilities (15 identified at Pompeii) and of the new access that such in-house facilities provided to lower-class residents. Chapter 6 treats the placement of toilets and privacy matters in ancient Rome. Hobson states that “there was a movement, to isolate the latrine within the building and to make it, increasingly, a single-seater” (81). In chapter 7 (“Rubbish and Its Disposal”), the author strongly supports the contention that Romans recycled, as much as possible, their rubbish, but in the next chapter, he hypothesizes that Romans did not like strong smells but that they still lived with them. Here, Hobson cites references in Latin literature to Roman concerns for unpleasant odor and interest in personal hygiene. In chapter 9, Hobson studies how water flowed through lavatory and pipe systems. Chapter 10 examines social class in ancient Rome and how different groups used toilets—in sum, elites preferred private chamber pots, by contrast with common people, who used latrines.

In chapter 11, Hobson summarizes health and hygiene rules in Roman times to explain issues of contamination and infectious diseases. For example, the Romans knew about certain repellents, such as the mixture of coriander and olive oil, or sometimes they would have a slave fan off the flies (148). In addition, the author extensively correlates the analysis of latrines and fecal deposits with zoonoses, infections, and public health issues. Finally, in the last two chapters (chs. 12, 13), he offers a literature review that includes a broad range of questions about toilets in the Roman world.

The book is fully illustrated with black-and-white photographs, diagrams, and site plans. However, the text contains more questions than answers. Hobson has presented a summary of excavation data without offering sufficient evidence from literature. There is also a gap in the book in explaining how the Roman’s use of toilets related to their cultural behaviors in matters of public health and hygiene. In addition, theory and methodology should have been treated thoroughly. The book is primarily a survey of toilets, lacking detailed criticism and referencing. More specific descriptions and illustrations would better have allowed readers to explore the subject of Roman lavatories. Nevertheless, this is an exciting and informative book for the specialist and nonspecialist alike.

Charalampos Dokos
Medical School
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
541 24 Thessaloniki
Greece
dokos1984@yahoo.gr

DOI: 
10.3764/ajaonline1151.Dokos

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