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The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems

The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems

By Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow. Pp. xxiv + 286, figs. 100. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2015. $75. ISBN 978-1-4696-2128-9 (cloth).

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The main aim of Koloski-Ostrow’s book is to identify whether the prevailing harsh sanitary conditions were improved or changed by latrines in cities and whether they were designed or sited according to public health considerations. The author seeks to remedy the previous aversion to the subject and to interpret the archaeological evidence in the context of the literary evidence and of studies of baths and infrastructure, without romanticizing the archaeological evidence. The book focuses on the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E., avoiding the luxury latrines of the second and third centuries C.E. The author sees latrines as an architectural expression of romanization, in part because of their strong association with bathing facilities.

Chapter 1 is an overview of the available archaeological evidence. Public latrines were generally located in or near public buildings, on the ground floor, and near points of water supply (kitchens, baths, fountains). They were dark, poorly ventilated, and decorated simply. Originally squeezed into leftover spaces, toilets became a design feature in their own right during this period. Interspersed with the necessarily dry descriptions of latrines throughout Italy are some interesting observations. Koloski-Ostrow highlights the importance of literary evidence from Rome and archaeological evidence from the Vesuvian region and subsequently Ostia—the only locations where sufficient evidence survives to chart chronological changes. She argues that the few small, unadorned public latrines in Pompeii and Herculaneum were not the result of a desire to follow Hellenistic luxury, nor of a full-scale public sanitation program, but of a desire to avoid the dirtying of public facilities such as theaters and baths by public urination and defecation. The limited capacity of these latrines meant that chamber pots and surrounding streets must still have received most of the excrement from patrons of these facilities. Koloski-Ostrow draws heavily on the work of Gemma Jansen when reviewing the ubiquitous private facilities. At first glance, a connection to the sewer may seem preferable to a cesspit, until the author highlights the possibility of the entrance of sewer denizens: rats and insects.

Chapter 2 explores sanitation across cultures, highlighting the culturally specific nature of the practice and cautioning against judging Roman sanitation by contemporary Western standards. The author problematizes the concept that the presence of sewers is evidence of a concern for hygiene.

Chapter 3 interprets the architectural remains. This chapter considers the place of Roman hydraulic technology within the history of technology: was it radically new, or a refinement of earlier developments (foreshadowed on p. 35)? Koloski-Ostrow sees the origin of Roman public toilets in the classical and Hellenistic Greek world, whence they were transmitted to Roman civilian culture and only then diffused by military forces. She does not see hygiene as the primary impetus for cloacae, which were conceptualized more as stormwater drains, and concludes that Roman urban life remained very unhygienic. She helpfully identifies Agrippa’s construction of the Aqua Julia and Aqua Virgo as qualitatively different from previous aqueduct projects in that it allowed water for baths, gardens, and pools, transforming the Campus Martius in particular. The author finds only a slow, ad hoc development of sanitation administration at Rome and no standard practice across Roman Italy nor any systematic insertion of sewers in advance of new building.

Chapter 4 looks at what can be known about behaviors, attitudes, and ideals from literary sources. Koloski-Ostrow offers a useful corrective to the common notion that communal toilets are evidence of less concern for privacy, pointing to the concealing nature of Roman clothing, the privacy afforded by the holes for the sponge stick, and the lack of lighting. She finds no evidence that toilets proliferated because of health concerns, and recent archaeological evidence suggests that the latrines were not sufficient to prevent the spread of intestinal parasites (P.D. Mitchell, “Human Parasites in the Roman World: Health Consequences of Conquering an Empire,” Parasitology 144 [2017] 48–58).

Chapter 5 considers additional texts and images in search of social meaning and draws the various threads of the book together.

This short book displays a fine command of the most recent literature on its main focus—toilets—but less so on the other two parts of the book’s subtitle—sewers and water systems. The long and difficult genesis of this book has led to some unrevised sections on these two topics. Statements such as “during the last few years there has been a wave of new research concerning water supply and usage in the ancient world” (34) and “much new research on concepts of Roman water management” (68) were clearly written in the initial drafting of the book in the early 2000s (xxiv), since those sections contain no literature after 2001, except for one work on Baroque Rome. The statement that “Augustus brought the first aqueduct to Pompeii” (73–4), relying on works from 1992 and 1998, misses the controversy on this issue begun at least in 2001, which I have summarized elsewhere (“Somma-Vesuvian Ground Movements and the Water Supply of Pompeii and the Bay of Naples,” AJA 119 [2015] 191–215). For further up-to-date reading on water systems, Dessales’ Le partage de l’eau: Fontaines et distribution hydraulique dans l’habitat urbain de l’Italie romaine (Rome 2013) is a good start.

At times the language is a little loose. For example, when describing the action of bradyseism around the Bay of Naples, Koloski-Ostrow states that the “water level of the sea rises and falls” (23) when of course it is the land that is rising and falling because of the movement of magma and water underneath the ground. Elsewhere, she mentions the “Villa of Oplontis” (24): presumably Villa A of the three villas at Oplontis is meant.

A few things make scholarly use of this book difficult: the short-title referencing system, which makes it difficult to differentiate and find Koloski-Ostrow’s own articles in particular, and the placement of the images and notes at the back of the book. On core topics, generally the author adopts the admirable scientific approach of first laying out the evidence and then drawing conclusions. Nevertheless, the underlying data on which her findings are based could be presented more clearly (e.g., in tabular format) and more often, to enable critical appraisal. For example, the statements “we now know for certain that private toilet design was certainly a prominent feature of the Roman house” (33) and “we now know that measures were taken to explore and expand the existing network of urban drains and sewers as well” (220 n. 97) are unsupported and unreferenced. No details of the calculations underlying Koloski-Ostrow’s confirmation of Scobie’s figures (219 n. 84) are given. She claims that “Local geology . . . and geography . . . were the factors that dictated” storm- and wastewater management “as research in the last 10 years or so makes clear” (75), but she cites only one source concerning Greek knowledge of urban geology and geography, stating “I am convinced that the Romans also maintained such refined knowledge” (223 n. 128) without further reference.

In summary, this book represents a considerable advance of our current knowledge of sanitation in Roman Italy, if at times it is marred by incomplete or outdated substantiation of claims, particularly on water supply.

Duncan Keenan-Jones
Collegium de Lyon, Université de Lyon

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

Reviewed by Duncan Keenan-Jones

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 1 (January 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1221.keenan-jones

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