IF THERE’S one thing most people know about the ancient Romans, it’s that they spent a lot of time in the bath. As the Roman Empire expanded, public baths proliferated across the newly annexed territories. From plain and practical to polished-marble luxury, baths provided both colonists and colonised the means of a daily soak. Less well known is the Roman passion for another hygienic innovation: the public convenience. Wherever the Romans went, they took their toilets.
What did all that washing and flushing do for the health of less fastidious folk who came under Roman rule? “Given what we know now about the benefits of sanitation, you might safely assume this would lead to an improvement in people’s health,” says, a doctor and palaeopathologist at the University of Cambridge.
But hard evidence was lacking, so Mitchell went in search of it. He scoured records of Roman remains from towns and graveyards to fossilised faeces, for parasites such as intestinal worms, lice and fleas. What he found was precisely the opposite of what he expected.
Interfoto/Sammlung Rauch/Mary Evans
Eye of Science/SPL
According to legend, Rome was founded in the 8th century BC. Two centuries later work began on the cloaca maxima, or great sewer, which eventually became part of an immense network of drains and underground sewers. Work on the first of the city’s remarkable aqueducts got under way in the 4th century BC. By the end of the 1st century there were nine, carrying more than enough water for drinking, bathing, flushing …