Unusual and interesting toilets from all around the world.

The Toilets and Related Infrastructure of Roman Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii was founded around the 7th to 6th century BC by the Oscans (or Osci) of central Italy, on an important crossroad between Cumae, Nola, and Stabiae. Unfortunately, the city also happened to be very close to a powerful volcano. The city was built on a spur of land that had been formed by a lava flow. The lower archaeological layers are jumbled, suggesting large landslides that had failed to drive the settlers to a safer location.

There was a devastating earthquake in 63 AD, but the city had been rapidly rebuilt. The population had grown to around 20,000.

Then, over the two days of 24-25 August 79 AD, the city was buried by a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The city was buried under 18 meters of ash and pumice and about 10% of the population was killed.

The Greek author and scientist Pliny the Elder had been appointed praefect of the Roman Navy.

His desire to rescue some friends and closely observe the fascinating volcanic phenomenon led to his death. The account by his nephew Pliny the Younger of the eruption and his uncle's death is famous. See letter VI:XVI To Tacitus, Letter 16 from the Sixth Book of Letters of Pliny the Younger. He described an enormous eruption column, with a pyroclastic flow or cloud of superheated gas, ash, and rock, rushing down the flanks of Vesuvius and covering the surrounding area. Modern analysis suggests an ash cloud temperature of 850°C at the point of eruption cooling to 240 to 350°C by the time it reached the city.

View of Mount Vesuvius from Pompeii.

Mount Vesuvius as seen from the Forum in Pompeii.

Plaster casts of victims at Pompeii.

Plaster casts of victims.

The city was known to history but physically lost. An architect digging a new course for the river Sarno rediscovered the site in 1599, but there was no serious excavation until 1748. Giuseppe Fiorelli, who took charge of excavations in 1860, realized that voids in the ash layers containing human remains were spaces left by decomposed bodies. He came up with the technique of injecting plaster into these voids to recreate the victims. It soon became a popular spot on the "Grand Tour" of Europe.

Pompeii is a large and very popular site — about 66 hectares and two to three million visitors annually.

For a modern parallel, see the November 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Tolima, Colombia, and the burial of the town of Armero by a series of lahars or volcanic mudslides.

Roman Brothel Toilet

The Lupanaro is the famous well-preserved brothel in Pompeii, the name referring to the home of the "she-wolves". It's about two streets northeast of the north end of the Forum, along Vicolo Stortlo.

The exterior of the two-story brothel and its toilet are seen below.

Exterior of the Lupanaro, a Roman brothel at Pompeii.

The Lupanaro, the famous brothel of Pompeii.

Roman brothel toilet.

A Roman brothel toilet.

It's a pretty basic one-hole frame design. A chamber pot would be placed below the hole, and then taken out and emptied into the sewer immediately outside.

So, it's an indoor toilet, but not indoor plumbing.

Europeans didn't have toilet paper until recently. The Romans, at least the higher classes, used a tersorium, a sponge mounted on a stick. The sponge could be dipped into a water channel running in front of the row of communal toilets in the latrine, and rinsed off in that channel after use. If there was no channel of running water, a bucket of salt water or vinegar water would be used, as Seneca described in his Letters of Lucillus [70,20].

If neither a tersorium nor water were available, the Greeks and Romans used πεσσοι or pessoi, small stones. The tradition started with the ancient Greeks that three stones should be enough to finish the job. This convention has been very long lived, with a hādīth attributed to Muhammad specifying three stones as the ideal number for anal cleaning. The pessoi were also used in an ancient board game in Greece. Aristophanes wrote a scene involving pessoi in Peace in the 5th century. Here's the Penguin Classics translation:

Arms dealer [displaying a cuirass]: And what, alack, shall I do with this rounded cuirass, a beautiful fit, worth ten minas?

Trygaeus: Well, that one will not make a loss for you, anyway. Give me that at cost price. It will be very convenient to crap in ...

Arms dealer: Stop this impudent mockery of my goods!

Trygaeus [placing the cuirass on the ground like a chamber pot and squatting on it]: Like this, if you put three stones beside it. Is it not clever?

The Greeks would use όστρακα or ostraka, small pieces of broken ceramic goods, to vote to shun or ban their opponents. This is where we get the word ostracize. Some scholars have suggested that the ostraka could be used as pessoi, literally wiping your feces onto the names of hated individuals. The abrasive characteristics of broken ceramic material suggest that long-term used of these as pessoi could have resulted in localized irritation at the least, progressing to skin or mucosal damage or the irritation of external hemorrhoids. For more on toilet use of pessoi and ostraka and the medical implications see the paper "Toilet hygiene in the classical era", Philippe Charlier, Luc Brun, Clarisse Prêtre, and Isabelle Huynh-Charlier, in BMJ (the British Medical Journal) 2012;p345-346.

Most brothels in Pompeii were single-room operations. The Lupanaro was the largest, with ten rooms. The beds look awfully uncomfortable, as all that survives today is the solid stone bed form and "pillow". There would of course have been mattresses and pillows on top of this!

The book "Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum" (Michael Grant, Phoenix Press, 1971) quotes the earlier "Present State of Pompeii", by Malcolm Lowry, 1949: "The brothels were by no means spacious and 'seemed to have been made to accommodate the consummations of some race of voluptuous dwarfs'."

In other words, the beds are rather short.

Interior of the Lupanaro, a Roman brothel at Pompeii.

A stone bed in the brothel.

Erotic fresco in the Lupanaro, a Roman brothel at Pompeii.

The frescos are the feature of greatest interest to most historians outside the speciality of toilet history. It seems to me that the frescos may have served as more than simple decoration, perhaps they were a graphical menu of available choices. "I'll have Number 3, please."

All of the erotic and fertility related imagery shocked the excavators and early influential visitors. Some discoveries seem to have been re-buried and then re-discovered in later years. A large collection at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples was inaccessible without academic credentials or special permission until 2000.

Erotic fresco in the Lupanaro, a Roman brothel at Pompeii.
Erotic fresco in the Lupanaro, a Roman brothel at Pompeii.
Erotic fresco in the Lupanaro, a Roman brothel at Pompeii.
Erotic fresco in the Lupanaro, a Roman brothel at Pompeii.

Graffiti on the walls of the Lupanaro indicates that the prostitutes were slaves from all around the Mediterranean.

The frescos themselves show that there's nothing new in the way of stereotypes. They intentionally depict the women with significantly lighter skin, despite their origins, and the men with significantly darker skin. The theory was that lighter skinned women were more beautiful, and darker skinned men were more sexually active.

More on Pompeian Cisterns, Drainage and Lavatories

The article "Cisterns, Drainage and Lavatories in Pompeian Houses, Casa del Granduca (VII.4.56)" from Papers of the British School at Rome, Vol 72 (2004), pp 125-166, tells us far more about the plumbing situation in Pompeii.

It describes the plumbing in the Grand Duke's house, including the lavatory located next to the kitchen. A doorway 90 cm wide leads one step down into the lavatory, 2.17 × 1.06 m in size with a tiled floor like the kitchen's. The lavatory's floor slopes down to the lavatory pit. A seat ran over the pit between slots in the wall.

Earlier houses in Pompeii collected water from their roofs in cisterns. In later years, lead water pipes were laid down for water distribution, running both above ground and buried immediately below floor level. They ran immediately below the floor of the atrium in the Grand Duke's house, where they were run inside terra-cotta tubes to keep them from being crushed.

The cisterns remained in use after the pipe system was built. Historians have concluded that the water pipe system was not intended to supply the kitchens or provide drinking water, but they were dedicated to supplying the decorative fountains and pools that served as indicators of wealth and social status.

Meanwhile, the pipe from the Grand Duke's atrium cistern ran through a pipe below the kitchen floor and into the lavatory pit.

Archaeologists discovered a bronze jug in the Grand Duke's lavatory pit. Similar jugs have been found elsewhere in Italy and in Ephesus, where they may have been used for personal cleaning in place of the tersorium, the sponge mounted on a stick. See the "Wipe or Wash?" page for more on the history of toilet paper and other cleaning technologies and techniques.

Pompeii's Sewage and Drainage

Roman hydraulic engineering and city design being what it was, Pompeii was well supplied with constant flows of spring water from the inland mountains.

It seems that most streets were constantly flushed with water overflowing from fountains, and so waste (as in the case of that brothel chamber pot) could be disposed of by dumping it into the continuously flushed gutter.

Street drainage at Pompeii.
Street drainage at Pompeii.

Large elevated blocks at street corners allowed people to cross the street without stepping into the waste water. And the slots between the blocks were sized and spaced to accommodate chariot and wagon axles of standard dimensions.

Baths at Pompeii

This was a Roman city, so of course there were baths. The two most prominent ones were Terme del Foro and Terme Stabiane. Those are the Italian names, as you'll find on the local maps and signs. "Forum Baths" and "Stabiane Baths", you might say.

Roman Baths at Pompeii.
Roman Baths at Pompeii.

Roman baths contained the standard three chambers: caldarium, or hot room; tepidarium, or warm room; and frigidarium, or cold room.

Roman Baths at Pompeii.

Urine-Based Wool Processing

Wool was a major product of Pompeii, including all stages of processing through the sale of finished goods.

An early wool processing step is fulling, also called tucking or walking. This is the process of cleaning or scouring to remove oils and dirt, followed by milling or thickening. These pictures show a series of tanks used for fulling wool at Pompeii. The smaller tanks are for treading and fulling, the larger ones are for rinsing.

Wool fulling facility at Pompeii.
Wool fulling facility at Pompeii.
3-D model of an ammonium molecule from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammonium

Ammonium: NH4+

The cleaning or scouring process during Roman times was based on human urine. Urine contains ammonium salts, which are still components of modern soaps. Read your shampoo bottle — a handy bottle of shampoo lists ammonium lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, and ammonium chloride.

A wool fulling operation had to purchase the wool itself from shepherds in the surrounding countryside. But the urine needed for processing might be obtained quite cheaply or even for free....

One of the wool fulling businesses along the main street of Via dell'Abbondanza famously had a sign asking male passersby to please contribute via the jars hung on the wall. See "The Production of Woolen Cloth in the Roman World", Walter O. Moeller, 1976, page 20:

Since water was of great importance to the fullers, they had to have their establishments near sources and needed guaranteed water-rights (below, p. 96). And as with water a sure supply of urine was a prime concern. So that it might not go to waste, the fullers set out jars in the street outside their shops as a public convenience, thereby collecting some of their supply free of charge. [162] Yet since animal urine was also used, much of the substance must have been imported from the farms to the cities, and if camel urine was prized, as Pliny (HN XXVIII. 91) reports, then urine must have entered into an extensive trade pattern. Other arrangements, however, had to be made to collect the vast supply of human urine generated in the cities (below, p. 96).

Wool fulling facility at Pompeii.
Wool fulling facility at Pompeii.

Later technology included fulling mills with arrays of water-driven broad wooden mallets to repeatedly stamp the wool immersed in its ammonium-laden bath, a mixture that combined urine with fuller's earth, a clay-like material with high magnesium oxide content. But back in Roman times, this was done by slaves stomping away in urine from ankle to knee deep.

These are not what you might think...

Overly enthusiastic lavatorial tourists might see these common types of facilities at Pompeii and assume that they are some sort of public toilet.

Not at all!

Olive oil shop or tavern at Pompeii.
Olive oil shop or tavern at Pompeii.

These businesses are either shops or taverns featuring large clay pots or amphorae built into countertops. These are systems for storing and dispensing olive oil, wine, or other liquids.


A 2011 BBC story described how a team of archaeologists working at Herculaneum had discovered a 86-meter tunnel filled with "what is believed to be the largest deposit of human excrement ever found in the Roman world." It was removed in seven hundred and fifty sacks, and studied to determine the diet of the citizens of the time.


Logistics

To get there from Pompeii, buy a pair of tickets at the SITA bus office along the waterfront in Napoli. Tickets are €4.80 each. Buy two, one for the outbound ride and one for the return. You need to validate you ticket as you board the bus, stick it into the validating machine on board and get a timestamp printed on it.

Once at Pompeii, a €20 ticket allows one entrance each into five sites over the next three days: Pompeii, Oplonti (where you can see Nero's toilets), Erculano, Stabia, and Boscarale.


Click here for my page about visiting Napoli, or Naples as it is known in English.

Click here for my Travel in Italy page.