Ancient Roman history is full of contradictions. The apparent inconsistency is between accounts of the glorious splendour and wealth of the empire on the one hand, showcased in the capital, and the tales of squalor and filth which epitomised Romes living conditions on the other. Yet both descriptions accurately portray imperial Rome. An analysis of how Romans used water highlights this divide.
The apartments in Romes city centre were densely populated and sanitation standards left much to be desired. Private plumbing was a luxury enjoyed by the elite and most Romans relied on well-distributed fountains never more than 100 metres from any given point in the city.
Most apartments were four storeys high and the ground floor was typically filled with shops. Ordinary Romans generally fetched their own water from the fountains, but some had slaves bring it up to their apartments (especially those on the upper floors), and some purchased it from local water merchants. Regardless of how they got it, almost all Romans stored water in their apartments for consumption and as a preventive measure fear of fire was rife throughout the city.
Very few homes were equipped with running water and human waste was disposed of in one of two ways: ideally into a shared bucket or container on the ground floor, or indiscriminately tossed out of a window. As the latter option was more convenient, imperial Romes pedestrians had to be mindful of flying excrement. No doubt those who lived on upper floors were more likely to chuck waste and garbage out the window.
Flying garbage and the occasional contents of a chamber pot regularly resulted in injury and discomfort. Since projectile-related injuries were common, laws and fines evolved to provide legal recourse, though identifying ones assailant often proved difficult.
The streets of Rome perennially smelled, and the relatively inefficient sewage system only compounded the problem. Most sewers had wide openings to collect rainwater and refuse and this did little to ease the stench, although for the most part human waste was disposed of properly and even recycled. Manure was used to fertilize fields and urine was collected in large pots on street corners; the ammonia-rich liquid was then used to launder clothing.
In addition to poor sanitation, Romes apartments were poorly insulated and dimly lit. These living conditions dictated, to a degree, how Romans spent their free time; they did not spend much time at home, as the streets catered to all their needs. It was perhaps this state of affairs that impeded improvements to Roman housing, dissuading people from investing in their homes, and encouraging them instead to develop the citys shared amenities.
Perhaps the most famous of Romes collective services were the public baths. Thermae provided sanitation and relaxation for all of Romes citizens. There were over 800 public baths in imperial Rome, ranging in quality from small hole-in-the-wall establishments to grandiose works of art. The wealthy elite frequented thermae which resembled modern luxury spas; libraries, lectures, games and performances complemented stunning marble baths. Underground furnaces heated the tubs, providing gradations of comfort from warm to steaming hot as well as cold.
Surprisingly the thermae were not monopolised by the wealthy. Romes water dispersal system coupled with an abundant supply allowed for near universal use of the baths. The fees were nominal and as a result the average Roman enjoyed a comfort denied to many of Europes masses.
Public latrines dotted the city as well. These communal toilets consisted of a long slab of marble with key-shaped holes cut at regular intervals. Some seated up to 100 people and since there were no dividers, Romans conversed freely while using them. Most marble latrines were heated, like the baths, by furnaces below and a stream of water flowed beneath them, constantly flushing waste along with other garbage into Romes network of partially-open sewers. Most sewage flowed into a central line, the cloaca maxima, which flushed the collected materials out of its massive opening and into the Tiber. The opening is more than 2,500 years old and can still be seen near Ponte Palatino.
A common historic fallacy regarding Roman water is the claim that the demise of Romes ruling class, and with it the empire, resulted from lead poising. This theory is as interesting an explanation as it is unlikely. The purported rationale is that the pipes of private plumbing systems, which only the aristocracy could afford, were made of lead. However, Romes water was and is very hard, and consequently the pipes and aqueducts alike were coated with thick white calcium deposits, which quickly insulated them and prevented lead particles from entering the water supply. Furthermore, lead has a tendency to accrue in sitting water, and Romes cavalier use of water almost always precluded this. Thus, while an interesting theory, there is little evidence to support it and the fact remains that much of Romes water was of high quality.
Did the dismal living conditions in the houses incite the creation of imperial Romes amenities, or did the amenities themselves negate the need for well-equipped housing? Most likely it was easier to provide shared facilities for all much as public transport in modern Rome is more efficient than universal car ownership.
Alasdair Cohen grew up just outside Baltimore in the United States and graduated from the University of North Carolina. He is researching water management policies for the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome.
Picture: The cloaca maxima near Ponte Palatino was the main sewer of imperial Rome.