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Sanitation in ancient Rome

  The concept of Sanitation in ancient Rome has puzzled and perplexed historians and archeologists for centuries. It is considered to be a complex system much like modern societies enjoy today but was largely lost in Europe during the Dark Ages. A system of aquaducts served the citizens of the empire by providing them with pristine water. People utilized this in the public baths and latrines much like an early form of modern toilets. A system of latrines was found in Sicily which allowed for the waste to be flushed away along with sea sponges on sticks to use after defecation. The Romans had a complex system of sewers which were covered by stones much like the modern covers found on streets. After waste was flushed from the toilets or latrines it flowed through a central channel into the main sewage system. This soon flowed into a nearby river or stream. However, the Romans were not as sanitary as may be percieved to be believed. It was not uncommon for waste to be thrown out of windows into the streets and for nearby people to be hit with the waste. Also the drainage system was not perfect, it called for many openings to be covered by rock which caused the citizens to be exposed to the potential diseases in the sewage and the unpleasant smell. Despite this, Roman waste management is generally admired for its innovative feats.

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The first sewers of ancient Rome are estimated to have been built between 800 and 735 B.C. Drainage systems had been slowly evolving and began, primarily, as a means to drain marshes and for storm water runoff. The sewage system as a whole did not really take off until the arrival of the Cloaca Maxima, probably one of the best known examples of sanitation from the ancient world. Most sources credit its construction as having taken place during the reign of the three Etruscan kings in the sixth century B.C. This “great sewer” was originally built to drain the low-lying land that ran through the Forum. Over time the network of sewers that ran through the city expanded and most of them, including some drains, linked into the Cloaca Maxima, the contents of which were emptied into the Tiber River. In 33 B.C., under the emperor Augustus, the Cloaca Maxima was enclosed, creating a large tunnel. From very early times the Romans, in imitation of the Etruscans, learned how to carry off by underground channels the excessive rains that might otherwise wash away the precious top-soil that farmers needed, and to drain swamps (such as the Pontine marshes) by ditches, or marshy regions by subterranean channels; the Cloaca Maxima (first built, according to tradition, under the kings, but probably actually built in the fourth century and reconstructed under Augustus) still drains the Forum Romanum and the hills about it. Strabo, a Greek author who lived from about 60 B.C. to 24 A.D., admired the ingenuity of the Romans in his Geography Book by saying that,

“The sewers, covered with a vault of tightly fitted stones, have room in some places for hay wagons to drive through them. And the quantity of water brought into the city by aqueducts is so great that rivers, as it were, flow through the city and the sewers; almost every house has water tanks, and service pipes, and plentiful streams of water...In short, the ancient Romans gave little thought to the beauty of Rome because they were occupied with other, greater and more necessary matters” (Shelton, 67).       Strabo might have given a little too much credit to the Romans as he ascribes to “almost every house” a hook-up to the sewer system. Although most homes in early Rome were not connected up to the sewers and wastes were thrown out into the street, due to a widespread street-washing policy (using water supplied by aqueducts) most human wastes wound up in the sewers nonetheless. Eventually a law, called the Dejecti Effusive Act, was passed to protect innocent bystanders from assault with wastes being thrown out into the street. The violator was forced to pay damages to whomever he hit with his waste, if that person sustained an injury. This law was only enforced in the daytime, presumably because one then lacked an excuse, such as the darkness, for injuring another by careless disposal of their waste. It was not until 100 A.D. that direct connections of homes to sewers started to be put into place. It was around this time that the infrastructure of the sewer system was, for the most part, completed. The sewers ran through the city serving public, as well as some private, latrines and which also served as the dumping grounds for those who were not fortunate enough to have access to the system through their own homes. It was mostly the wealthy whose homes were connected to the sewers through outlets that ran under an extension of the latrine. The poor generally used pots, which they were supposed to empty into the sewer, or visited public latrines. Public latrines date back to the second century B.C. and became quite popular with the Romans. Whether intentional or not, they became places of socialization. Long bench-like seats with keyhole shaped openings cut in rows offered little privacy. Lord Amulree tells of an interesting anecdote: the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated, the Hall of Curia in the Theatre of Pompey, was turned into a public latrine due to the dishonor it had witnessed. The sewer system, like a little stream or river, ran beneath, carrying the wastes away to the Cloaca Maxima. The Romans “recycled” their water waste from the public baths by using it as part of the sewage that flowed under the latrines, serving as sort of a flushing system. Terra cotta piping was used in the plumbing that ran from the few homes that had it. The Romans were the first to seal pipes in concrete in order to resist large amounts of pressure. In addition, Romans had employed special officials called aediles in order to supervise the sanitary systems in the cities since the fifth century B.C. These officials were responsible for the efficiency of the drainage and sewage systems, for the cleansing and paving of the streets, prevention of foul smells, and general oversight of brothels, taverns, baths and other water supplies. During the first century A.D. the Roman sewage system was quite efficient. In his Natural History, Pliny remarked that of all the things Romans had accomplished, it was the sewers that were “the most noteworthy thing of all”.


Roman trash was often left to collect in alleys between buildings in the poorer districts of the city. It sometimes became so thick that stepping stones were needed. "Unfortunately its functions did not include house to house garbage collection, and this led to indiscriminate dumping of refuse, even to the heedless tossing of it out windows." [1] As a consequence the street level in the city rose as new buildings were constructed on top of rubble and rubbish.


  • ^ Casson, Lionel. Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, revised and expanded edition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p 40.
  • Amulree, Lord. “Hygienic Conditions in Ancient Rome and Modern London.” Medical History.(Great Britain), 1973, 17(3) pp.244-255.
  • Greene, William Chase. The Achievement of Rome; A Chapter in Civilization. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1938
  • James, Peter and Nick Thorpe. Ancient Inventions. New York: Balentine Books, 1994.
  • Owens, E.J. The City in the Greek and Roman World. London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Shelton, Joann. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press,1988
  • Stambaugh, John E. The Ancient Roman City. Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

See also

  • Aqueduct (Roman)
  • Cloaca Maxima

External links

  • The History of Plumbing - Pompeii & Herculaneum
  • Waters Of Rome
  • [2] The History of Roman plumbing and sewers
  • [3] Ancient Sewage
  • Imperial Rome Water Systems
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Sanitation_in_ancient_Rome". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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