skip to primary navigationskip to content

Ancient Roman sanitation had no clear benefit to public health

last modified Jan 15, 2016 09:14 AM
New study shows the Romans weren't quite as clean as was once thought
Ancient Roman sanitation had no clear benefit to public health

A Roman whipworm egg from Turkey

Research conducted by Dr Piers Mitchell, an Affiliated Lecturer in Biological Anthropology at Cambridge’s Archaeology and Anthropology Department and a fellow of the McDonald Institute, has revealed that human gastrointestinal infections by bacteria, viruses and parasites did not decrease in the Roman period, as might have been expected. This was despite the introduction of impressive sanitation technologies, such as latrines, sewers and clean water.

The research, published today in the journal Parasitology, is the first to use the archaeological evidence for parasites in Roman times to assess “the health consequences of conquering an empire”.

A possible explanation, says Mitchell, is that the warm communal waters of the bathhouses helped to spread the parasitic worms.  "Clearly, not all Roman baths were as clean as they might have been.  Water was infrequently changed in some baths and a scum would build on the surface from human dirt and cosmetics."

Another possible explanation raised in the study is the Roman use of human excrement as a crop fertilizer.  “It is possible that sanitation laws requiring the removal of faeces from the streets actually led to reinfection of the population as the waste was often used to fertilise crops planted in farms surrounding the towns,” said Mitchell.

Further findings show that there was no sign of a decrease in ectoparasites such as lice and fleas following the introduction of public bathing facilities to keep the population clean.

Mitchell brought together evidence of parasites in ancient latrines, human burials and ‘coprolites’ – or fossilised faeces – as well as in combs and textiles from numerous Roman Period excavations across the Roman Empire. 

Despite the findings, he does not think that Roman sanitation was a waste of time. "It would have been useful having public latrines so that people in town would not have had to return home to use the toilet. A culture of public bathing would have made people smell better too. However, the archaeological evidence does not indicate any health benefit from this sanitation, but rather that Romanisation led to increase in certain parasite species due to trade and migration across the empire."


Posted 13/01/2016

An Oral History of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research