Friday, 9 February 2018

Did Ancient Romans Pee Differently?

Last week I met one of my idols, Dr Gemma Jansen. Gemma is a Dutch expert on Roman Toilets. A few years ago she kindly advised me on one of my childrens books, The Sewer Demon, and I dedicated it to her, but we had never met in person. 

Gemma emailed to say she would be spending the morning in the basement of the British Museum, studying a famous Roman toilet shaped like a chariot. This fascinating object is one of the Townley Marbles, so-called after the rich collector who brought them to Britain in the early 1800s. The marble toilet was found in the Baths of Caracalla.

I offered to treat Gemma to afternoon tea in the Members’ Room of the British Museum. Over carrot cake and English Breakfast tea she kindly agreed to let me interview her: 

Caroline: So, Gemma! I take it you need a special invitation to see the latrine throne from the Baths of Caracalla?

Gemma: Well, I asked if I could see it and they said yes


chariot toilet by Richard Russell Lawrence
Caroline: Are you going to write about it?

Gemma: Of course. 

Caroline: How fun! Tell me, is it bigger than the chairs we’re sitting in now? 

Gemma: No, it’s actually slightly smaller. I was curious to learn how wide a single-seat toilet would be so that whenever we find a multiseater toilet which is only partially preserved we can guess how many people it could seat. The Caracalla toilet was only 43 centimetres across. 

Caroline: Which proves that ancient Romans were slightly smaller than we are today? 

Gemma: Or that it was a very tight fit!

(The waiter brings two pots of tea and large slab of carrot cake. Gemma picks up the milk jug and holds it over her cup.)

Gemma: How much milk do I put in it?

Caroline: I don’t know because I never have milk in tea. I have lemon. Just do it till it looks… Try a bit… More, more, more… Stop! That’s good. (holds out a the bowl of sugar cubes) And have some sugar? 

Gemma: I don’t know. I’m doing it the British way now. 

Caroline (amazed): This is your first proper English tea? 


Gemma (laughs): Yeah! Well, I drink tea, but not like this… (drops in cube and stirs) 

Caroline (laughs): I’m going take a photo of you drinking your first cup of British-style tea. 

Gemma: Um… It tastes like warm lemonade. 

Caroline: Try some of their carrot cake. I guarantee you’ll like that. And have some of my books, too! (Caroline produces some books.) This one is in Dutch and this one is the sequel to The Sewer Demon. Its called The Poisoned Honey Cake. My young hero Threptus has to go back down into the sewers of Ostia. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t bring my sponge-stick, my Roman bottom-wiper. 

Gemma: Actually there are some new theories that Romans didn’t use sponges in the toilets. 

Caroline: Yeah, I know. The results from that big cesspit in Herculaneum. 

Gemma: Among others. But to support your sponge-stick, in Ostia they found a graffito in the Baths of the Seven Sages, a word for the sponge stick…

Caroline: Xylospongia! It’s also mentioned in a letter from Roman Egypt

Gemma: Yes! So they must have had sponge-sticks in Ostia. But not everywhere. In the sewers of Ephesus they found juglets. 

Caroline: Juglets? 

Gemma (uses a juglet to add milk to her tea): Yes. Little jugs for water, only smaller than normal. 

Caroline: Aha! So they used water! Just like toilets in Turkey today; they have that little spigot at the back. 

Gemma: Yes. So they found juglets at Ephesus and in Odona. Also in a cesspit from Pompeii. 

Caroline: Have they found these little water jugs in the communal latrine? In the forica? 

Gemma: No. 

Caroline: I think they must have used lots of different things to wipe their bottoms… 

Gemma: Some scholars doubt that you could attach a sponge to a stick.


Caroline and her sponge-stick
Caroline: Now I really wish I’d brought my replica. It’s easy if the sponge is big enough. The replica sponge-sticks I’ve owned all have a sponge the size of my fist tied on to a long stick with twine. Mind you, I’ve never actually tried one out… 
(sips tea thoughtfully)
Of course, the best thing about the sponge-on-the-stick is that it captures kids’ imaginations and draws them in. In fact, one of my grown-up fans, a young Classicist named Daniel Potter, just designed a LEGO figurine of me in Roman costume with my sponge-on-a-stick! I wave my sponge-stick at my school events and kids never forget it.

(Gemma laughs)

Caroline: So, tell me, Gemma: how did you first get interested in Classical Archaeology? And what brought you to sewers and toilets?

Gemma: I first became interested in Classical Archaeology when I went to Rome at the age of about fifteen. I went with a class from my gymnasium – my school, that is – and I thought This is amazing

Caroline: Were you studying Latin at the time? Didn’t just you love it? 

Gemma: Latin was OK, but being in Rome was the real revelation. 

Caroline:  Where did you attend gymnasium? 

Gemma: In the south of Holland, in a town called Sittard. I lived in a small village and cycled to school, about ten kilometres there and back. I wasn’t very good at Greek and Latin– 

Caroline (interrupting): You studied Greek as well as Latin?

Gemma: Yes. We had to do both. After seeing Rome I wanted to keep studying these subjects. My marks were only just good enough to allow me to continue. They discovered I was a little bit dyslexic, especially with Greek because of its strange alphabet. Then I started doing archaeology, which is thinking in pictures, and I thought This is easy! On my first excavation I found an ancient gaming piece and realised you can be in contact with the ancients not only through reading what they wrote, but also by touching the objects they touched. So I thought I’ll do archaeology. 

Caroline: Wonderful. 

Gemma: As for the toilets, I was interested in water supplies and studied this aspect at several sites. I began to notice the toilets and realised that nobody ever writes about them. 

Caroline: When was this? What year?

Gemma: Almost thirty years ago…1989? And then I thought This is a wide-open field. All the Greek temples are classified according to typology, and the Greek vases, too. But for toilets there was nothing. It was a wide-open field of study. And in fact it still is. 

Caroline: One of my obsessions is to know what it was like to live back then. So when I write I try to use my imagination and put myself in the scene. I try to think what would someone do in this situation. Sometimes I make intuitive leaps, which upsets some experts.
(sips her tea)
I have this pet theory that if we went back in time to, say, first century Rome we would be utterly surprised by perhaps 10% of what we found. 

Gemma: Or even more.

Caroline (laughs): Maybe. So my question for you is this: Have you had any revelations about aspects of ancient Rome? Or are there any things you think we’ve been getting wrong?


Toilet near kitchen in Museum of London reconstruction
Gemma: Yes. When I first started studying toilets I assumed they were very clean and hygienic. Because of my assumptions, everything I found supported that… until somebody showed me a cesspit opening in a kitchen. And then I started rethinking everything. (sips her tea)
Also, I had been noting the facts, the dimensions of the toilet and about the water system and so forth, but I hadn’t been thinking about what actually happened in there. 


Caroline: Like who cleans it? 

Gemma: And other things. Scholars don’t normally say, OK, I go into this toilet, I sit on this chair, what do I see? What do I smell? What do I hear? But thinking like that that helps me to look differently. And recently, having seen a so-called urinal–

Caroline (interrupting): What does an ancient urinal look like?

Gemma: It’s just a drain in the street but my male colleagues immediately said ‘Oh a urinal!’ And I said, ‘It looks to me like a channel for rain.’ But they said, ‘No it’s a urinal.’ And then I started looking into urinals… 

Caroline: Where did you see this so-called urinal?

reconstruction by Richard Russell Lawrence
Gemma: There are ‘urinals’ all over because whenever an archaeologist finds a gutter and isn’t sure what it’s for he writes ‘urinal’. So they are all different. But men tell me a gutter in the floor is not so nice because the pee splashes back on your feet. So you need a wall. And then it occurred to me that maybe the Romans didn’t stand to pee but squatted. 

Caroline: Ah! Because any man wearing a toga as well as a tunic would have found it hard to lift up all that fabric, especially if he wore underwear. 

Gemma: And afterwards he would have to readjust his toga. So sitting or squatting would be easier. 

Caroline: I’ve read something about peeing in a toga but I can’t remember where…

Gemma: So to get to your question about a revelation: I realised that not one latrine in the Roman world has a separate urinal as we do. So apparently they defecated and urinated at the same time, sitting down.

Caroline: Well, sitting does eliminates spatter, or so I’m told... 

Gemma: So now I’m studying statues of peeing men to see whether they sit down or stand.


Caroline: Oh! Like the peeing Hercules! 

Gemma: Yes, and it turns out that all the statues of peeing males are Hellenistic, they are either Hercules being drunk or a child; but in both cases they don’t know how to behave. So I’m not there yet… I’m still working it out. (laughs) I told my father and he said, ‘Do we really want to know this?’

Caroline (laughs): Yes! We really want to know this. Wow, it never occurred to me that men might pee differently in Roman times. Do you know that poem by Martial about the rich man at a banquet who doesn’t get off his couch or even stop drinking but summons a slave to bring a pisspot and hold his penis for him? 

Gemma: No… 

Caroline (taps SPQR app on phone): Let me find it. Martial book 3, poem 82. (reads): ‘Who could stand to be a dinner guest of Zoilus? Dressed in leek green he lies on a couch…’ Oh here it is: Digiti crepantis signa novit eunuchus et … domini bibentis ebrium regit penem. ‘A eunuch knows the signal of a snapped finger and … directs the drunken penis of his master even as he drinks.’ 


Gemma: When I was studying statues of peeing males, I noticed something else: how the man holds his penis when he urinates. They did it differently in Roman times.

Caroline (amazed): They did it differently? In what way? 

Gemma: Modern men pee like this (Gemma holds her hand with fingers underneath and thumb on top as if using a laser clicker) but Greek men peed like that (she holds her fingers as if holding a cigarette. 

Caroline: Hang on. Just let me get a photo of that hand gesture. 

Gemma: I’ll send you a picture of the statue of a peeing boy here in the museum. 

Caroline: Did you see it down in the basement? 


Gemma: No, but it’s in the catalogue so it must be here somewhere. Anyway, this way of holding the penis shows a completely different way of thinking, because the Romans and Greeks wanted their penises to be small. Because that was beautiful. 

Caroline: Yes, that’s right. 

Gemma: This way of holding it makes it seem smaller, as if to say, My penis is not too big. Whereas men today hold it in a way that shows off its size. 

Caroline: It’s such a different mindset. 

Gemma: I gave some lectures on this peeing problem because I like to give lectures on things I don’t understand. 

Caroline: Because then you get good questions! 

Gemma: Yes. And men would come up to me afterwards, and confess things like, ‘I remember the first time I peed standing up; my father was so proud…’ One man even got a present from his father. You realise that for modern men standing is a very male thing. A modern man wouldn’t want to sit down on the toilet to pee. 

Caroline: Manliness is very important in Greece and Rome, but if your theory is correct then they obviously didn’t consider sitting unmanly. 
modern men hold it like a laser clicker

Gemma: But for us you see how much is involved in such a simple action. 

(Gemma finishes the carrot cake)

Caroline: So you’re going to write about the marble toilet from the Baths of Caracalla? 

Gemma: Yes. I’m working on a book called The Toilets of Rome. That’s why I contacted Thorsten Opper, the curator of Greek and Roman sculpture, and asked to look at this toilet, because it’s also from Rome of course. 

(The waiter comes to take away plates, cups and teapots. All the tea has been drunk and the carrot cake devoured.)

Caroline: The museum closes soon, but I’m going to take you up to the Roman Life room and show you the picture of the baby on a potty. There’s a great story behind that

Gemma: Back to toilets. 

Caroline: Always!

Gemma: There was a conference on Roman altruism recently. 

Caroline: By altruism, do you mean ‘euergetism’, a practice in the Graeco-Roman world where high-status and wealthy individuals distributed part of their wealth to the community?

Gemma: Exactly. And I was asked to give a lecture on Roman toilets. So then I had to find an example of someone donating latrines the way they would donate a fountain or public baths. But I could only find one inscription of someone saying I built this toilet. Whereas there are 240 for baths! So that’s quite strange…

Caroline (laughs): Personally, I would thank the man who built the toilet! 


Gemma's book on Roman Toilets
Gemma: Of course. But regarding gifts of toilets I began to wonder what Romans thought of toilets. So I collected every literary reference to toilets I could find and noted the phrases used to describe them. I made three categories of adjectives modifying the word toilet: positive, neutral and negative. So a negative adjective might be a ‘dirty’ or ‘disgusting’ toilet. 
(pauses for dramatic effect)
There was not one positive adjective modifying the word toilet. 

Caroline: So they were mostly negative? 

Gemma: No, about half and half. Half neutral and half negative. 

Caroline: Apart from ‘dirty’ and ‘disgusting’, what other sorts of negative adjectives did you get for toilet? 

Gemma: ‘Smelly’, ‘ugly’, ‘offensive to the nose’, ‘provoking to the eye’… words and phrases like that. 


illustration for The Sewer Demon by Dr Helen Forte
Caroline: Is there anything about demons coming up out of the toilet as we discussed when I was first researching The Sewer Demon

Gemma: Only one reference, and it’s very late. But you see, although I had been studying toilets for twenty years, I had never looked at the way they are described. It’s not surprising that benefactors didn’t want to put their names to these toilets. 

Caroline: It’s ironic that benefactors boasted about building bath houses, because they could be unhygienic, too. 

Gemma: Yes. Stagnant water, the drips…  

Caroline: Cleaned by reluctant slaves, if at all. That reminds me: someone suggested that sea-sponges were for cleaning the toilets, but that would have been far too expensive. Surely you’d just use a handful of leaves? 

Gemma: Perhaps. 

Caroline: I’ve been reading about Galen, the Greek-speaking doctor in second century Rome, and I noticed that he uses strips of linen as bandages. But linen must have been terribly expensive, too; it has to be woven by hand! I mention it because someone has suggested the Romans used bits of cloth to wipe themselves, but that must have been almost as expensive as a sea-sponge. 


Gemma: But the most inexpensive is actually water…

Caroline: Which brings us back to those little juglets! Gemma Jansen, thank you so much for a delightful tea with fascinating toilet talk. 

Gemma’s book, Roman toilets, their archaeology and cultural history is available in paperback (and at your local Classics library). Her book ‘Toilets of Rome’ will be out next year. Caroline Lawrence’s books about a Roman beggar boy named Threptus who explores the sewers are The Sewer Demon and The Poisoned Honey Cake

10 comments:

Stroppy Author said...

Wonderful! What fascinating insights—thank you, Caroline!

Katherine Langrish said...

Fascinating! And just a thought, but with the statue of Hercules peeing, he is entirely naked and so has no clothes to protect.

Juliette said...

Fascinating interview, and also a perfect introduction to what doing academic research in ancient history is like! :)

Lesley Downer said...

How funny and interesting! Feel inspired to write about Japanese peeing habits and loos in a future blog. Thank you!

Unknown said...

it's much harder to aim when you hold the penis the 'antic' way. i do it sometimes outdoors (i mean in wood etc), when all you need is to keep the general direction to prevent wetting your own legs, but the 'fire dispersion' is worse than 15cm per meter of distance.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thank you, Mr Unknown! I will pass that on to Gemma.

michelle lovric said...

There is always more to learn about men ...

Sandra Nohlmans said...

Dear Caroline,it's nice to read this conversation between Gemma - she is my niece - and yes I am Dutch, and you. I didn't knew that she is wrihting on a new book. I am looking forward.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Sandra! As you can tell from my interview I am a huge admirer of your niece!

Janie Hampton said...

A great blog! Thanks. As a woman, I don't know the details but my understanding is that peeing standing up is a very British habit. German, and Afghani men don't stand to pee- and maybe all countries in between?