Scholia Reviews ns 19 (2010) 10.
Barry Hobson, Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World. London: Duckworth, 2009. Pp. x + 190, incl. 142 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-0-7156-3850-7. UK£14.99. Further Details.
History and Ancient Studies, Saint Olaf College, USA
Cacator cave malum warns a grafitto in a Pompeian public toilet. And so he (or she) should, according to Barry Hobson, a GP until his retirement in 1997 and archaeologist with the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii (AAPP). Twelve years working in the ruins of Pompeii gave Hobson an appreciation for the perils of ancient toilet use as well as Roman attitudes towards human waste and its disposal. This book, largely focused on evidence unearthed by the AAPP in Pompeii, is the result. In the preface Hobson asks the question: 'Why a book on toilets?' His answer: because toilets are interesting and tell us a great deal about human behaviour. Moreover, 'Toilets do appear to have a degree of common appeal, probably because it is a subject about which everybody has a degree of expert personal knowledge and experience' (p. ix). The goal of the book seems to be a description and dissemination of the surviving evidence for both public and private toilets to a scholarly and general audience unfamiliar with the subject (Chapters 1-5, 7, and 9 are almost wholly descriptive). Thus, the book is wonderfully illustrated, with hundreds of images, many from sites to which the public is barred normal access. Some of the main questions Hobson poses are: 'Did the Romans feel the same about pollution and act in the same way we do? Did they wash their hands?' 'Were there social class behaviour differences relating to these questions? What were their attitudes to privacy? Did gender affect the usage of toilets?' (p. 32). Provocative questions all; unfortunately, answers are not often forthcoming and when they are take the form of 'we don't know' or we don't know, yet'.
In thirteen chapters Hobson attempts to expand a previously narrow focus on public toilets by including examination of private facilities, 'to demonstrate the variety and distribution of toilet facilities in a large Roman town available to the 'ordinary' people' (p. 31). To establish this two part focus he makes the distinction between foricae, public multiple-seat toilets, and latrinae, private single-seaters.
The first five chapters offer detailed descriptions of the extant evidence for Roman toilets. Chapter 1, 'Toilets in the Roman World: An Introduction' (pp. 1-32), surveys excavations from around the empire, starting with Rome and Pompeii, and then moving from North Africa to the Euphrates, to introduce the reader to the scope and scale of toilet style and placement. For the most part, private houses, at least outside of Rome, contained secluded one-seaters that drained into nearby cesspools, not public drains. Most interestingly, Hobson concludes that toilet adoption can illustrate the effects of Romanization, as Roman hygiene habits replace local custom. Chapter 2, 'Roman Britain' (pp. 33-44), looks at Roman military installations, in order to understand legionary attitudes towards drainage, size and placement of facilities, and issues of access and use. Latrines invariably were placed downslope, at the lower end of encampments, with significant drains for both fresh water and waste. Ordinary legionaries used the public latrines, while centurions had their own toilets and the commandant usually had one in his quarters. There was also a latrine connected to the administration center, bath complex, and hospital block. The smaller, more private facilities had holding tanks, which soldiers then had to clean out. By contrast, British towns and villas did not replicate this behaviour. Chapter 3, 'Pompeii' (pp. 45-60), focuses on evidence from Pompeii to sort out both how widespread private facilities were and how dependent individual Pompeiians were on public latrines. Pompeii did not have an extensive underground drainage system like Rome and as a result public and private latrines drained into cesspits, the larger of which were located under sidewalks. The smaller private toilets were in service buildings or inside habitation areas, in secluded niches. Hobson concludes that all sorts of buildings had private latrines, from large homes, to bars and restaurants, to small houses and single room shops. In addition, public toilets were conveniently located throughout the city, though Hobson argues these were male-dominated establishments. Women would use the private facilities in small shops and houses. In Chapter 4, 'Chronology of Toilets' (pp. 61-70), Hobson continues the focus on Pompeii and observes an apparent shift from wooden to stone seating over time. He also notes a trend to move toilets to upper storeys of insulae, in connection with a repurposing of ground floors for bars and inns. Hobson interprets this movement as an increasing social division between rich and poor. Chapter 5 (pp. 71-78), 'Upstairs Toilets', naturally segues into a detailed discussion of the upper storey facilities, and new access such in-house facilities provided the lower class residents.
The remaining eight chapters, while still largely descriptive in nature, begin to offer some interpretation of the archaeological and literary evidence. Chapter 6, 'Privacy' (pp. 79-88), explores the physical placement of toilets and suggests that there was a move to 'isolate the latrine within the building and to make it, increasingly, a single-seater' (p. 81). While toilets with two or more seats were more common in big workshops or big houses, where there was a significant number of staff, private houses and small shops contained single-seaters, tucked into corners, that offered potential for a great deal of privacy. Chapter 7, 'Rubbish and its Disposal' (pp. 89-104), catalogues that Romans dumped, burned, recycled, and reduced the volume of rubbish. Unfortunately, Hobson does not attempt to contextualize this information or offer much insight into how such rubbish patterns might be interpreted. Chapter 8, 'Dirt, Smell and Culture' (pp. 105-16), briefly surveys Roman attitudes towards hygiene and cleanliness and concludes that while Romans did not like strong smells, indoor latrines, especially in the hot summer months, stank and people seem not to have taken steps to remedy this. They must simply have lived with it. Chapter 9, 'Water Supply, Usage and Disposal' (pp. 117-32), considers water use in Pompeii. Water seems to have been an important element of all toilet systems. Indoor latrines were tiled with sloping floors and drains so that water could flush waste into cesspools or sewers. Upper floor toilets also required water, added by bucket, for flushing and keeping pipes clear. Chapter 10, 'Who Used These Toilets?' (pp. 133- 46), examines the literary evidence and concludes that, while common people used latrines, the elite preferred the more private chamber pot, going to great lengths to take their own pots with them while traveling. Chapter 11, 'Motions, Maladies and Medicine' (pp. 147-54), presents a brief summary of health and hygiene in an attempt to determine Roman understanding of contamination by human waste. Hobson argues that Romans had lifestyles that did not focus on healthy habits of minimising infectious agents and had little concern for sewage contamination. Chapter 12, 'Who Cares about Latrines' (pp. 155-64), conducts a literature review and asserts that scholars have rarely focused on subject, perhaps because of its sensitive, rather fundamental nature. Chapter 13, 'Future Research' (pp. 165-72), carries on the literature review and ends with a general appeal for more excavation in order to answer the many questions posed (and unanswered) by Hobson's study.
At times Latrinae et Foricae can be a difficult and disappointing book. It is richly illustrated with black and white photographs, site plans, and diagrams but the text poses more questions than answers and remains largely a survey of known evidence. Many readers, including this reviewer, will wish for more interpretation and analysis of the wider social significance of toilet use and its relationship to Roman cultural behaviour. Nonetheless, Hobson should be commended for collecting in one place the relevant ancient and modern literature on this rarely discussed, but fundamental subject.