The complex sanitation system in ancient Rome was effective at removing human waste and in several ways similar to modern systems; with a clean water supply, public baths and toilets – but a new study shows that the Roman sanitation system actually did very little to improve the health of the Roman population. In reality, the infestation of human parasites; roundworm, whipworm and dysentery for example, was greater in ancient Rome than during earlier, less sanitary time periods.
The Romans first introduced public sanitation technology approximately 2,000 years ago, which included multiseat latrines in public restrooms (to be fair, the multiseat arrangement was originally a Greek idea) sewage systems, public baths, and piped drinking water brought in using aqueducts. There was also legislation that required human waste be removed from cities and towns; typically, by carting it to the countryside.
But one researcher, Piers Mitchell from the University of Cambridge, wondered; did the inventions and rethinking of how waste was dealt with actually improve the health of the Roman Empire’s people? To find out he scoured previous research material on the intestinal parasites of the Romans, which involved the microscopic remains discovered by researchers over the years such as; fossilized excrement (coprolites), soil from latrines, and burial dirt containing decomposed (human) remains. Furthermore, he included studies which analyzed Rome’s ectoparasites using combs and textiles. Ectoparasites are those parasites which are found on the body as opposed to in the body, i.e., fleas, bedbugs and lice.
As with the internal parasites, ectoparasites were as common for the Romans who regularly bathed, as they were in Medieval and Viking populations – groups that did not bathe frequently. Ancient Rome’s laudable toilets and baths seemed to have little actual impact on the health of the ancient Romans.
Why? Modern research has shown conclusively that access to clean water and to toilets, or any type of waste treatment system decreases parasites and disease, yet when compared to the Iron Age and Bronze Age, the Romans, even with their much lauded sanitation system had just as many of the parasites associated with poor sanitation.
Mitchell has identified several likely culprits which could have negated the benefits of the Roman’s sanitation efforts. First, the communal, and warm, water in the bathhouses likely assisted in spreading the parasitic worms. Depending on how frequently the water was changed, scum (and parasites) could have appeared and covered the water fairly rapidly. Second, the Romans enjoyed eating a raw and fermented fish sauce – garum. Their enthusiasm for this condiment may explain the prevalence of fish tapeworm parasites in the population, considering the parasites wouldn’t have been killed during the cooking process.
The third, and likely the highest contributor to the parasitic infestation (not to mention the yuck factor), was the Roman practice of fertilizing their crops with human excrement. While increasing the crop yield, the Romans were also unwittingly reinfecting themselves by eating crops which had been fertilized with parasite ridden waste. Human waste left out to dry for a year or more is safe to use as fertilizer because any bacteria or parasites would be gone, the Romans however, thought that having the excrement carried out into the countryside and practically into their laps was a windfall.
In ancient Rome, parasite infection treatments would have included modified diets and bloodletting. Evidence of delousing efforts to get rid of fleas and lice has been discovered as well. What the study really says is that no engineering feat can overcome ignorance.
Image courtesy of Craig Taylor