Wednesday 9 December 2009

Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World by Barry Hobson

A very interesting and informative book that, to our inexpert eyes, is well thought out and executed. It will be of interest to both students of Roman Archaeology and those looking away from the monumental and heroic and more towards the daily life of the ordinary people.

The author is a Medical Doctor and has a degree in Archaeology so he knows his subject. The subject is different and not covered elsewhere in this breadth. He has worked with the Anglo American Project in Pompeii and with numerous other people. With the aid of a team of five helpers has been able to survey virtually the whole of Pompeii. Bob is very interested in latrines also, so we have probably been treading the same ground.

We are not expert enough (there can’t be many who are) to perform an academic critique of the book but, in view of the interest shown on the blog have set out some detail of the structure and coverage of the book and some comments about its potential usefulness.

The book starts with Toilets across the Roman world: an introduction, looking first at Rome, Ostia and Hadrian’s Villa, then Southern Italy and Sicily and finally The Empire. The second chapter on Roman Britain covers toilets for the army and toilets for civilians.

Pompeii is well covered. Chapter 3 is devoted to Pompeii but numerous other chapters use Pompeian examples. The author defines Pompeian as including all inhabitants before and after the Roman colonisation. Pompeii unlike many other Roman cities did not have a (foul) sewer system. He states that most types of properties, large and small, had latrines. It is interesting that he puts forward the theory, perhaps difficult to accept in the modern day, that many of the toilets near the doors to the street could have been used by passers by on their daily journeys around Pompeii. Certainly those who visited Pompeii during the recent restaurant closure, which included its toilets, would have wished themselves back in this ancient Pompeii.

Chapter 4 is a Chronology of toilets which apparently have existed since the third millennium BCE. Here Pompeii provides the opportunity to examine at least 200 years of toilet development. Evidence from contemporary writers suggests elite houses used chamber pots which slaves emptied into the toilets in the working areas and kitchen.

The development of Upstairs toilets is covered next. So far 15 have been identified in Pompeii. Nine out of ten samples of mineralised material taken from the downpipes have confirmed the passage of human waste.

Chapter 6 is on Privacy which the author regards as highly complex and attempts to understand the Roman culture and the behaviour it produces so as to be able to interpret the archaeological findings and establish what privacy meant in the Roman world.

Rubbish and its disposal follows, examining Roman writings as well as the impact of formation processes on original deposits. One persons cow dung is it seems another’s cleansing material. The Romans apparently also had a recycling programme.

Dirt, smell and culture seeks to establish the principles of hygiene and cleanliness that operated in Roman times. It looks at attitudes to smells and hygiene as well as at the various smells from toilets, tanneries, fulleries, cesspits and rubbish. Were the wooden pegs occasionally found in walls beside or behind a latrine designed to hold garlands or such material to combat the odours? Were the people simply resigned to the smell because they could not change it?

Chapter 9 is about Water supply, usage and disposal. There was an abundance of cisterns, that of then House of the Painted Capitals holding about 69,000 litres of water. Heavy rain would cause water from the houses to flow under the door thresholds into the street, helping to cleanse them. After the introduction of piped water he finds little evidence of this being connected to the kitchen for drinking or cooking. He then looks at the evidence for flush toilets.

The book then looks at Greek and Roman “writings” on excrement, latrines and toilet utensils to determine Who used the toilet?.

Motions Maladies and Medicine looks at the dangers to public health, disease carrying flies, how to maintain a healthy lifestyle and modern research on preserved faecal material and stresses the need to search diligently in the areas where such material may be found.

Who Cares about Latrines? looks at the published work on latrines, the often lack of interest in that part of the house and the relatively small amount of work on the contents of cesspits and latrines.

The final chapter outlines ideas for Future research. We hope that much more research is undertaken on latrines and in particular collated in the style of this book rather than being left as just an other room lost in a larger number of rooms.

As with many Pompeii books there are a few minor errors. Figure 65 for example is attributed to the latrine in the House of the Duc d’Aumale (VI.7.15) whereas the chalkboard in the photo indicates VI.13.11. (Another house attributed to the Duc d’Aumale is to be found at VI.9.1.) Similarly on page 51 the House of the Silver Wedding is given the location V.7.15 whereas it is at V.2.i.

We agree with the author’s statements about the poor state of many of the latrines, covered in uncleared rubbish, or in our experience simply reburied. This has made identification and photography difficult for us as well.

The only negative comment we can make about the book is that nowhere does he mention where you can search for “latrine” and find all those we have managed to photograph. One of the aims for is to provide a resource for authors to cross check their material and eliminate any errors before publication. We are more than happy to reply to email queries and requests for help.

The book is a wealth of photographs, material, sources ancient and modern from which to draw. There are 142 illustrations with a very large number from Pompeii and Herculaneum. A 10 page bibliography includes just over a page of ancient works in translation from which the author has quoted frequently in Latin but always with an English translation. A further function of the book is as a catalogue of latrines.

We thoroughly enjoyed this book. We got a copy in Melbourne whilst visiting the Day in Pompeii exhibition earlier this year and have found it an excellent resource to cross check our web site pictures and descriptions originally "derived or deduced" from other sources.

Well worth reading.
Jackie and Bob at pompeiiinpictures

Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World by Barry Hobson
ISBN 9780715638507
July 2009
Paperback, 200 pages, 142 Illustrations.
List price £14.99, AU$49.95 and US $28.95.
(Currently available with substantial discounts on the usual Internet book sites)

1 comment:

Sera Baker said...

Thanks for the review. The topic had peaked my interest and now I'll purchase a copy as I know what is in the book. I especially enjoyed your reminder that "Pompeii in Pictures" is meant as a complementary tool to research!

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