Italy's Best Ancient Toilets

An intimate look at ancient Rome

Lisa Ekman 

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LISA EKMAN/SPECIAL TO THE OREGONIAN   -  Ostia Antica has a lavish, marble-seated group latrine in the Baths of the Philosopher

When you visit sites of ancient Roman civilization, it's hard to know where to look first: Temples, markets, brothels and baths all draw the eye and the imagination. But if you really want to know what it was like to live in ancient Rome, you may want to consider the humble toilet.

On a recent trip to Italy, I went in search of ancient toilets at archaeological sites people usually visit for their temples, markets, brothels and baths. Apart from the fun factor -- and that factor is high when it comes to learning about the sponge-tipped sticks some Romans used as toilet paper -- toilets give a sense of ancient Roman daily life. From the lavish, marble-seated group toilet of Ostia Antica to the humble below-the-stairs john at Herculaneum, the places where Romans conducted their daily, er, business are worth a closer look.

Archaeologists think so, too. When sites were originally excavated in the 18th and 19th centuries, toilet study was considered improper, and some toilets were even destroyed. But now, thanks to Roman sanitation expert Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, who is publishing a book next year on the subject, and Barry Hobson, author of "Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World," some of the mysteries of ancient toilets have been solved, and new mysteries have emerged. Did men and women, rich and poor use restrooms together? Did Romans sit on the toilet, or might they have squatted? How did Romans feel about privacy?

Day 1: Pompeii

I meet a British couple on the train ride from Naples to Pompeii. The woman is a psychologist. I tell the pair about my goal to visit ancient toilets, gaining a better sense of how Romans lived, and she just looks at me. Finally, she says, "Someone could do a study of why a person would be interested in such a thing."

At Pompeii, I pore over my notes and maps. Finding toilets looked easy on paper, but the ancient city once had a population of 20,000, and is huge. Further complicating matters, some areas are closed for excavation. I look in corners, thinking maybe I'll discover a toilet everyone has overlooked. I'm looking for a few clear signs: tiles sloping downward into a drainage hole; a niche carved into a wall; stones protruding from walls, where a platform would have sat.

I'm starting to worry, but then I meander onto a quiet street and happen to look up. I can hardly believe it: It's a niche toilet carved into a second-story wall. Below it, a terra cotta pipe leads into the ground. I stand in awe.

I find a few toilets in houses and bars, and even a public restroom near the forum baths, before I reach the theater. I turn in to the first dark doorway I see. Three boys scamper out, zipping up their pants and shouting in French. It is an irony of my search for toilets that modern-day bathrooms at Pompeii are few and far between.

Inside, my flashlight reveals stone channels and seat supports, but I have trouble focusing because the place reeks of urine. I reflect that it probably didn't stink during Pompeii's heyday, since most Romans used jars so that their urine could be used for everything from toga cleaner to toothpaste. Sometimes I feel like the Romans weren't really so different from us. Then I remember this matter of the toothpaste.

Day 2: Herculaneum

The eruption that buried Pompeii in ash buried Herculaneum in volcanic mud. This difference means that archaeological treasures like wood beams and furniture survived in Herculaneum. The city is small and easy to navigate, and soon after I arrive, I'm standing in front of a simple private toilet with mossy stone seat supports.

A hole leads to the city' s sewer system, which piped wastewater and rainwater to the sea. I wonder who lived and sat here. Some archaeologists think in-home toilets were solidly middle-class, avoided by the rich. If that sounds strange (it did to me), here's the explanation: Sewer-connected toilets can lead to smells, sewage backups and rodent infestations. The rich may have used chamber pots and had slaves empty them, and the poor may have used chamber pots and emptied them themselves.

On my way out, I see two guys poking flashlights into the house cistern. Both wear cargo pants, heavy boots, and Indiana Jones hats. One says they're German archaeology students researching water supplies. They explain the cistern, and I show them the toilet.

Later, I find a group toilet outside the men's baths. There's not much left, except the typical Roman group restroom setup: two empty channels arranged around the edges of the room. Both channels used to have water flowing constantly through them. The trench below the seats carried waste away, while the smaller channel rinsed the Roman wiping implement of choice, a sea-sponge on a stick.

I try to imagine using this group toilet among friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. Roman clothing probably provided some modesty, but still: Using the bathroom among others is, well, foreign.

The women's baths at Herculaneum don't have an adjoining restroom. Some scholars think women used private bathrooms, while others believe that sometimes, the genders shared. I wonder.

Villa of Oplontis

Once home to Nero's wife, the Villa of Oplontis features ornate bedrooms, a soaring atrium, a swimming pool and one notable bathroom. I take the train from Herculaneum with the Indiana Joneses, and we stroll through the grand house, oohing and aahing.

The bathroom does not disappoint. Most ancient restrooms lost their roofs long ago, but this one is enclosed, making it quiet and dark. The toilet trench and sponge-stick channel form a graceful U-shape. I try to imagine the people who lived here, who used this beautiful bathroom.

Behind a wall is another toilet, just a plain channel. The three of us speculate. Why the separation? Maybe the emperor's wife demanded privacy?

Day 3: Rome

The Area Sacra at Largo Argentina is the weirdest ruin I've visited. It's almost always closed, but you can see it from above, because it's an open rectangle set below Rome's modern streets. The ruin is most famous as the assassination-place of Julius Caesar, but is now home to dozens of feral cats.

The latrine is almost 60 feet long and may have seated 100 Romans. I lean over the glass barrier on the street above, snapping photos, until a policeman begins to look concerned.

Day 4: Ostia Antica

I've been looking forward to Ostia Antica, an ancient port city close to Rome. Among other well-preserved ruins, Ostia has all kinds of toilets.

I head for the group restroom across from the Forum baths, which is famous for its revolving door entrance (now gone), its fountain (now dry), and its 20 white marble seats (in great shape). A group of Italian schoolkids stops in front of the bathroom. While their guide explains how the latrine worked, the group descends into helpless giggles. Watching them is so amusing that I stick around to watch other groups.

I finally leave to search for what I've heard is the only known flushing toilet of ancient Rome. When I first read about it, I didn't understand: Most Roman toilets had water running constantly beneath them. Isn't that flushing? Evidently, no. A real flushing toilet uses one gush of water to wash down the waste.

The flusher is the single fanciest toilet I've seen on the trip, with a marble seat and tiled floor. I don't understand how it flushes, though.

I'm taking pictures when a couple walk in. The woman apologizes, as if they've interrupted something private. I say I'm just taking pictures of the toilet, and she says, "Oh? My husband here is a plumber."

The husband and I discuss how the toilet might have worked. Here's our hypothesis: A fountain on the other side of the bathroom wall filled a pipe blocked with a ball. At the toilet, the user pulled the ball out with a chain. After water gushed through, the user replaced the ball. We have no idea whether we're right.

There's just one bathroom left on my list. It's a small group latrine in the Baths of the Philosopher, where fragments of a stone seat perch above a deep channel. A niche along one side once displayed a fountain. I sit, letting my feet rest next to the sponge-stick channel, playing the philosopher, wondering who sat here thousands of years ago.


Italy's Best Ancient Toilets

Excavation at these sites is ongoing, which means that some sections will be closed to the public. Don't despair: There's plenty of evidence of ancient toilets at each site. I carried a key-chain flashlight, which came in handy in a couple of darker restroom areas.


Large thermopolium: Private toilet carved into the wall

Next to the Forum: Group toilet with deep trough beneath

Theater: Dark side room with group toilet; it takes a little poking around, so bring a flashlight.


House of the Grand Portal: Private toilet under the house stairs

Men's baths: Group bathroom

Villa of Oplontis (an emperor's wife's lavish retreat)

Gracefully curved multiseat latrine in a quiet, peaceful part of the house


Largo Argentina: Long group toilet. The site is perpetually closed, but you can easily see the toilet from the street.

Hadrian's Villa

Private toilets in several places around the site; one is near the Heliopolis baths

Hall of Cubicles (Hospitalum): Group toilet

Ostia Antica

Next to the Forum: Among these sites, the best example of a group toilet. Marble seating, perhaps with a fountain during ancient times.

Baths of the Philosopher: Group toilet with broken remains of stone seating. A niche in the wall held a fountain

House of Fortuna Annonaria: Private, the only known flushing toilet in the Roman world. (Group toilets simply had water flowing constantly underneath.)