Hygiene in ancient Rome included the famous public Roman baths, toilets, exfoliating cleansers, public facilities, and—despite the use of a communal toilet sponge (ancient Roman Charmin®)—generally high standards of cleanliness.
When trying to explain to children, students, readers, or friends what Roman life was once like, nothing gets to the heart of the matter more poignantly than intimate details about daily life. Telling young children that there were no telephones, televisions, movies, radio, electricity, traffic lights, refrigerators, air conditioners, cars, trains, or airplanes doesn't convey the "primitive" conditions nearly so well as explaining that instead of using toilet paper, they used a communal sponge—dutifully rinsed out after each use, of course.
The Aromas of Rome
In reading about ancient practices, it is important to put away preconceived notions. Did urban centers like ancient Rome stink? Certainly, but so do modern cities, and who's to say whether the smell of diesel exhaust is any less overwhelming than the smell of Roman urns for collecting urine for the fullers (dry cleaners)? Soap is not the be-all and end-all of cleanliness. Bidets are not so common in the modern world that we can afford to scoff at ancient hygiene practices.
Access to Toilets
According to O.F. Robinson's "Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration," there were 144 public latrines in Rome in the later Empire, most of which were located next to the public baths where they could share water and sewerage. There may have been a token payment if they were separate from the baths, and they were likely comfortable places, where one might sit and read, or otherwise "amuse oneself sociably," hoping for dinner invitations. Robinson cites a ditty by Martial:
"Why does Vacerra spend his hours
in all the privies, and day-long sit?
He wants a supper, not a s**t."
Public urinals consisted of buckets, called dolia curta. The contents of those buckets were regularly collected and sold to the fullers for cleaning wool, etc. The fullers paid a tax to the collectors, called a Urine Tax, and the collectors had public contracts and could be fined if they were late with their deliveries.
Access to Hygiene Facilities for the Rich
In "Readings from The Visible Past," Michael Grant suggests that hygiene in the Roman World was limited to those who could afford the public baths or thermae, as running water did not reach the poor's tenements from the aqueducts. The rich and famous, from the emperor on down, enjoyed running water in palaces and mansions from lead pipes connected to the aqueducts.
At Pompeii, however, all the houses except the very poorest had water pipes fitted with taps, and the wastewater was piped away into a sewer or trench. People without running water relieved themselves in chamber pots or commodes which were emptied into vats located under the staircases and then emptied into cesspools located throughout the city.
Access to Hygiene Facilities for the Poor
In "Daily Life in Ancient Rome," Florence Dupont writes that it was for reasons of ritual that the Romans washed frequently. Throughout the countryside, Romans, including women and slaves, would wash every day and would have a thorough bath on every feast day if not more often. In Rome itself, baths were taken daily.
The admission fees at public baths made them accessible to just about everyone: one-quarter as for men, one full as for women, and children got in for free—an as (plural assēs) was worth one-tenth (after 200 CE 1/16th) of a denarius, the standard currency in Rome. Life-long free baths might be bequeathed in wills.
Hair Care in Ancient Rome
Romans were materially interested in being considered non-hairy; the Roman aesthetic was of cleanness, and, for practical purposes, hair removal reduces one's susceptibility to lice. Ovid's advice on grooming includes hair removal, and not just men's beards, although it is not always clear whether that was accomplished by shaving, plucking or other depilatory practices.
The Roman historian Suetonius reported that Julius Caesar was meticulous in hair removal. He didn't want hair anywhere except where he didn't have it—the crown of his head, as he was famous for the combover.
Tools for Cleaning
During the classical period, removing grime was accomplished by the application of oil. After the Romans took a bath, sometimes scented oils would be used to finish the job. Unlike soap, which forms a lather with water and can be rinsed off, the oil had to be scraped off: the tool that did that was known as a strigil.
A strigil looks a bit like a clasp-knife, with the handle and blade being in total length about eight inches. The blade was gently curved to accommodate the curves of the body and the handle is sometimes of another material such as bone or ivory. The emperor Augustus is said to have used the strigil rather too strenuously on his face, causing sores.
- Dupont, Florence. "Daily Life in Ancient Rome." Translated from the French by Christopher Woodall. London: Blackwell, 1992.
- Grant, Michael. "The Visible Past: Greek and Roman History from Archaeology, 1960-1990." London: Charles Scribner, 1990.
- Robinson, O.F. "Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration." London: Routledge, 1922.
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