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Veni, vidi, WC... By Lucinda Lambton.

Blog | By Lucinda Lambton | Oct 05, 2023

What the Romans did for us: legionaries’ latrines at Housesteads Fort, Hadrian’s Wall, built in 124 AD

For many years, I had the great good sense of plunging, with passionate interest, into the lavatory. By that, I mean relishing its history since earliest times. It was invented in Great Britain. Many many HURRAYS! On the cold, windswept wastes of Northumberland, you discover the very first of such arrangements for man’s relief (pictured). Three miles north of Bardon Mill, there are the most remarkable ruins of a Roman fort, with a great assembly of stone seats on which men could sit side by side, relishing in, rather than recoiling from, each other’s company. Hail to such conveniences – always such an important element of our lives. The Romans established an extraordinarily sophisticated – as well as efficient and even elegant – sanitary system in Britain.

From the splendour of Bath (Aquae Sulis) down to the most dextrous construction of a pipe, one finds an understanding and appreciation of sanitary needs that were not to appear again, on such a scale, for more than 1,500 years.

Their baths were steeped in luxury, with pools of hot and cold water, as well as sweating rooms and showers.

Wallowing in this splendour, the bather was spread with unguents and oils– or sand, if the dirt was serious. His skin was then scraped clean with a strigil.

There were quantities of public baths. So there was little need to have one in your house – although there was an immense private bathing pool, 30 x 18 feet, at Chipping Warden, Northants.

Less appealingly, the latrines were public, such as at Housesteads Fort near Hexham. The legionaries would enjoy the sight, as well as, I’m afraid, the sound of their companions as they sent up their offerings to Stercutus, the God of smell, Crepitus, the God of noise, as well as to Cloacina, the Goddess of the sewers. She was one of the first of the Roman deities and was believed to have been named, if you please, by Romulus himself. Impressive latrines also survive at Isca (pictured), the Roman fort in Caerleon, south Wales.

The Romans painted the walls of their latrines with deities and other hallowed emblems to protect them. Vessels for relief were put on street corners. They could be used without charge until the Emperor Vespasian discovered that they could be used for the profitable fulling– or cleansing – of cloth. In 70 AD, Vespasian imposed a urine tax on the distribution of urine from Rome’s public urinals. When Vespasian’s son Titus said he thought the tax was disgusting, Vespasian declared, ‘Pecunia non olet’ – ‘Money doesn’t smell.’

There were other benefits. Pliny noticed that the Roman fullers who worked with human urine never suffered from gout.

There was no lavatory paper in public latrines. Instead, sponge sticks were kept in containers of saltwater. Seneca wrote of the horror of a German slave who committed suicide by ramming a sponge stick down his throat. There was also the

Legionaries enjoyed the sight and sound of their companions on the lavatories grim tale of Roman soldiers who, thinking themselves disgraced at being asked to build a common sewer, killed themselves together.

The Romans’ luxuriant depravity reached its grim peak when chamberpots were made of rare stones and metals.

In 1750, Samul Rolleston wrote of Emperor Heliogabalus as ‘a monster of lust, luxury and extravagance, who, according to Lampridus, owned close- stool pans of gold, but his chamber pots were made, some of myrrh and gold onyx.’ Heliogabalus’s end was just and fitting: he was killed in a public latrine.

‘The chamberpot had been invented by the Sybarites because they would not be at the trouble of moving,’ wrote the Rev Thomas Dudley in his Encyclopedia of Antiquities.

At Housesteads, a continuous wooden seat was arranged to shelter those sitting in the teeth of the wind, on high, over a deeply dug outer sewer.

Beneath the sitters’ feet, there was a smaller watercourse, into which was dipped the monstrously unappealing sponge sticks.

There were no springs or wells nearby – rainwater was used for flushing. It flowed in both channels from great stone tanks and then on through pipes and down the hill, where the manure was collected and the liquid – liquid gold– was poured into pots for the fulling of cloth. It is thought that the stone basins were used for washing hands.

The ancient sanitary arrangements are all in perfect working order today – as they have been since 124 AD.

Lucinda Lambton is the author of the history of the lavatory – Temples of Convenience & Chambers of Delight

Left: Garrison latrines at Caerleon – Roman Isca – founded in 74 AD
Emperor Vespasian
Emperor Heliogabalus