Review of Latrinae et Foricae by Barry Hobson

Re-post from old version of this blog.

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the words of a popular children’s book, Everyone Poops. This means that historians should be asking themselves, to quote the title of another children’s book, Where’s the Poop?. This is the question that Barry Hobson has asked about the Roman world. And a worthy question, when we consider that Romans are justly famous as engineers in the ancient world, and that many of us have been taught that élite Romans had ‘flush toilets’ in their homes. Furthermore, toilets are an important aspect of society, and investigating them archaeologically as well as socially gives insight into the mindset and world of poopers — in this case, Roman poopers.

This is also the sort of topic that people like me get curious about but have no clue where to start — very often, the books by experts are abstruse or boring and unhelpful to the uninitiated. I admit to being an ancient historian, but I am neither an archaeologist nor an expert in toilets. Latrinae et Foricae was a great help in introducing me to this subject — it presents the information in a clear, systematic manner, and is profusely illustrated with bibliography and glossary — but it’s not too long.

Hobson begins by introducing us to a variety of toilets from around the Roman world, giving us a feel for the subject, where these items might be found, and what they look like. Chapter 2, as any general anglophone book dealing with Roman archaeology does, teaches us about Roman Britain, not only the walls, but the cities as well. The third chapter is about Pompeii, one of our best sources of knowledge about Roman toilets, and a city that Hobson himself has helped excavate.

The subject having now been presented more broadly, we are given specific questions concerning Roman toilets. Chapter 4 deals with the chronology of toilets — how do Roman toilets change over time.

Chapters 5-9 address specific issues beginning with what we know about Roman culture more widely and then moving in to the specific details about latrines. These chapters give a wide variety of literary and epigraphic detail alongside the archaeology. The fifth deals with the phenomenon of upstairs toilets (I didn’t even know they existed!). Chapter 6 addresses the question of privacy and ancient attitudes concerning privacy. Chapter 7 is about rubbish and its disposal; 8 treats dirt, smell, and culture, while number 9 is about water supply, usage and disposal. Fact: What we tend to call ‘sewers’ in the Roman water (cloacae) are, in fact, usually storm drains. Toilets did not feed into these but into cesspits, sometimes beneath the sidewalks of Pompeii.

In Chapter 10, we are concerned with who used the toilets. Did you know that some private latrines were two-seaters? Many public ones were for men only. Very often, latrines were located in the work area of the house. Often, wealthy people used chamber pots — but they also had latrines. Chapter 11 looks at what we can learn from the poop — motions, maladies and medicine. Chapter 12 discusses the history of studying latrines, lamenting their neglect over the years. And chapter 13 approaches future research.

I learned a lot from this book and saw a lot of toilets. A few facts, then: latrinae are private toilets, and foricae are public. Very few toilets actually had water tanks, although people keep saying that — if water was used to wash any waste away (which sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t), it was hauled in with a bucket. They had upstairs toilets that had big downpipes into cesspits. And toilets did not drain into the sewers.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in Roman history, poop, toilets, and the social history of privacy.

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