Few people admire the ancient Romans more than I do. It’s true that they suffered from blood thirst and debauchery at times, and they endured a fair share of incompetent or crazy emperors, but Roman society functioned as a well-oiled machine, operating so perfectly that even with a madman as emperor at the top of the political pyramid, the society usually managed to function for the majority of the empire’s people, provided you weren’t a slave. Consider that over forty governments today do a poor job of governing what Rome governed all by itself, using one law and one currency. Sometimes it’s easy to believe that these cultural and military titans were different from us, but today I’m going to prove that, in one respect, they had the same desire as you and me—they demanded clean toilets!
In its heyday, the Roman city of Ephesus had a population of a quarter of a million people. And as the title of a famous children’s book wisely informs: Everyone Poops. Sanitation was a serious issue in ancient times; dysentery could wipe out an army or entire population. The Romans were superb engineers. They invented aqueducts to transport fresh water from great distances, as well as indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water.
This photo, taken on a recent trip to Turkey, shows a two thousand year old public toilet at Ephesus. People would hitch up their togas and have a sit. Water flowed beneath the marble opening to wash away waste, and sponges on sticks, dipped in vinegar, were used instead of toilet paper. Very tidy, but just thinking about it makes me pucker up.
I know you’ve been wondering how the masters of the ancient world took a cr—went to the bathroom, and now you know. Unfortunately, while taking this photo I received the call of nature. Unlike the fortunate inhabitants of Ephesus, I had to walk half a mile to find a port-o-potty.