Sanitation in ancient Rome

Sanitation in ancient Rome was well advanced compared to other ancient cities and was providing water supply and sanitation services to residents of Rome.

Sewer systems

The Romans had a complex system of sewers covered by stones, much like modern sewers. Waste flushed from the latrines flowed through a central channel into the main sewage system and thence into a nearby river or stream. However, it was not uncommon for Romans to throw waste out of windows into the streets (at least according to Roman satirists). Despite this, Roman waste management is admired for its innovation.

A system of eleven Roman aqueducts provided the inhabitants of Rome with water of varying quality, the best being reserved for potable supplies. Poorer-quality water was used in public baths and in latrines. Latrine systems have been found in many places, such as Housesteads, a Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall, in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and elsewhere that flushed waste away with a stream of water.

It is estimated that the first sewers of ancient Rome were built between 800 and 735 BC. Drainage systems evolved slowly, and began primarily as a means to drain marshes and storm runoff. The sewers were mainly for the removal of surface drainage and underground water.[1] The sewage system as a whole did not really take off until the arrival of the Cloaca Maxima, an open channel that was later covered, and one of the best-known sanitation artifacts of the ancient world. Most sources believe it was built during the reign of the three Etruscan kings in the sixth century BC. This "greatest sewer" of Rome was originally built to drain the low-lying land around the Forum. It is not known how effective the sewers were, especially in removing excrement.[2]

From very early times the Romans, in imitation of the Etruscans, built underground channels to drain rainwater that might otherwise wash away precious topsoil, used ditches to drain swamps (such as the Pontine Marshes), and dug subterranean channels to drain marshy areas. Over time, the Romans expanded the network of sewers that ran through the city and linked most of them, including some drains, to the Cloaca Maxima, which emptied into the Tiber River. The Cloaca Maxima was built in the fourth century BC, and was largely reconstructed and enclosed under the authority of Agrippa as an aedile in 33 BC.[3] It still drains the Forum Romanum and surrounding hills. Strabo, a Greek author who lived from about 60 BC to AD 24, admired the ingenuity of the Romans in his Geographica, writing:

The sewers, covered with a vault of tightly fitted stones, have room in some places for hay wagons to drive through them. And the quantity of water brought into the city by aqueducts is so great that rivers, as it were, flow through the city and the sewers; almost every house has water tanks, and service pipes, and plentiful streams of water...In short, the ancient Romans gave little thought to the beauty of Rome because they were occupied with other, greater and more necessary matters.

A law was eventually passed to protect innocent bystanders from assault by wastes thrown into the street. The violator was forced to pay damages to whomever his waste hit, if that person sustained an injury. This law was enforced only in the daytime, it is presumed because one then lacked the excuse of darkness for injuring another by careless waste disposal.

Around AD 100, direct connections of homes to sewers began, and the Romans completed most of the sewer system infrastructure. Sewers were laid throughout the city, serving public and some private latrines, and also served as dumping grounds for homes not directly connected to a sewer. It was mostly the wealthy whose homes were connected to the sewers, through outlets that ran under an extension of the latrine. Leftover remains of the sewerage systems are now scattered across Rome in many various locations, as to the fact that Roman sewage systems were like a maze.

Public latrines

The latrines are the best-preserved feature at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall. The soldiers sat on wooden boards with holes, which covered one big trench. Water ran in a big ditch at the soldiers' feet.

In general, poorer residents used pots that they were supposed to empty into the sewer, or visited public latrines. Public latrines date back to the 2nd century BC. Whether intentionally or not, they became places to socialise. Long bench-like seats with keyhole-shaped openings cut in rows offered little privacy. Some latrines were free, for others small charges were made.[4]

According to Lord Amulree, the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated, the Hall of Curia in the Theatre of Pompey, was turned into a public latrine because of the dishonor it had witnessed. The sewer system, like a little stream or river, ran beneath it, carrying the waste away to the Cloaca Maxima.

The Romans recycled public bath waste water by using it as part of the flow that flushed the latrines. Terra cotta piping was used in the plumbing that carried waste water from homes. The Romans were the first to seal pipes in concrete to resist the high water pressures developed in siphons and elsewhere. Beginning around the 5th century BC, aediles, among their other functions, supervised the sanitary systems. They were also responsible for the efficiency of the drainage and sewage systems, the cleansing of the streets, prevention of foul smells, and general oversight of baths.

In the first century AD, the Roman sewage system was very efficient. In his Natural History, Pliny remarked that of all the things Romans had accomplished, the sewers were "the most noteworthy things of all".


Rome.Porta Maggiore
Remains of aqueducts Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus, integrated into the Aurelian Wall

The aqueducts provided the large volumes of water that—after serving drinking, bathing, and other needs—flushed through the sewers. A system of eleven aqueducts supplied the city with water from as far away as the river Anio. Anio Novus and Aqua Claudia were two of the biggest systems. The distribution system was carefully designed so that all waste water drained into the Cloaca Maxima.

The management and maintenance involved in keeping the aqueducts flowing is well described by Frontinus, a general appointed by the emperor Nerva as water commissioner toward the end of the first century AD. He described his work on the distribution system in De aquaeductu published at the end of the first century AD. When first appointed, he surveyed and mapped the entire system, and strove to investigate the many abuses of the water supply, such as the act of tapping into pipes illegally. He also systematized aqueduct maintenance with gangs of specially trained workmen. He also tried to separate the supply, so that the best-quality water went to drinking and cooking, while second-quality water flowed to the fountains, baths, and, finally, sewers.

The system in Rome was copied in all provincial towns and cities of the Roman Empire, and even down to villas that could afford the plumbing. Roman citizens came to expect high standards of hygiene, and the army was also well provided with latrines and bath houses, or thermae. Aqueducts were used everywhere in the empire not just to supply drinking water for private houses but to supply other needs such as irrigation, public fountains, and thermae. Indeed, many of the provincial aqueducts survive in working order to the present day, although modernized and updated. Of the eleven ancient aqueducts serving Rome, eight of them entered Rome close to each other on the Esquiline Hill.[5] Also, the first aqueduct was the Aqua Appia built in 312 BC by the censor Appius.[5] Other aqueducts of importance to Roman sanitation was the Aqua Marcia built between 144-140 BC, which provided large amounts of quality water to Rome.[6] One Aqueduct with some major importance to Rome was Traiana, which tapped from the clear springs of the northern and western slopes above lake Bracciano.[6] It is said that the “Romans fully appreciated the importance of plentiful and wholesome supply of water, for domestic purposes to health of the Community.[7] It was stated by Amulree that for 441 years after the building of Rome, it depended on water from the Tiber for drinking and other domestic purposes, but in 312 BC Appius Claudius Crassus provide Rome with water from the Springs of the Alban hills and brought to consumers by the means of Aqueducts.[7] The Amulree notes state that this practice is in line with the teachings of Hippocrates: that stagnant water should be refused, not the spring water from the hills or rain water.[7]

Roman rubbish was often left to collect in alleys between buildings in the poor districts of the city. It sometimes became so thick that stepping stones were needed. "Unfortunately its functions did not include house-to-house garbage collection, and this led to indiscriminate refuse dumping, even to the heedless tossing of trash from windows." [8] As a consequence, the street level in the city rose, as new buildings were constructed on top of rubble and rubbish.

Health impacts

Although there were many sewers, public latrines, baths and other sanitation infrastructure, disease was still rampant. Most dwellings were not connected to street drains or sewers. Some apartment buildings (insulae) might have had a latrine and a fountain on the ground floor. This didn't stop the residents on the upper floors from dumping their waste onto the street. There was no street cleaning service in Rome. Thus, the neighborhoods were plagued with disease.[9]

The baths are known to symbolise the "great hygiene of Rome." Although the baths may have made the Romans smell good, they were a cesspool of disease. Doctors commonly prescribed their patients a bath. Consequently, the diseased and healthy sometimes bathed together. The sick generally preferred to visit the baths during the afternoon or night to avoid the healthy, but the baths were not constantly being cleaned. This means the healthy who bathe the next day might catch the disease from the sick who bathed the previous day.[9]

Latrines could be found in many places such as in baths, forts and the colosseum. The Romans wiped themselves after defecating with a sea sponge on a stick named tersorium.[10] This might be shared by all of those using the latrine, or people would bring their own sponge. To clean the sponge, they washed it in a bucket with water and salt or vinegar.[11] This became a breeding ground for bacteria, causing the spread of disease in the latrine.[9] It is commonly believed the Romans used sea sponges on a stick and dipped in vinegar after defecation (for anal hygiene), but the practice is only attested to once.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Farnsworth 1940, p. 942.
  2. ^ Gowers 1995, p. 27.
  3. ^ Howatson 2013, p.159.
  4. ^ Amulree 1973, p. 247
  5. ^ a b Aicher 1995, p. 34.
  6. ^ a b Aicher 1995, p. 36.
  7. ^ a b c Amulree 1973, p. 244.
  8. ^ Casson 1998
  9. ^ a b c "Death and Disease in Ancient Rome". Retrieved 2018-01-02.
  10. ^ Mirsky, Steve. "Getting to the Bottom". Scientific American. 308 (3): 85–85. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0313-85.
  11. ^ "What Did Ancient Romans Do Without Toilet Paper?". SAPIENS. Retrieved 2018-04-05.
  12. ^ Mirsky, Steve. "Getting to the Bottom". Scientific American. 308 (3): 85–85. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0313-85.


  • Casson, Lionel. Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, revised and expanded edition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p. 40.
  • Aicher, Peter. Guide to Aqueducts of Ancient Rome. Wauconda, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci Inc., 1995.
  • Amulree, Lord. “Hygienic Conditions in Ancient Rome and Modern London.” Medical History.(Great Britain), 1973, 17(3) pp. 244–255.
  • Coates-Stephens, Robert. "The Walls and Aqueducts of Rome in the Early Middle Ages, A.D. 500-1000." The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 88 (1998): 167-78.
  • Farnsworth Gray, Harold. "Sewerage in Ancient and Mediaeval Times." Sewage Works Journal Vol.12.5 (1940): 939-46.
  • Gowers, Emily. "The Anatomy of Rome from Capitol to Cloaca." The Journal of Roman Studies Vol.85 (1995): 23-32.
  • Greene, William Chase. The Achievement of Rome; A Chapter in Civilization. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1938
  • Howatson, M.C. "The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature." Oxford University Press, 2013
  • James, Peter and Nick Thorpe. Ancient Inventions. New York: Balentine Books, 1994.
  • Owens, E.J. The City in the Greek and Roman World. London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Shelton, Joann. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press,1988
  • Stambaugh, John E. The Ancient Roman City. Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

External links

Aqueduct (water supply)

An aqueduct is a watercourse constructed to carry water from a source to a distribution point far away. In modern engineering, the term aqueduct is used for any system of pipes, ditches, canals, tunnels, and other structures used for this purpose. The term aqueduct also often refers specifically to a bridge on an artificial watercourse. The word is derived from the Latin aqua ("water") and ducere ("to lead"). Aqueducts were used in ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, and ancient Rome. In modern times, the largest aqueducts of all have been built in the United States to supply the country's biggest cities. The simplest aqueducts are small ditches cut into the earth. Much larger channels may be used in modern aqueducts. Aqueducts sometimes run for some or all of their path through tunnels constructed underground. Modern aqueducts may also use pipelines. Historically, agricultural societies have constructed aqueducts to irrigate crops and supply large cities with drinking water.

Cloaca Maxima

The Cloaca Maxima (Italian: Cloaca Massima, lit. Greatest Sewer, i.e. Main) has constituted one of the world's earliest sewage systems. Constructed in Ancient Rome in order to drain local marshes and remove the waste of one of world's most populous cities, it carried effluent to the River Tiber, which ran beside the city.

Outline of ancient Rome

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to ancient Rome:

Ancient Rome – former civilization that thrived on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world.

Outline of classical studies

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to classical studies:

Classical studies (Classics for short) – earliest branch of the humanities, which covers the languages, literature, history, art, and other cultural aspects of the ancient Mediterranean world. The field focuses primarily on, but is not limited to, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during classical antiquity, the era spanning from the late Bronze Age of Ancient Greece during the Minoan and Mycenaean periods (c. 1600-1100 BCE) through the period known as Late Antiquity to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, c. 500 CE. The word classics is also used to refer to the literature of the period.


Plumbing is any system that conveys fluids for a wide range of applications. Plumbing uses pipes, valves, plumbing fixtures, tanks, and other apparatuses to convey fluids. Heating and cooling (HVAC), waste removal, and potable water delivery are among the most common uses for plumbing, but it is not limited to these applications. The word derives from the Latin for lead, plumbum, as the first effective pipes used in the Roman era were lead pipes.In the developed world, plumbing infrastructure is critical to public health and sanitation.Boilermakers and pipefitters are not plumbers although they work with piping as part of their trade and their work can include some plumbing.


Sanitation refers to public health conditions related to clean drinking water and adequate treatment and disposal of human wastes and sewage. Preventing human contact with feces is part of sanitation, as is hand washing with soap. Sanitation systems aim to protect human health by providing a clean environment that will stop the transmission of disease, especially through the fecal–oral route. For example, diarrhea, a main cause of malnutrition and stunted growth in children, can be reduced through sanitation. There are many other diseases which are easily transmitted in communities that have low levels of sanitation, such as ascariasis (a type of intestinal worm infection or helminthiasis), cholera, hepatitis, polio, schistosomiasis, trachoma, to name just a few.

A range of sanitation technologies and approaches exists. Some examples are community-led total sanitation, container-based sanitation, ecological sanitation, emergency sanitation, environmental sanitation, onsite sanitation and sustainable sanitation. A sanitation system includes the capture, storage, transport, treatment and disposal or reuse of human excreta and wastewater. Reuse activities within the sanitation system may focus on the nutrients, water, energy or organic matter contained in excreta and wastewater. This is referred to as the "sanitation value chain" or "sanitation economy".Several sanitation "levels" are being used to compare sanitation service levels within countries or across countries. The sanitation ladder defined by the Joint Monitoring Programme in 2016 starts at open defecation and moves upwards using the terms "unimproved", "limited", "basic", with the highest level being "safely managed". This is particularly applicable to developing countries.

The Human Right to Water and Sanitation was recognized by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2010. Sanitation is a global development priority and the subject of Sustainable Development Goal 6. The estimate in 2017 by JMP states that 4.5 billion people currently do not have safely managed sanitation. Lack of access to sanitation has an impact not only on public health but also on human dignity and personal safety.

Sanitation of the Indus Valley Civilisation

The ancient Indus Valley Civilization of South Asia, including current day Pakistan and Northwest India, was prominent in hydraulic engineering, and had many water supply and sanitation devices that were the first of their kind. The urban areas of the Indus Valley civilization included public and private baths. Sewage was disposed through underground drains built with precisely laid bricks, and a sophisticated water management system with numerous reservoirs was established. In the drainage systems, drains from houses were connected to wider public drains. Many of the buildings at Mohenjo-daro had two or more stories. Water from the roof and upper storey bathrooms was carried through enclosed terracotta pipes or open chutes that emptied out onto the street drains.The earliest evidence of urban sanitation was seen in Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, and the recently discovered Rakhigarhi of Indus Valley civilization. This urban plan included the world's first urban sanitation systems. Within the city, individual homes or groups of homes obtained water from wells. From a room that appears to have been set aside for bathing, waste water was directed to covered drains, which lined the major streets.

Devices such as shadoofs and sakias were used to lift water to ground level. Ruins from the Indus Valley Civilization like Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan and Dholavira in Gujarat in India had settlements with some of the ancient world's most sophisticated sewage systems. They included drainage channels, rainwater harvesting, and street ducts.

Stepwells have mainly been used in the Indian subcontinent.

With a number of courtyard houses having both a washing platform and a dedicated toilet / waste disposal hole. The toilet holes would be flushed by emptying jar of water, drawn from the house's central well, through a clay brick pipe and into a shared brick drain, that would feed into an adjacent soakpit (cesspit). The soakpits would be periodically emptied of their solid matter, possibly to be used as fertilizer. Most houses also had private wells. City walls functioned as a barrier against floods.

The urban areas of the Indus Valley provided public and private baths, sewage was disposed through underground drains built with precisely laid bricks, and a sophisticated water management system with numerous reservoirs was established. In the drainage systems, drains from houses were connected to wider public drains.

Technological history of the Roman military

The technology history of the Roman military covers the development of and application of technologies for use in the armies and navies of Rome from the Roman Republic to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The rise of Hellenism and the Roman Republic are generally seen as signalling the end of the Iron Age in the Mediterranean. Roman iron-working was enhanced by a process known as carburization. The Romans used the better properties in their armaments, and the 1,300 years of Roman military technology saw radical changes. The Roman armies of the early empire were much better equipped than early republican armies. Metals used for arms and armor primarily included iron, bronze, and brass. For construction, the army used wood, earth, and stone. The later use of concrete in architecture was widely mirrored in Roman military technology, especially in the application of a military workforce to civilian construction projects.

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