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The growth of ancient Rome and expansion of its sanitation innovations

Historians and archeologists have investigated Sanitation in ancient Rome for centuries. Rome had a complex sanitation system that worked similarly to modern ones, but the system and knowledge about it were largely lost in Europe during the Dark Ages.

A system of eleven aqueducts provided citizens of Rome with water of varying quality, the best being reserved for potable supplies. Lower quality water was used by everyone in the public baths and latrines much like an early form of modern toilets. 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. Romans used sea sponges on sticks after defecation. The Romans had a complex system of sewers covered by stones, much like modern sewers. Waste flushed from the toilets or latrines flowed through a central channel into the main sewage system and into a nearby river or stream. Romans were less sanitary than this system may make them appear. It was not uncommon for Romans to throw waste out windows into the streets. Despite this, Roman waste management is generally admired for its innovative feats.


Archeologists estimate the first sewers of ancient Rome were built between 800 and 735 B.C. Drainage systems had evolved slowly, and began, primarily, as a means to drain marshes and storm runoff. 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 from the ancient world. Most sources believe it was built during the reign of the three Etruscan kings in the sixth century B.C. This “greatest sewer” of Rome was originally built to drain the low-lying land that ran through the Forum. The sewers of Rome were not designed like the sewers of today, the sewers in Ancient Rome where mainly for the removal of surface drainage and underground water (Farnsworth, pg 942). It's important to mention that little is known whether the sewers are effective especially when dealing with removing excrement. (Gowers, pg 27).

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. In 33 B.C., under the emperor Augustus, they enclosed the Cloaca Maxima, creating a large tunnel. From very early times the Romans, in imitation of the Etruscans, built underground channels to drain rainwater that might otherwise wash away precious top-soil, used ditches to drain swamps (such as the Pontine marshes), and dug subterranean channels to drain marshy areas. The Cloaca Maxima, probably built in the fourth century B.C. and reconstructed under Augustus), still drains the Forum Romanum and surrounding hills. Strabo, a Greek author who lived from about 60 B.C. to 24 A.D., 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.
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 the two big trenches. Water ran in the two small ditches at the soldiers' feet.
Stone pipes
Stone pipes

Strabo may have given too much credit to the Romans, as he says “almost every house” was connected to the sewer. Most homes in early Rome were not connected to the sewers, and wastes were thrown out into the street. However, a widespread street-washing policy (using aqueduct water) sent most human wastes into the sewers nonetheless.

Eventually a law, called the Dejecti Effusive Act, was 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 only enforced in the daytime, presumably because one then lacked the excuse of darkness for injuring another by careless waste disposal.

Around 100 A.D., direct connections of homes to sewers began, and the Romans completed, for the most part, the sewer system infrastructure. Sewers ran throughout the city, serving public and some private latrines, and which also served as dumping grounds for those not fortunate enough to live in a directly-connected home. It was mostly the wealthy whose homes were connected to the sewers, through outlets that ran under an extension of the latrine.


Public latrines

The poor generally used pots that they were supposed to empty into the sewer, or visited public latrines. Public latrines date back to the second century B.C.,. Whether intentional or not, they became places of socialization. Long bench-like seats with keyhole shaped openings cut in rows offered little privacy. some latrines were free, for other small charges was made (Amulree, Pg 247).

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 wastes away to the Cloaca Maxima.

The Romans “recycled” public bath waste water by using it as part of the flow that flushed under 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 fifth century B.C., Romans employed special city officials called aediles to supervise the sanitary systems. These officials were responsible for the efficiency of the drainage and sewage systems, for the cleansing and paving of the streets, prevention of foul smells; and general oversight of brothels, taverns, baths, and other water supplies. In the first century A.D., 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 thing of all.”


Remains of aqueducts Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus, integrated into the Aurelian Wall

The Roman 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 towards 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 people 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 which 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 to supply not just drinking water for private houses, but for supplying 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 (Aicher, pg 34). Also, the first aqueduct was the Aqua Appia built in 312 B.C. by the censor Appius (Aicher, pg 34).Other aqueducts of importance to Roman sanitation was the Aqua Marcia built between 144-140 B.C that provided large amounts of quality water to Rome (Aicher, Pg 36). One Aqueduct with some major importance to Rome was Traiana it tapped from the clear springs of the northern and western slopes above lake Bracciano (Aicher, Pg 36). 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 (Amulree, pg 244). 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 B.C. Appius Claudius Crassus provide Rome with water from the Springs of the Alban hills and brought to consumers by the mean of Aqueducts (Amulree, pg 244). With this all happening in Amulree notes that this in line with the teachings of Hippocrates that stagnant water should be refused, but that rather that spring water from the hills or rain water (Amulree, pg 244).


Roman rubbish was often left to collect in alleys between buildings in the poorer 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." [1] As a consequence the street level in the city rose, as new buildings were constructed on top of rubble and rubbish.


  • ^ 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
  • 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.

See also

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