University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Sanitation Engineering

Bath Houses, Aqueducts, and Latrines

Forum Baths

Forum Baths, Pompeii, first century BCE,  Caldarium

Giant bath houses, characteristic of Imperial Rome, could house not only bathing facilities but lecture halls, gymnasia, libraries and gardens. Hot (caudarium), tepid (tepidarium) and cold (frigidarium) baths were provided usually. The room pictured to the left was kept warm by hot air circulating through pipes in the walls and floor.

Authors as disparate as Celsus, Vitruvius, Pliny, Frontinus, Columella, Varro, and Vegetius, demonstrate the Roman concept of health interwoven with the normal life and ordinary process of government in the Roman Empire. Vitruvius, a practicing architect in the milieu of the Roman Empire, shows through his writing how important sanitary planning was for public buildings. His chapter on city planning begins with a discussion of the salubrity of sites. The influence of the Hippocratic tract On Airs, Waters, and Places is apparent:

In the case of the walls these will be the main points: First, the choice of the most healthy site. Now this will be high and free from clouds and frost, with an aspect neither hot nor cold but temperate. In this way a marshy neighborhood will be avoided. For when the morning breezes blow towards the town at sunrise, as they bring with them mists from the marshes and, mingled with the mist, the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes [i.e., microorganisms], to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants, they will make the site unhealthy. ~De Architectura I.2-5

aqueducts

Pont du Gard, Nimes, France, 14 CE

The aqueducts were the true triumph of Roman sanitary engineering and were used throughout their empire. Frontinus, the author of a treatise on Rome’s aqueducts, became water commissioner (curator aquarum) in 97 CE. He recognized the sanitary aspects of his position stating, “my office … concerns not only the usefulness of such a system, but also the very health and safety of Rome ….”

 

public latrines

Public Latrines, Corinth, 4th century BCE

Latrines, either well drained or with the provision for semi-sanitary maintenance, became commonplace both in the houses of the wealthy and in bath complexes where there was a constant supply of running water. In lieu of toilet paper, Romans used a sponge tied to the end of a stick. After use it was returned to a bucket of saltwater.

 

terra cotta statuette of woman bathing

Terra Cotta Statuette, 350-300 BCE, National Archaeological Museum of Taranto. Woman bathing. A woman, having removed her shoes, prepares to wash herself in a luterion.

 

skull mosaic

Mosaic  from Pompeii, 1st century CE, Naples National Archaeological Museum. This particular mosaic was used as a tabletop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The skull symbolizes man’s fate and reminds us of the frailty of human existence. There are many extant examples of cups and dining areas adorned with skeletal motifs. Rather than shrink from signs of death, the Romans seem to have employed them as reminders to “seize the day.“

In Petronius’s Satyricon, in the middle of a great banquet, a slave brings in a silver skeleton put together with flexible joints, and after it was flung on the table several times, the host Trimalchio recited:

Man’s life, alas, is but a span,
So let us live it while we can,
We’ll be like this when dead.

Despite the advanced state of sanitation engineering in the Roman world, the average life span was only 30-40 years.