Pompeii, Italy


The latrine was a place to purify the body and -surprisingly- to talk about business in complete relax. As declared by a graffiti on a latrine wall “After enjoying the joy of table it is good to stop by this place before devoting yourself -once unloaded- to the joy of love”.

For Roman people, personal hygiene and body care were of primary importance in daily life, at least until the advent of Christianity, even when taking a bath became a sign of vanity, therefore, a grave sin. Among the places dedicated to the care of the body and the purification from negative fluids, latrines -for obvious reasons- were among the most popular.

To get an idea of the importance of these structures, just think that in the 4th Century in Rome, there were about hundred and fifty public toilets! Private baths in Roman cities were few and only the wealthiest families could afford one at home. The rest of the population used public latrines: they had water running through pottery pipes draining sewage into cesspits.

Latrines were usually covered by a porch -to shelter transit areas from the rain- and at the same time were always open to prevent stench from concentrating. The first public toilets date back to the Imperial Age. How can we find out in which place were they situated? In the same way as for an Italian guy needing a public restroom it is obvious to enter a bar and ask for a coffee, so for an ancient Roman it was easy to locate a latrine where a groups of servants were waiting outside for their masters.

An extensive network of public toilets was deployed in the roman baths, (open to people belonging to all the social classes), in the Forum or along the busiest streets. It seems almost incredible, but latrines were one of the most peaceful places to meet and chat.

They were rectangular rooms with seats of stone, marble or wood running along the walls suspended on a logline used for the sewage drain. Sometimes two perpendicular pieces of stone allowed to be more comfortable, resting the arms, but also to keep the neighbour at a safe distance. In the most luxurious latrines, even the walls were painted or decorated by niches housing statues, but also altars, as the one dedicated to Goddess Fortuna in Ostia.

The Goddess to invoke in those circumstances was Carnea, who favored bodily functions and purification, along with Hygieia, from which the word “hygiene” comes. Also, praying inside a latrine was not considered to be inappropriate or blasphemous. In front of the seats clean water was flowing, utilized to wash up after users had completed their tasks. For this operation, sponges attached to handles were available; this less than desirable task was often assigned to slaves who waited patiently for their masters while they were relieving themselves.