The ancient Romans influenced many of the cultures and civilizations around them, including the way that people went to the bathroom.

Ancient Roman Toilets

Given that the Romans developed their civilization around 1000 years after the ancient Greeks, it makes sense that the Romans borrowed some techniques. Among them was the use of communal toilets, featuring the long benches with small holes cut into them. These benches sat above channels of flowing water, although each communal toilet was different in the depth and velocity of the water flowing underneath.

As with the ancient Greeks, the Romans did not have toilet paper. Instead, they used a sponge attached to a stick, which they would dip into a shallow channel of water and then use to rinse themselves off. In some cases, the sponge was kept in a bucket of saltwater and vinegar. The sponge technique, called a tersorium, was used mostly by higher-class people. The lower classes had to resort to using small stones as the ancient Greeks did.

First-Century Toilets

Around the first century was when Augustus ruled over the colony of Nemausus. There were tens of thousands of people in this community so a water system was crucial. Twenty kilometers away, there was a spring called the Fontaine d’Eure, although it was blocked by the hills of the Massif Central. The Romans’ solution to this problem was to construct an aqueduct.

Unlike other aqueducts, this one had a steep gradient, about 0.67 meters per kilometer. The structure was also unusually high at 50 meters since it had to run above the Gardon River, which ran between the Roman civilization and the spring. When all was said and done, the aqueduct measured 360 meters long and had an average height of nearly 49 meters. The watercourse drops 2.5 centimeters along the length of the structure.

Today the aqueduct holds the name Pont du Gard. Historians estimate that it took around 15 years to build, given a crew of 800 workers. It was worth the effort, though, since the Pont du Gard brought 40,000 cubic meters of water into Nemausus every day. The total travel time of the water from spring to civilization was 27 hours and when it arrived, it poured into a one-meter-deep basin. That basin served as a holding tank for the water to be filtered out to different plumbing systems in Nemausus for things such as bathrooms and fountains.

The pipes that the ancient Romans used were made of lead or plumbum. That’s why we have the word plumber today; it was someone who worked with plumbum pipes in ancient Rome. We also get the word latrine from the Roman term latrinae, which referred to a single-occupant toilet seat. As the flowing water from the aqueduct rushed beneath the communal latrines, it swept away waste and deposited it in the sewers. The Pont du Gard eventually went into misuse but visitors can still see it today.

At-home toilets were just little pots that individuals would relieve themselves in. Keep in mind that this was only for urinating as the pots were emptied into larger jars that were scattered throughout the streets. Every week, the urine jars were picked up and taken to a clothes-washing facility since the ancient Romans washed clothing in their urine. This makes sense, considering that human urine contains ammonia and natural agents that can get stains out of clothing.

Modern Roman Toilets

A visit to Rome (or anywhere in Italy) today won’t reveal any public latrines sitting out in the open. It can be difficult for tourists on the street to find a public restroom and they will probably have to resort to stopping by a cafe and using their restroom (with a purchase, of course).

Roman bathrooms tend to be quite small, even narrow. The toilets often lack actual toilet seats as they can break easily and are more difficult to replace in this region. Another thing that foreigners may notice is that the typical flusher handle may be largely absent on a Roman toilet. Instead, there might be a button on the wall or on the toilet itself or there might be a pull chain.

When it’s time to wash your hands, you might find that the sink faucet needs to be turned on via a foot pedal. This makes a lot of sense, considering that helps you avoid touching a dirty faucet.