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5 Disgusting Habits That Were Perfectly Normal in Ancient Rome

Ravi loves writing within the realm of relationships, history, and the bizarre—where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

Read on to learn some of the most disgusting hygienic habits of the ancient Romans, from how they cleaned their butts to their use of gladiatorial blood as medicine.

Read on to learn some of the most disgusting hygienic habits of the ancient Romans, from how they cleaned their butts to their use of gladiatorial blood as medicine.

The Romans Were Surprisingly Unhygienic

One cannot deny the fact that the Roman empire was a powerful force to reckon with in ancient times.

In a little more than 1500 years, the Romans managed to conquer half of Europe, parts of Asia, and parts of Africa. They unified their vast territory with astounding scientific, philosophical, medical, and technological advancements. Even today, remnants of Roman architecture can be found across much of their ancient territory, and their culture has thoroughly influenced our world today.

Despite all these advancements, other aspects of ancient Rome remain mysterious and controversial. And one of these things is the extremely poor level of hygiene practiced by ancient Romans. It is almost impossible to imagine how such an advanced civilization had such poor hygienic habits.

There are countless examples of Roman squalor. Despite their incredible bathhouses and sanitation systems, the Romans still lived their daily lives with a host of parasites and diseases. Some of their medical remedies (dung, excreta, urine, etc.) were absolutely disgusting.

Even some of their emperors were of the most debauched in world history, as they practiced incest, seducing their siblings, and so forth. And the famed Roman feasts were made up of unusual items, from dolphin meatballs to flamingo tongues.

While some of the facts surrounding the famous "vomitorium" are highly questionable, emperors like Vitellius are best remembered for their incredible appetites, feasting up to four times a day on exotic items like pheasant brains and the aforementioned flamingo tongue.

In this article, we will cover the following 5 gross hygienic topics related to the ancient Romans' dubious habits:

  1. Roman Toilets Were Dangerous Places
  2. One Sponge for Everyone
  3. Urine for Whitening Teeth
  4. Dirty Graffiti
  5. Weird Roman Medicine

1. Roman Toilets Were Dangerous Places

When you entered a Roman toilet, there was a real risk that you may die doing your deed.

The first problem was the multitude of creatures—ranging from bugs to scorpions—that resided in the sewage system and might crawl up and bite people on the underside. The second problem was the gas build-up, which might explode and kill or seriously injure restroom patrons. Yes, Roman public latrines were so choked with hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and methane (CH4) that these gases could ignite and cause an explosion!

This is why Romans drew magical spells and images of Gods on the walls of the toilets to keep them ‘safe’ from the frightening underground forces as they conceptualized it. Some also came pre-equipped with statues of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, guarding them against any danger.

Public Latrines in Ancient Rome

Ancient Romans used a tool, called ‘xylospongium’ to clean their butts. There were often only a few of these rank sponges in each toilet.

Ancient Romans used a tool, called ‘xylospongium’ to clean their butts. There were often only a few of these rank sponges in each toilet.

2. One Sponge for Everyone

Ancient Romans used a particularly gross mechanism to clean their butts.

The tool, called a ‘xylospongium,’ consisted of a wooden stick with a sponge fixed at one end. These sponge sticks were attached to the bathroom benches; people shared them and seldom cleaned them between uses. Slaves may have cleaned these sponges once or twice a month in a bucket of vinegar, and it seems that they may have been used more like toilet brushes than toilet paper.

And there were few of them in public toilets, so people managed with what was there, by sharing the sponge. This turned the Roman toilets into breeding grounds for bacteria—it is no wonder that diseases like cholera and typhoid were common among ancient Romans.

The Romans used urine for whitening their teeth.

The Romans used urine for whitening their teeth.

3. Urine for Whitening Teeth

Yes, I know it sounds disgusting, but at that time, ammonia, a key ingredient in human urine, was great at getting tricky stains out of white Roman Togas. Moreover, it was much easier to acquire than soap. Slaves could just put buckets on street corners, and anybody could contribute to the production by peeing into them.

The Romans took the usage of urine to an entirely different level: besides washing clothes, they also used it as a fertilizer for growing fruits. And the most disgusting use was using it to whiten their teeth.

Used as a mouthwash, Romans believed that urine kept their teeth clean and white. In fact, the Roman poet Catullus once even mocked his clean-toothed enemy Egnatius by saying:

“The higher the polish on your teeth, the more it proclaims that you have drunk your piss.”

Further, the Roman emperor Vespasian famously instated a ‘urine tax’ by taxing the public bins where people dumped urine collected from toilets. The tax was so lucrative that it was even continued by his successor Titus. The collected pee was sold as an ingredient to businesses, workshops, and tanneries, which were subsequently taxed for it.

Romans loved dirty jokes and lots of them. It was not uncommon to see erotic graffiti on public walls, and erotic art of all kinds was commonplace.

Romans loved dirty jokes and lots of them. It was not uncommon to see erotic graffiti on public walls, and erotic art of all kinds was commonplace.

4. Dirty Graffiti

Romans loved dirty jokes and lots of them. That is why when you walk through the ruins of Pompeii, you will be confronted with phrases like,

  • “Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your privates.”
  • “Aurelia is a sucker.”
  • “Furia makes me do her more and more.”

Besides this dirty graffiti, the phallus (or the erect penis) symbol has been found everywhere throughout the length and breadth of the empire, from the city of Pompeii (which is peppered with phallus symbols) to more remote parts of the empire. Roman public walls were replete with graffiti scratchings, carvings, mosaics and frescoes, and they also created erotic statues, wind chimes, necklaces, amulets and rings.

The Romans loved the craziest erotic artwork and could not get enough of obscenity.

Roman medicine was wierd.

Roman medicine was wierd.

5. Weird Roman Medicine

Sometimes, it is difficult to know whether Roman medicine was really used to cure the sick or was simply a recipe for disaster.

Roman authors report people collecting the blood of dead gladiators and selling it as medicine. The blood of defeated gladiators became medicine for people with epilepsy, while the winners' blood became aphrodisiacs.

There were also reports where some people removed gladiators’ livers and ate them raw for vitality, while others prolonged their treatment by repeatedly drinking the blood of decapitated gladiators.

And for patching up wounds, the Romans didn’t have Band-Aids. According to Pliny the Elder, people in Rome patched up wounds and animal bites with goat dung. Goat dung was also drunk both as an energy drink or to ward off bodily weakness due to illness.

Goat dung was either boiled in vinegar or ground into a powder and mixed into other drinks. This concoction was drunk by the poorest Roman citizen all the way up to Emperor Nero himself. Pliny also mentioned the use of mouse, weasel and pigeon dung for use as cautery.

So be thankful that you were not born into Imperial Rome. Otherwise, you might well have had to swallow some animal dung if you, unfortunately, happened to fall sick!

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ravi Rajan

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 29, 2021:

Thanks, Vanita. It is quite surprising considering the Roman empire was one of the most advanced empires of its time.

Vanita Thakkar on May 29, 2021:

Ooops !! What to say ?! Unbelievably surprising.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 28, 2021:

Thanks, Vidya. Yes, it is surprising.

VIDYA D SAGAR on May 28, 2021:

So gross, surprising, considering that it was such a powerful empire.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 28, 2021:

Thanks Flourish for your comments

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 28, 2021:

Stomach churning! Interesting article

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 26, 2021:

Thanks viryabo

viryabo from Lagos, Nigeria. on May 26, 2021:

Oh my word!

Thank you for this enlightening article.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 26, 2021:

Thanks Peggy for the comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 26, 2021:

All I can say now, after reading this, is I am glad to be living now. Hooray for toilet paper!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 26, 2021:

Thanks, Bill for your comments

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 26, 2021:

I don't think "disgusting" is a strong enough adjective to describe those common Roman practices. Yuck!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 26, 2021:

Thanks Devika for your comments

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 26, 2021:

HI Ravi this is disgusting indeed! Well lots has changed since then and I am glad it has. In Roman times it didn't matter it was different.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 26, 2021:

Hygiene in ancient Rome was far more disgusting than you could ever imagine.