One of the biggest surprises of my tour of select Roman military sites on the British frontier/s has been coming across the "prominently" placed, and often signposted, Roman military loos (in Britain, so loos). Of course, there had to be a place where people did numbers ones and number twos, but in normal conversation or discussion - at least in my experiences in class and in the course of my research - it's not something that's entered my stream (pun intended) of consciousness. Toilets have come occasionally, or rarely even, in my preparation in years past for the UofW's Roman Society course. It's always fun too to bring up the famed bleaching of Roman togas, for which we have such great evidence from Pompeii. Indeed, I remember learning all about it in my 4th year honours seminar class on Pompeii at Mac.
Anyway, point is it's come up
on occasion, I know it had to be there (in the back of my mind), but I hadn't
given much thought beyond that. I've come across five Roman military loos
on this comparably short and condensed tour: one at Caerleon in Wales,
one at Chesters in England, one at Housesteads in England, and one at Arbeia in
England. Evidently too, though I haven't seen it myself, they've found a
wooden "posh" toilet seat at Vindolanda. What's familiar about
seeing what few "seats" we've found is that the shape is basically
the same that you find in most toilets, at least in the west, today.
What's less familiar, again in the west, save for those troughs you find in so
many UK mens' toilets, is the public aspect of the urination and
defecation. Some of us don't have any trouble doing the duty in the
presence of others; others of us, myself included, like to keep our number ones
and numbers twos on the down-loo. In the Roman forts, however, at least
those that I've seen, the common soldiers are more often than not going to be
doing the business - how many euphemisms can I use? - in the presence of their
comrades. Sure, we can't prove that those long-dead Roman soldiers who
shared my views didn't go off into the middle of the woods to do their thing,
but I'm guessing given various rules and regulations surrounding movement into
and out of a fort on duty, this might have been more difficult to
Ultimately, this public pooing
raises all sorts of interesting questions. For one thing, from the
perspective of the sensory experience of Roman life, it's not hard to imagine
what it might have been like. If you've ever had some experience of port-o-johns,
as they called them in my youth, put up for construction workers or at outdoor
concerts and the like, or even the kaibos and outhouses of the Canadian
cottage-country world, then you know how bad those things can smell when you're
inside. Many of those, at least the former, would be emptied on some sort
of rotation; of the latter, I've never really known. In the case of Roman
military bases, however, would anyone every empty those things?
Presumably something would have to give, though beyond my experience with dog
poo in the cities and wilds of Canada, I know little-to-nothing about how long
it takes for it decompose. Still, if it was allowed to pile up, and if
the all the men (to say nothing of the women and children) in a base were regular
(no fibre needed), it wouldn't be long before you might have something
approaching "Aegean Stable" proportions with no Herakles in
sight. Even so, even if the emptying of the loos wasn't regular, the
smell, possibly even the taste, of those environments would have been remarkable
unless they made some attempt to mask the smell or keep things in check. And, these loos were also found within the
confines of what where enclosed settlements – Roman military forts were without
fail surrounded by walls, often stone ones that would, I’m guessing, trap the
smell inside. For, as bad as it might be
for those who went in to do a number one or number two, there’s also the issue
of the smell wafting over to those who lived beside the loos. If I recall, at Caerleon the loos were
positioned right beside one part of the barracks. Perhaps if you’d been a bad soldier you’d
have to live at that end for a time?
As many forts as possible, it
seems, from what I can gather, tried their utmost to be self-sustaining. Should the loos be seen as part of this
practice? When it comes to urine I would
think so, if we assume that there was some sort of piping that led the urine to
some sort of fulling centre. On the
other hand, I don’t recall ever coming across some sort of place in a
fort. Maybe they’re there and I missed
them, but maybe not. Of course, Roman
soldiers, the odd officer aside, would likely have little concern with getting
their togas gleaming white. If we get
back to the poo, might it have been used as part of wider fertilization
practices in and around the fort? I have
no idea how useful human poo is when it comes to fertilization, though I
imagine it would have some benefit. At
the same time, their diets wouldn’t have been comprised of the same sorts
chemicals and processed foods that ours are today, so their poo might have been
more valuable from a re-use perspective, though I’m speculating.
Another issue is the standing
or sitting for number ones – and one can’t hope to resolve (I think?). We thinking of men standing to pee and, well,
obviously sitting to poo. From a
practical point of view – and bear in mind you would get a whole row of these
toilets – would those who had to pee be standing, hypothetically, between those
who had to poo? What happened if the
spray got out of control? On the other hand,
did you just sit in these environments?
Standing while peeing, at least among males, seems like a biological characteristic,
at least when toilets aren’t involved.
But if you were in this environment would you change your habits?
One last thing to note: unit cohesion. What better way to bond with your fellow
soldiers than in the loos? Those who
shit together, fight better together.
Might these public military loos have had some sort of advantage from
that perspective? I guess the only catch
with this angle is that I believe that public loos were a common thing in the
Roman Empire in general. In that instance
it might have been less the case that it provided soldiers an opportunity to
bond and more the case that it was just part of regular Roman urban life. Indeed, many see Roman forts as mini-outposts
of Roman urban life, which I think is a reasonable enough assumption.
All in all, much food for
thought – or in this case digest. And I
leave you with a photo of the Roman military kaibos at Arbeia.