Thursday, 26 May 2016

Roman Military Kaibos (i.e. loos)

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 do.  

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.

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