Dr Hobson opens his book with a question: who on earth is likely to be interested in a book on such an esoteric subject as the toilets of ancient Rome? Well, I can stick my hand up. You'll seldom catch me reading anything that gets into the latest best seller lists fact or fiction. But being interested in history and especially Roman history, and in particular the art and technology of that period, this title caught my eye ( I guess waste disposal comes under the heading of technology.)
Although the author casts his eye over the whole breadth of the Roman Empire, perhaps not surprisingly he devotes much attention to Pompeii. I've visited the site half a dozen times but only remember once seeing an obvious toilet (a double seater in an annexe off the kitchen). But almost every house, shop and snack bar in Pompeii had one, it's just that in their ruinous state they're not obvious to us. And guess what? Many of the houses of Pompeii had upstairs loos. There are times when the Romans seem so close to us and yet so far. For most of those loos drained not into the sewers running under the streets but into cesspits under the street. One suspects that there was always a faint whiff of sewage in the air of Pompeii.
As the author points out, there is still much about Roman loos that we don't know for sure, such as the degree of privacy expected and actually afforded, who actually used them and how were they flushed?. I remember pondering some of these issues when strolling around the communal loo in the lavish villa at Oplontis in Torre Annunziata near Pompeii. Did men and women use it at the same time I wondered, did the lady of the house bump into her slaves when she had to spend a penny or was I standing in the equivalent of the men's executive washroom and was there a ladies' powder room on the other side of the villa that still lies unexcavated under the modern town? The public latrines attached to large public buildings such as theatres and baths were invariably communal. The literary sources make it clear that you sat next to your neighbour, had a chat, and might even exchange dinner invitations (the poet Martial lampoons one hapless character for always hanging about a public loo in order to get himself a dinner.) Domestic latrines were more likely to be single seaters but one suspects that the Romans were never too preoccupied with the question of privacy where the call of nature was concerned.
Curiously, the subject of this book is a relatively neglected one especially when one considers the many other esoteric aspects of the classical world that move academics to produce often unreadable books. This one I'm pleased to say is informative, highly readable and doesn't outstay its welcome. It's generously illustrated and unlike some of those aforementioned unreadable books is quite affordable. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Roman world or to any stranger souls who are simply interested in toilets.
I might as well say "does exactly what is says on the tin" except of course that particular phrase is probably already trademarked and I'll get sued for using it.
I bought it primarily because I have an interest in the roman era and the idea that someone would write a book about such a narrow topic area was fascinating to me.
I thought that the book would probably be something that I would only ever be able to read in short bursts because the writing style would of necessity be overly analytical, dry, academic and a host of other adjectives of a similar nature. I had a text book when I was a student in the eighties called 'A Guide to Organic Chemistry' that was guarenteed to put me to sleep before the end of the first page, and if I'm totally honest expected this to be the same, even though I really did want to read it
However, I found this to be a very well researched book. Whilst it could never be described as 'a thrilling page turner that keeps the reader glued to an explosive narrative from the first page to the last' it didn't have the hypnotic affects I expected and kept my interest. I could see why people go into archeaology, apart from wanting to be seen with Baldrick on Time Team, and what drives them.
If you want to gain an insight into what life might have been like on a day to day basis, how problems were overcome and just appreciate the sheer ingenuity of man, then you could do worse than to read this book and use your imagination.
The Romans had a fully functioning system for sanitation inside houses (inclduing upstairs) at a time when the British tribes were still living in wattle and daub houses. That's got to be worth buying the book for.
Dr Hobson has managed to pique my curiosity about other aspects of Roman daily life. I can't wait for the sequel - Latrinae et Foricae II: Return of the Sponge.