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Spending a penny in Ancient Rome,
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This review is from: Latrinae et foricae: Toilets in the Roman World (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 28 Feb 2010 07:32:06 GMT
Roderick Keech says:
Guy, you make me laugh, and I thoroughly enjoy your reviews ! Many thanks for taking the time to write them. Cheers, Rod
In reply to an earlier post on 13 Mar 2010 13:37:00 GMT
Guy Mannering says:
Well thank you Rod, I feel dead chuffed. I thought it would be at least 10 years before anyone spotted this review.
Posted on 6 Mar 2011 22:24:49 GMT
I've just read one of your reviews (about Hypatia, sorry, 'Agora') and enjoyed it so much that I set off reading all the others. Very, very informative and well written!
The Open University used to run an 'Arts and Technology' course, AT272, called
'Pre-industrial cities and Technology'. Sewage systems, public toilets etc. were a recurrent theme!
Please keep up the good work!
In reply to an earlier post on 7 Mar 2011 10:36:48 GMT
Guy Mannering says:
Many thanks for your kind words. I'll try to keep up the standard. Regards, Guy.
In reply to an earlier post on 4 Apr 2013 15:20:29 BDT
Jeremy Robson says:
Yes, an excellent review - most enjoyable. This type of subject has little appeal, but you have aroused my curiosity. Thank you, Mr. Mannering.
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