Here’s the poop on ancient Roman hygiene

Romans may not have been as clean as the architecture makes them appear.

One would have thought the ancient Romans to be a much cleaner version of the general population around at the time, with all their glistening marble and public baths and toilets, but a new study says that may not be the case.

A story on npr.org says, even though the Romans had flushing toilets, piped in water and hand washing stations, Piers Mitchell, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge, writes his research found the Romans were not cleaner than other civilizations.  At least with regard to parasites and disease.

Mitchell says he analyzed the literature from the past few decades in which studies had been made of ancient Roman sites that looked for parasites and disease.  The previous studies looked into mummy samples, fossilized human feces, the contents of the roman bathrooms and trash piles, and the soil around where the intestines of remains would have decomposed.

He expected the results to reveal a drop in intestinal parasites as compared to the Iron Age, when toilets were not in use, particularly those spread by contact with feces, but did not find any decrease at all.

In fact, the Romans’ preference for a dish of ferment fish sauce may have spread a large tapeworm infection from northern Europe as they traversed their vast empire, according to Mitchell.

Findings from a site excavated in York, England, show that despite spending a goodly amount of time bathing, Romans has just as many body lice and fleas as the Vikings, who most people regard and fairly smelly and unclean people, he says.

Mitchell speculates the spread of infestations could have been caused by one major problem in the Romans’ cleanliness plan, that being the hauling of human waste out of town into the farming areas, where the farmers used it as fertilizer.  Without a proper composting time, the parasites in the waste would have been transferred to the growing plants, and returned to the city as food.  People eating the infested plants would then become re-infected with the parasites.

Despite the squeaky clean appearance of the Roman areas depicted in movies, there was probably quite a bit of germ activity in the areas.  Mitchell adds, they may have not been any cleaner than their counterparts, but because of their bathing activities, they likely smelled better.

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