Historical story

Hygienic Roman is a myth because they were also covered by parasites despite bathhouses and sewers

Last updated:2022-07-25

When we think of Romans, we think of progress:paved roads, aqueducts and underfloor heating. Hygiene was also a top priority. Romans introduced public baths, toilets and hygiene laws to the rest of Europe. It is striking that these measures did not improve public health in rural areas.

At least this appears from the research of archaeologist Piers Mitchell (University of Cambridge). Mitchell examined parasites in Roman poo from public toilets and compared it to the poo of peoples who had to put it in a hole until the arrival of the Romans. This shows that many parasites occurred in about the same proportion and that some parasites even increased in number in the Roman Empire. At that time, people did not know what parasites were or how to prevent or fight them. According to Mitchell, Romans were therefore not necessarily healthier than people from the Iron Age or the Middle Ages, but they just smelled a bit better.

Several types of endoparasites (internal parasites such as roundworms and whipworms) in the faeces were found to multiply after conquered peoples were annexed to the Roman Empire. Mitchell looked not only for traces of various endoparasites, but also for external critters such as fleas and lice on Vikings and other medieval people. In the latter group, the Roman toilets and bathhouses had fallen into disuse again. You would expect that those dirty medieval people would have a lot more vermin living on them, but that turns out not to be the case.

Larvae on your plate

Mitchell's explanations for the increase in parasites among the "hygienic" Romans are still a bit of guesswork and need further investigation. He thinks, for example, that the warm water from public baths may have helped spread parasites if it wasn't changed often enough. Another cause could be agricultural manure, for which Romans used human excrement. The eggs of parasites remained alive on land and thus ended up in the meal again. He sees a third cause in the popular garum, a Roman fish sauce that quickly spread throughout Europe. The sauce was not boiled, but left in the sun to ferment. That is asking for trouble.

Overall, Mitchell concludes in his research that the introduction of bathhouses, public toilets, and hygiene laws had no apparent positive effect on public health in the Roman Empire. But what do Dutch scientists think of Mitchell's explanations?

Professor Nico Roymans (Free University) finds the conclusions plausible, but adds that Mitchell speaks too generalizing about Roman culture. “There will have been big differences in the quality of the water and the hygiene in bathhouses,” Roymans explains. “It is important to distinguish between public baths in cities and at army camps that were accessible to the lower social groups, and the private baths of the social upper class at their rural villas and in their urban homes. In that social upper layer, the level of hygiene and personal care would have been a lot higher. Future research should aim to visualize these social differences.” Blaming the bathwater is therefore too easy.

“Head lice says little”

Kennislink had previously discussed poop with Roos van Oosten, archaeologist at Leiden University. Van Oosten:“I like how Mitchell fights the paradigm of the clean Roman culture in his research. I also like the fact that he has not looked purely at textual sources, but has also studied ecological material. I just don't quite agree with the design of the study:the whole Roman Empire over the centuries is quite large, both in distance and in time. This makes it difficult to make comparisons.”

“In addition, everyone with children in primary school knows that lice say nothing about hygiene and health. The study therefore establishes relationships that are not always there. Ideally, you would like to investigate whether there are differences between the faeces of people from a poor neighborhood and a rich neighborhood in the same city. But then again, that evidence just has to be there.”

Tom Hakbijl, entomologist at Naturalis, also sees little in the relationship between hygiene and ectoparasites such as lice and fleas. “Head lice find clean hair more pleasant than unwashed hair. Body lice could best fight people by hanging out their clothes for a while. Then the critters starve. But yeah, that gets tricky if you only have a single pair of clothes. However, Romans had no idea what parasites were and how to fight them. For example, you can only combat fleas by removing the larvae on the floor and from your bed. Bath house didn't help.”

The question of whether hygiene in our areas improved with the arrival of the Romans cannot therefore be answered by looking at external parasites. Hakbijl:“What I do think is a good point, however, is Mitchell's statement about what happened to the poo. The Romans used human excrement in agriculture and that was a good short cut for endoparasites to spread and multiply among consumers. But as for that fish sauce, I'd like to see a follow-up study. Garum ten percent consists of salt and I am curious whether parasites survive that at all.”