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Roman latrines in modern-day Libya. Image Credit: Craig Taylor

Ancient Roman Sanitation Efforts May Have Made Things More Gross

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Roman latrines in modern-day Libya. Image Credit: Craig Taylor

We know quite a lot about the ancient Roman Empire. Two thousand years ago, the Romans spread their culture to the edge of the continent and beyond, bringing with them philosophy, religion, and a strict government. Roman territories were fertile ground for invention and the arts; unfortunately, researchers now say, they were also fertile ground for parasites.

The Romans’ obsession with cleanliness is legendary. They’ve been credited with the creation of public toilets, heated baths, sewers, plumbing, and even mandatory street cleaning. But in a paper published today in the journal Parasitology, biological anthropologist Piers Mitchell asserts that some of these inventions may have actually made things less sanitary. 

Mitchell reviewed dozens of journal articles on paleoparasitology (the study of ancient parasites) in order to look at the prevalence of parasites before and during the Roman Empire. He compiled data on the presence of 17 different species: 12 internal parasites, such as dysentery, and 5 external parasites, such as lice. The authors of the articles used for the research had collected evidence from ancient latrines, fabrics, and combs. They also sampled coprolites—fossilized poop—and examined Roman-era skeletons for signs of parasite infection. 

Analyzing the journal articles revealed a surprising trend: People in the Roman Empire were riddled with parasites. Infection with tapeworms, whipworm, roundworm, fleas, and lice actually increased during Roman times. 

How could this happen in such a squeaky-clean society? For starters, says Mitchell, the baths probably weren’t helping. Everybody was sharing the same water, which was not changed nearly as often as we’d like to imagine. A scum of human filth and cosmetics would build up on the warm water’s surface, creating a perfect breeding ground for little nasties. 

Then there was the mandatory street cleaning. In theory, getting muck off public roads sounds great. But like so many government projects, it may have had unintended consequences. "It is possible that sanitation laws requiring the removal of faeces from the streets actually led to reinfection of the population as the waste was often used to fertilise crops planted in farms surrounding the towns," Mitchell said in a press release

A Roman whipworm egg found in Turkey. Image credit: Piers Mitchell

The last potential culprit had nothing to do with misguided sanitation efforts. It was a condiment. The fish sauce called garum was the ketchup of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, with fish comes fish parasites. Mitchell was surprised to find a spike in fish tapeworm infections until he considered garum. Kept at room temperature, the sauce was a natural vector for tapeworm eggs, and there were garum factories and vendors all over the place. Everyone was eating it; as a result, everyone had tapeworms. Okay, not everyone. But a lot of people.

“This appears to be a good example of the negative health consequences of conquering an empire," Mitchell said in the press release.

The prevalence of both intestinal parasites and ectoparasites such as lice suggests that Roman toilets, sewers, baths, and sanitation laws had no clear benefit to public health, Mitchell said. However, he noted that it "seems likely that while Roman sanitation may not have made people any healthier, they would probably have smelt better."

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For the First Time in 40 Years, Rome's Colosseum Will Open Its Top Floor to the Public
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The Colosseum’s nosebleed seats likely didn’t provide plebeians with great views of gladiatorial contests and other garish spectacles. But starting in November, they’ll give modern-day tourists a bird's-eye look at one of the world’s most famous ancient wonders, according to The Telegraph.

The tiered amphitheater’s fifth and final level will be opened up to visitors for the first time in several decades, following a multi-year effort to clean, strengthen, and restore the crumbling attraction. Tour guides will lead groups of up to 25 people to the stadium’s far-flung reaches, and through a connecting corridor that’s never been opened to the public. (It contains the vestiges of six Roman toilets, according to The Local.) At the summit, which hovers around 130 feet above the gladiator pit below, tourists will get a rare glimpse at the stadium’s sloping galleries, and of the nearby Forum and Palatine Hill.

In ancient Rome, the Colosseum’s best seats were marble benches that lined the amphitheater’s bottom level. These were reserved for senators, emperors, and other important parties. Imperial functionaries occupied the second level, followed by middle-class spectators, who sat behind them. Traders, merchants, and shopkeepers enjoyed the show from the fourth row, and the very top reaches were left to commoners, who had to clamber over steep stairs and through dark tunnels to reach their sky-high perches.

Beginning November 1, 2017, visitors will be able to book guided trips to the Colosseum’s top levels. Reservations are required, and the tour will cost around $11, on top of the normal $14 admission cost. (Gladiator fights, thankfully, are not included.)

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Courtesy of the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Discover Ancient Sunken City in the Mediterranean
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Courtesy of the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari

Early on July 21, 365 CE, an 8.5 magnitude earthquake shook the eastern Mediterranean, triggering a powerful tsunami. The Egyptian city of Alexandria was damaged, towns crumbled on the island of Crete, and the Roman port city of Neapolis, located on the coast of North Africa, was largely swallowed by the wave, according to historical records. Now, after being hidden under water for more than 16 centuries, the remains of Neapolis have been discovered by archaeologists off the coast of northeast Tunisia. This, according to the AFP, confirms accounts that the city was a casualty of the ancient natural disaster.

Following several years of exploration, researchers from the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari in Italy have discovered nearly 50 acres of watery ruins near the modern-day city of Nabeul. They include streets, monuments, homes, mosaics, and around 100 tanks used to make garum, a fish-based sauce that was so popular in ancient Rome and Greece that it's been likened to ketchup. 

These containers suggest that Neapolis was likely a major producer of garum, making the salty condiment an integral part of the city's economy. "Probably the notables of Neapolis owed their fortune to garum," expedition head Mounir Fantar told the AFP.

Neapolis ("new city" in Greek) was originally founded in the 5th century BCE. While it was an important Mediterranean hub, its name doesn't appear too often in ancient writings. According to The Independent, it may because the city sided with the ancient city-state of Carthage—founded in the 9th century BCE by a seafaring people known as the Phoenicians—in the last of a series of three wars, called the Punic Wars, against Rome.

The Third Punic War stretched from 149 to 146 BCE, and led to the burning of Carthage. (It was later rebuilt as a Roman city by Julius Caesar.) Neapolis may have been punished for its wayward allegiance, which may explain why it's rarely mentioned in historical accounts.

You can view a video of the city's ruins below.

[h/t AFP]

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