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

Ancient Roman Sanitation Efforts May Have Made Things More Gross

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

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Scientists Discover a Mysterious Void in the Great Pyramid of Giza
iStock
iStock

The Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest in all of Egypt, was built more than 4500 years ago as the final resting place of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops), who reigned from 2509 to 2483 BCE. Modern Egyptologists have been excavating and studying it for more than a century, but it's still full of mysteries that have yet to be fully solved. The latest discovery, detailed in a new paper in the journal Nature, reveals a hidden void located with the help of particle physics. This is the first time a new inner structure has been located in the pyramid since the 19th century.

The ScanPyramids project, an international endeavor launched in 2015, has been using noninvasive scanning technology like laser imaging to understand Egypt's Old Kingdom pyramids. This discovery was made using muon tomography, a technique that generates 3D images from muons, a by-product of cosmic rays that can pass through stone better than similar technology based on x-rays, like CT scans. (Muon tomography is currently used to scan shipping containers for smuggled goods and image nuclear reactor cores.)

The ScanPyramids team works inside Khufu's Pyramid
ScanPyramids

The newly discovered void is at least 100 feet long and bears a structural resemblance to the section directly below it: the pyramid's Grand Gallery, a long, 26-foot-high inner area of the pyramid that feels like a "very big cathedral at the center of the monument," as engineer and ScanPyramids co-founder Mehdi Tayoubi said in a press briefing. Its size and shape were confirmed by three different muon tomography techniques.

They aren't sure what it would have been used for yet or why it exists, or even if it's one structure or multiple structures together. It could be a horizontal structure, or it could have an incline. In short, there's a lot more to learn about it.

In the past few years, technology has allowed researchers to access parts of the Great Pyramid never seen before. Several robots sent into the tunnels since the '90s have brought back images of previously unseen areas. Almost immediately after starting to examine the Great Pyramid with thermal imaging in 2015, the researchers discovered that some of the limestone structure was hotter than other parts, indicating internal air currents moving through hidden chambers. In 2016, muon imaging indicated that there was at least one previously unknown void near the north face of Khufu's pyramid, though the researchers couldn't identify where exactly it was or what it looked like. Now, we know its basic structure.

A rendering shows internal chambers within the Great Pyramid and the approximate structure of the newly discovered void.
ScanPyramids

"These results constitute a breakthrough for the understanding of Khufu's Pyramid and its internal structure," the ScanPyramids team writes in Nature. "While there is currently no information about the role of this void, these findings show how modern particle physics can shed new light on the world's archaeological heritage."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
travel
For the First Time in 40 Years, Rome's Colosseum Will Open Its Top Floor to the Public
iStock
iStock

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]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios