At Your Convenience: A Lavatorial Walking Tour
Rivers and Romans
Water is vital to life, and many early civilizations sprung up around rivers. They soon figured out that doing their business in the river meant it could be washed away without the need to touch it. This was hugely helpful, as we are an incredibly lazy species when it comes to disposing of our excrement.
But societies continued to grow and expand away from rivers. By now they were used to what we call “waterborne sanitation” so they started to develop the technology to bring the river to them.
Stop. Go to the railing on your left and look down at the river.
In all of history the Ancient Romans hold one of the most notable places for harnessing water in their aqueducts and baths. But along with these public baths they had fabulous flushing public toilets!
At its peak, there were 144 public facilities in Rome.
Roman Toileting, like Roman bathing was a communal activity. 30 or 40 people might have sat together on a long stone bench with keyhole shaped seats. If they were very wealthy their slaves would have sat there first to warm it up.
Once they had done what they needed to do they would take the communal sponge on a stick to wipe their bottoms. This is where we get the phrase “the wrong end of the stick.”
But then the Roman Empire fell. Britain was invaded by waves of Eastern European immigrants: The Angles and the Saxons, who were to become the English.
They had no interest in waterborne sanitation or didn’t know what it was for, so began tearing down the old structures to make way for their fortresses. They brought with them cesspits, gardrobes, chamber pots, and plunged Great Britain into what one historian termed “The Lavatorial Dark Ages.”
Start walking across the bridge. As we go I’ll take you through the history of the water closet.