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  • Roman Toilets: Their Archaeology and Cultural History ed. by Gemma C. M. Jansen, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, Eric M. Moormann
  • Colin Webster
Gemma C. M. Jansen, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, and Eric M. Moormann (eds.). Roman Toilets: Their Archaeology and Cultural History. Babesch Annual Papers on Mediterranean Archaeology, 19. Leuven: Peeters, 2011. Pp. vii, 224. €72.00 (pb.). ISBN 978-90-429-2541-0.

With contributions by the editors and J. Acero, H. Aspöck, D. Camardo, I. Feuereis, M. Flohr, A. Goldwater, A. Gräzer, E. N. A. Heirbaut, J. B. Hobson, S. Hoss, A. K. G. Jones, A.-M. Jouquand, Z. Kamash, J. Koehler, G. K. Kunst, A. Merletto, C. Molle, R. Neudecker, E. Owens, B. Petznek, S. Radbauer, R. Sauer, J. Seigne, G. E. Thüry, M. Trümper, J. van Vaerenbergh, K. Wheeler, A. Wilson, and G. Zuchtriegel.

This edited volume is the collective yet cohesive product of the Ancient Roman Toilet Workshop held at the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome and the American Academy in Rome from June 23–25, 2007. It contains the work of thirty-two authors, whose contributions range from chapter-length essays to extremely short case studies. Despite the number of contributors, their widely varying backgrounds, and the presentation of evidence in four different languages (English, French, German, and Italian), the editors have done an admirable job of providing a logically unified whole, rather than a series of disconnected chapters. As such, they have been largely successful in their attempt to create a handbook that provides a detailed portrait of latrines, both public and private, in the Roman world. Nonetheless, even if theirs is a choir singing largely in harmony, not all of the voices are of the same strength.

This publication contributes to the growing number of studies that are dedicated to the technological aspects of antiquity, most pertinently O. Wikander (ed.), Handbook of Ancient Water Technology 2000, A. O. Koloski-Ostrow (ed.), Water Use and Hydraulics in the Roman City 2001, and J. P. Oleson (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World 2008. In spite of the growing interest in such topics, toilets in particular have nevertheless gotten short shrift, the main exception being Die Pracht der Latrine [End Page 295] (1994), in which Neudecker masterfully places the construction of luxury toilets, the so-called Prachtlatrinen, in the context of second-century a.d. cultural obsessions pertaining to regimen, self-control, and bodily care. The present volume is an excellent continuation of these previous studies and avoids rote repetition of their conclusions. Instead, this work focuses largely on the task of collecting and establishing the concrete details about toilets from both literary sources and the ever increasing number of archaeological reports.

Perhaps it is because so much effort is expended in setting up these details that this volume takes a while to fall into a rhythm. Once it does, however, the book gives a full picture of what it must have been like to relieve oneself in the Roman world (Wilson’s descriptions in chapter 7 function as a bit of a summary in this regard). Whether one is considering multi-seat public latrines, individual chamberpots, or the private cesspits hidden inside front doors, next to kitchens, and underneath staircases, the editors have corralled the relevant information and evidence for each. If there is an overarching argument that emerges through the various chapters, it is that Rome and its empire were a lot dirtier than one might have thought.

After preliminary chapters focusing on archaeometry (ch. 2), non-Roman forerunners (ch. 3), and Roman sources (ch. 4), we may thus understand Koloski-Ostrow and Moorman’s contributions on the design and decoration of Roman latrines (ch. 5) as a way to address the beauty of the Roman imperial bath and toilet architecture before the book gives way to the messiness of the matter at hand. In this way, Jansen, van Vaerenbergh, and Merletto do an excellent job of situating public latrines in the domestic water infrastructure as a whole (ch. 6) in order to illustrate how the Romans re-used waste water from the baths to flush their toilets with periodic deluges. Yet...


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