A research from the University of Cambridge found the Roman sanitation systems introduced roughly 2,000 years ago did not improve public health. In fact, the Roman toilets even increased the spread of parasites in succeeding years.
Piers Mitchell from the University of Cambridge's Archaeology and Anthropology Department analyzed the archaeological evidence of parasites from the remains of the Roman Empire. The parasite evidences were collected from combs, textiles, human burials, ancient latrines (toilets) and coprolites (fossilized feces) across various Roman Period excavations.
The research found that the prevalence of intestinal parasites seemed to increase with the birth of the Roman Empire. Ironically, despite the Romans' regular bathing, which is part of their famous culture, the presence of ectoparasites such as fleas and lice were just as bad during their reign as they were during the medieval and Viking eras when regular bathing was not common.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Don't Lend Us Your Toilets
The Romans introduced sanitation system approximately 2,000 years ago in Europe. These included sewage systems, heated public bath houses, multi-seat toilets for the general public and drinking water from aqueducts. The Romans were also popular for coming up with laws that keep their towns clean and free of rubbish and manure.
But modern research found despite all these seemingly hygienic programs, intestinal parasites such as roundworm, and whipworm still persisted and even increased. In fact, cases of Entamoeba histolytica dysentery, which is a severe intestinal infection that results in grave diarrhea, didn't decrease as the Romans expected.
Compared to the rates in the previous Iron Age, the cases of intestinal infections even increased gradually. The findings were published in the journal Parasitology.
"Clearly, not all Roman baths were as clean as they might have been," said Mitchell who raised the possibility that the warm waters in public bath houses aided in the spread of parasites. Human dirt and cosmetics must have accumulated on the waters' surface. Some public bath houses perhaps didn't change their waters regularly.
Another possibility could be the use of human feces fertilizers during the Roman Empire. Modern research showed that human feces can help in increasing crop output. But unless the feces were properly composted for months, adding it to the soil could transmit parasitic eggs to the crops. Mitchell theorized that the sanitation laws compelling the removal of feces from the streets actually led to its use as crop fertilizers, which re-infected the population through contaminated crops.
The research revealed that fish tapeworm eggs were prevalent during the Roman Empire compared to the Iron and Bronze Age in Euope. Mitchell theorized the high rate could be associated to the Roman's favorite sauce: garum.
Garum is made from fish, salt, herbs and other flavoring ingredients. During the Roman Empire, garum is both a condiment and a medicine. But uncooked sauce is left to ferment under the sun, widely traded and could have been a "transporter" of the fish tapeworm eggs across the Roman Empire.
Archeologist Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow from Brandeis University said Mitchell's hypothesis is rational. Koloski-Ostrow, who was not involved Mitchell's research, wrote two books focusing on Roman sanitation systems.
She noted that rich residents in Herculaneum, Pompeii and Rome chose to keep their private toilets disconnected from the public sewer system. Perhaps they were terrified of what parasites could be lurking in the public pipes.
"They didn't understand germ theory. But that's not to say all of Roman life was filthy and disgusting," said Koloski-Ostrow.
Photo: Ben Sutherland | Flickr