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5 Disgusting Habits That Were Perfectly Normal in Ancient Rome

Ravi loves writing within the cusp of relationships, history, and the bizarre, where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

Hygiene in ancient Rome was far more disgusting than you could ever imagine.

Hygiene in ancient Rome was far more disgusting than you could ever imagine.

The Romans Were Surprisingly Unhygienic

One cannot deny the fact that the Roman empire was a powerful force to reckon with in ancient times.

In a little more than 1500 years, the Romans managed to conquer half of Europe, parts of Asia, and parts of Africa and unified the huge territory with astounding advancements in science, philosophy, medicine, technology, and many other subjects. Even today, there are remains of Roman architecture and culture found almost everywhere.

That said, despite all these advancements, other aspects of ancient Rome remain a mystery and controversial. And one of the things is the extremely poor level of hygiene followed in Rome. It is just impossible to explain how such an advanced civilization had such poor habits.

There are countless examples of Roman squalor. Despite their incredible bathhouses and sanitation systems, the Romans still had a host of parasites and diseases. Some of their medical remedies (dung, excreta, urine) were absolutely disgusting.

Even some of their emperors were one of the most debauched ones in the world by practicing incest, seducing siblings, etc. And the famed Roman feasts were made up of unusual items like dolphin meatballs to flamingo tongues.

Here are some of the things the ancient Romans did that can easily be classified as ‘disgusting’ today.

Roman Toilets Were Dangerous Places

Roman Toilets Were Dangerous Places

Roman Toilets Were Dangerous Places

When you enter a Roman toilet, there is a real risk that you may die doing your deed.

The first problem is the multitude of creatures ranging from bugs to scorpions who reside in the sewage system who might crawl up and bite the people on the underside. The second problem is the gas build-up which might explode fatally affecting the person. Yes, Roman public latrines are so choked with hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and methane (CH4) that these gases might ignite and cause an explosion.

That is why Romans drew magical spells and images of Gods on the walls of the toilets to keep him ‘safe’ from these ‘frightening underground demons’ as they call it. Some also came pre-equipped with statues of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, guarding them against any danger.

Ancient Romans used a tool, called ‘xylospongium’ to clean their butts

Ancient Romans used a tool, called ‘xylospongium’ to clean their butts

One Sponge for Everyone

Ancient Romans used a particularly gross mechanism to clean their butts.

The tool, called ‘xylospongium’ consisted of a wooden stick with a sponge fixed at one end. These sponge sticks were attached to the bathroom benches and people shared them and seldom cleaned them after usage. Slaves may clean these sponges once or twice a month in a bucket of vinegar and it seems that they may have been used more like toilet brushes than toilet paper.

And there were few of them in public toilets, so people managed with what was there, by sharing the sponge. So, it is no wonder that diseases like cholera and typhoid were common in those times.

The Romans used urine for whitening teeth

The Romans used urine for whitening teeth

Urine for Whitening Teeth

Yes, I know it sounds disgusting but then ammonia, a key ingredient in human urine, was great at getting tricky stains out of white Roman Togas. Moreover, it is easier to acquire compared to soap. Slaves can just put buckets on street corners, and anybody can contribute to the production by peeing into these buckets.

And the Romans took the usage of urine to a completely different level. Besides washing clothes, they also used it as fertilizers for growing fruits. And the most disgusting use was using it to whiten their teeth.

As a mouthwash, Romans believed that urine keeps their teeth clean and white. In fact, Roman poets even used to mock their clean-toothed enemies by saying.

“The fact that your teeth are so polished just shows you are full of piss.”

In fact, the Roman emperor Vespasian famously instated a ‘urine tax’ by taxing the public bins where people dumped urine collected from toilets. The tax was so lucrative that it was even continued by his successor Titus. The collected pee was sold as an ingredient to businesses, workshops, and tanneries who were subsequently taxed for it.

Romans loved dirty jokes and lots of it.

Romans loved dirty jokes and lots of it.

Dirty Graffiti

Romans loved dirty jokes and lots of it. That is why when you walk through the ruins of Pompeii, you will be confronted with phrases like,

‘Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your privates.’

‘Aurelia is a sucker’

‘Furia makes me do her more and more

And so on….

And besides these graffiti, the phallus (or the erect penis) symbol has been found everywhere throughout the length and breadth of the empire, from the city of Pompeii which is peppered with phallus symbols everywhere to other parts of the Roman empire replete with graffiti scratchings, carvings, mosaics, frescoes, statues, wind chimes, necklaces to even amulets around a child’s neck.

The Romans loved the craziest erotic artwork and could not get enough of obscenity.

Roman medicine was wierd.

Roman medicine was wierd.

Weird Roman Medicine

It is difficult to believe sometimes whether Roman medicine really used to cure or was a recipe for disaster.

Roman authors report people collecting the blood of dead gladiators and selling it as medicine. The gladiators who lost became medicine for epileptics while the winners became aphrodisiacs.

There were also reports where some people pulled out the gladiators’ livers and eat them raw for vitality while others kept the treatment going by drinking the blood of decapitated gladiators.

And for patching in wounds, the Romans didn’t have Band-Aids. According to Pliny the Elder, people in Rome patched up their scrapes and wounds with goat dung. Goat dung was also drunk as an energy drink or to ward off bodily weakness due to illness.

They either boiled goat dung in vinegar or ground it into a powder and mixed it into their drinks. And this was drunk from the poorest Roman citizen to Emperor Nero himself.

So be thankful that you are not born in Imperial Rome. Otherwise, you might well have had to swallow some animal dung if you, unfortunately, happen to fall sick!!


© 2021 Ravi Rajan


Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 29, 2021:

Thanks, Vanita. It is quite surprising considering the Roman empire was one of the most advanced empires of its time.

Vanita Thakkar on May 29, 2021:

Ooops !! What to say ?! Unbelievably surprising.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 28, 2021:

Thanks, Vidya. Yes, it is surprising.

VIDYA D SAGAR on May 28, 2021:

So gross, surprising, considering that it was such a powerful empire.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 28, 2021:

Thanks Flourish for your comments

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 28, 2021:

Stomach churning! Interesting article

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 26, 2021:

Thanks viryabo

viryabo from Lagos, Nigeria. on May 26, 2021:

Oh my word!

Thank you for this enlightening article.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 26, 2021:

Thanks Peggy for the comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 26, 2021:

All I can say now, after reading this, is I am glad to be living now. Hooray for toilet paper!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 26, 2021:

Thanks, Bill for your comments

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 26, 2021:

I don't think "disgusting" is a strong enough adjective to describe those common Roman practices. Yuck!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 26, 2021:

Thanks Devika for your comments

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 26, 2021:

HI Ravi this is disgusting indeed! Well lots has changed since then and I am glad it has. In Roman times it didn't matter it was different.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 26, 2021:

Hygiene in ancient Rome was far more disgusting than you could ever imagine.

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