Did the ancient Romans share their toilet sponge?

The ancient Romans did not use toilet paper as we know it today; instead, it is widely believed that they used a sponge on a stick called a “tersorium” or a “xylospongium” to clean themselves after using the toilet.

In Ostia, close to Rome, a first century fresco mentions that device in a reproachful inscription:

“No one says so many words as we do to you, Priscian: use the sponge on the stick, [while] we [use] water.”

“Verbose tibi / nemo / dicit dum Priscianus / [u]taris xylospongium nos / [a?]quas.”

Ostia, Baths of the Seven Sages

At the beginning of the second century a letter on papyrus from Claudius Terentianus to his father Claudius Tiberianus uses equally the term xylospongium and this time as an insult.

At the end of the first century, Martial sarkastically moans in one of his epigrams: “Your supper is splendid, I agree, very splendid; but tomorrow, today, in a minute, what will be left of it? Where it will have gone, ask the fetid sponge on that dirty stick. Ask the first dog that comes along or the vase on the corner.”

All primary sources imply a use of the xylospongium in ancient latrines, without however explaining the exact handling. Understandably so. We also have little writings about how exactly to use toilet paper, have we?

The “fetid sponge” was thus longtime supposed to have been the replacement for today’s toilet paper. Researchers suggested that it was dipped in water and vinegar and then used to wipe the anus. After use, the sponge would have been rinsed in running water or placed again in a bucket of salt water or vinegar to be reused by the next person.

Even wikipedia still states that it was used for cleaning the buttocks. The journalist Robin Szuttor equally describes in detail in 2011 that the xylospongium was used by introducing it from the front between the legs to clean the anus and then squeezed out in a water-filled bucket.

The form of latrines in Rome indeed implies ‘front-access’. But was the xylospongium actually used as suggested and shared by people using the public latrines? This would have been an enormous breeding ground for bacteria, contributing to the spread of disease. And let’s not even discuss the effects of vinegar and salt on the more private parts of the Roman posterior.

Do we really believe this?

This raises the question of whether the Romans were “wipers” or “washers”.

A Roman toilet in its use and construction is quite similar to a toilet in the Arab world today. So why do we assume that Romans would have used a sponge instead of simply washing themselves?

The researcher Gilbert Wiplinger put forward a theory on the use of the xylospongium and it seems much more credible. He suggests it was used for secondary cleaning of ancient lavatories in a similar form in which modern toilet brooms are used.

The discovery of scraps of cloth in an ancient septic tank in Herculaneum led also environmental archaeologist Mark Robinson to conclude that scraps were used for wiping instead of a sponge.

It will be difficult to settle the debate. Maybe there were variations by region, with some using water for washing and others using scraps. However, a shared sponge is less likely.

While it seems that the Romans had a wholly different relationship with the act of sitting on the toilet than we do, they apparently did feel the same as us about toilet sticks.

In the middle of the first century, Seneca reported that a Germanic gladiator had committed suicide with a sponge on a stick. He writes:

“Recently, in the games between gladiators and ferocious beasts, one of the Germanics, while he was preparing for the morning show, secluded himself to go to the latrines, as it was the only time he could be alone unsupervised. There he took a stick, with a sponge attached used for cleaning excrement, and stuck it down his throat and choked to death. Thus he died an outrageous death. Exactly so, in an unclean and indecent manner: who is more stupid than he who dies in such an annoying manner?

O strong man, worthy to choose his own fate! How firmly could he have used his sword, how bravely could he have thrown himself into the deep sea or into a ravine. Though he was bereft of all means, yet he managed to find a way to give himself death and the weapon, knowing that the only obstacle to death is the absence of will: he proves this to us. Let each one think as he will of this man’s deed, but let it be noted that rather than clean slavery, dirty death must be preferred.”

And the sewers?

While the ancient Romans had a complex system of aqueducts that provided fresh water to the city, the use of a sophisticated sewer system to dispose of waste and sewage was not widespread until relatively late in Rome’s history.

The first Roman sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, was built around the 6th century BCE and was primarily used to drain the city’s marshy areas. It was not until the 1st century CE that the Romans began to develop a more sophisticated system of public toilets and sewers to handle the growing population of the city.

However, by the 2nd century CE, Rome had an extensive system of public toilets and sewers, with waste and sewage flowing through channels beneath the streets and into the Tiber River. Nevertheless, the use of these facilities was not universal, and many poorer residents of Rome still relied on chamber pots, which they would dump into the streets or rivers.

A sophisticated sewer system was found in Herculaneum.

The excavations of that ancient Roman city, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, along with Pompeii, revealed a sophisticated sewage system that was quite advanced for its time. Along the streets of Herculaneum, which descend the hillside, lies a complex system of drainage channels and pipes hidden under the pedestrian ways. These were designed to remove wastewater and sewage from homes and public buildings, and every house along the affected streets had their toilet located directly beside the door so that this system could be easily accessed.

The city’s sewage system was designed to carry wastewater and sewage away, yet strangely enough, not into the nearby sea, but into a septic tank. May be because the more expensive villas lay on the riff top. May be because the beach was used for commerce. In any case, the remains of this tank shed today light on the alimentation in ancient Rome.

Entrance to sewage system in Herculaneum

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