The Romans, who had introduced toilet 2,000 years ago, including public multi-seat latrines with washing facility, sewerage system and piped drinking water from aqueducts and hot-water public baths, did not yield right results healthwise, say scientists.
Despite keeping their town clean and free from excrement and garbage, the intestinal parasites such as whipworm, roundworm and Entamoeba histolytica dysentery did not decrease as expected in Roman times compared with the preceding Iron Age, said researchers.
The new study by Dr Piers Mitchell from Cambridge’s Archaeology and Anthropology Department and published in the journal Parasitology, pieced together evidence of parasites in ancient latrines, human burials and ‘coprolites’ — or fossilised faeces — as well as in combs and textiles from numerous Roman Period excavations across the Roman Empire.
One possibility Mitchell offers is that it may have actually been the warm communal waters of the bathhouses that helped spread the parasitic worms. Water was infrequently changed in some baths, and a scum would build on the surface. “Clearly, not all Roman baths were as clean as they might have been,” said Mitchell.
Another possible explanation is that Roman use of human excrement as a crop fertilizer could have resulted in the spread of parasite eggs that can survive in the grown plants.
“It is possible that sanitation laws requiring the removal of faeces from the streets actually led to reinfection of the population as the waste was often used to fertilise crops planted in farms surrounding the towns,” said Mitchell.
The study found fish tapeworm eggs to be surprisingly widespread in the Roman Period compared to Bronze and Iron Age Europe. One possibility Mitchell suggests for the rise in fish tapeworm is the Roman love of a sauce called garum made from pieces of fish, herbs, salt and flavourings.
Garum was used as both a culinary ingredient and a medicine. This sauce was not cooked, but allowed to ferment in the sun. Garum was traded right across the empire, and may have acted as the “vector” for fish tapeworm, says Mitchell.
Not only did certain intestinal parasites appear to increase in prevalence with the coming of the Romans, but Mitchell also found that, despite their famous culture of regular bathing, ‘ectoparasites’ such as lice and fleas were just as widespread among Romans as in Viking and medieval populations, where bathing was not widely practiced.
Some excavations revealed evidence for special combs to strip lice from hair, and delousing may have been a daily routine for many people living across the Roman Empire, said the study.
Piers Mitchell said: “Modern research has shown that toilets, clean drinking water and removing faeces from the streets all decrease risk of infectious disease and parasites. So we might expect the prevalence of faecal oral parasites such as whipworm and roundworm to drop in Roman times — yet we find a gradual increase. The question is why?”
His research on the prevalence of ancient parasites suggests that Roman toilets, sewers and sanitation laws had no clear benefit to public health. The widespread nature of both intestinal parasites and ectoparasites such as lice also suggests that Roman public baths surprisingly gave no clear health benefit either.
“It seems likely that while Roman sanitation may not have made people any healthier, they would probably have smelt better.”