Dirty Romans and their parasites

It surely is a good frame. I mean, isn’t it ironic that those Romans, so well-known for their innovations in sanitation, for their aqueducts, their toilets and their baths, actually turned out to have been a major factor in spreading diseases? Paradoxes always are good frames, especially when marketing research: contrary to what has always been believed, research has now indubitably proven that two and two actually makes up four, and while we have long admired the Romans for their hygiene, they actually facilitated the spread of all kinds of parasites, some of which we can even associate with the bubonic plague!

In all honesty, it also seriously was a very good idea to investigate the impact of the Roman world on the spread of parasites, and the resulting picture, in very general terms, is, I think, significant: that the Roman empire led to the spread of all kinds of parasites – perhaps more than we can see in the archaeology – is a hugely relevant fact, and it is very useful that this is now actually backed up by real, archaeological evidence, so that we are not completely dependent on models. Indeed, it an important issue highlighted by Piers Mitchell’s work on parasites is that part of the history of the Roman empire also concerns health and disease, in a way that goes beyond the major epidemics and medical literature.

Still, the whole hurricane of publicity about those ‘dirty Romans’ that brought parasites rather than health felt a bit misleading, and to some extent this is also true for the original research paper on which all the publicity was based. The point is: we know that Romans did not have the scientific understanding of bacteria, viruses and parasites that we have, and we know that their standards of hygiene were below what is common in modern, healthy environments. We know that diseases could thrive in Roman cities. We have known all of this for a long time, too. Indeed, to some extent, the Romans, too, may have been well aware of their own imperfection, as they were burying their loved ones suddenly taken away by an unexpected grim reaper. Anyone still expecting, in 2015, Roman practices to meet modern standards has missed quite a bit of recent literature. Alex Scobie. Walter Scheidel.

Yet more importantly, unhealthy sanitary installations do not usually travel big distances. People, however, sometimes do, and in the Roman world they did so more often, and over larger distances than ever before. If there is one Roman innovation that can be blamed for facilitating the spread of disease beyond the shores of the Mediterranean, it is not baths but roads. If there is one bad Roman habit that did not help it was not the practice of using human faeces as fertilizer, but that of living in cities – though in fact, most cities outside the immediate environment of the Mediterranean were relatively small. Diseases spread through integration, and with the increasing density of the network of roads and cities in the Mediterranean and in large parts of Europe, humans started to circulate, and so did germs, and parasites.

In other words: the observations done by Mitchell perfectly match the scenario that could be expected beforehand. This is why they are so important: they confirm, rather than contradict, an important hypothesis, and in doing so enrich our view of the impact of Roman conquest on the Mediterranean and Europe. Perhaps, this makes the story a bit less exciting to some, but it does make it immensely more valuable to the scholarly community. Empires, even in the preindustrial world, unify disease regimes, and it is now clear that we can actually see that in the archaeological evidence.

The only thing we can say about the quality of Roman toilets and baths is that they were insufficiently hygienic to prevent the spread of parasites and disease. They may, however, have made things a bit better than they would have been had the Romans not invested in public baths and toilets. For toilets, it may be argued that even bad toilets are better than having faeces and urine all over the street; for baths, the extent to which they actually were detrimental to health depends on the way they were used, including the length of bathing, and the frequency with which the water was refreshed.  The Romans were no stranger in their own world, and while they did not do scientific knowledge in our sense of the world, there is a lot of literary evidence that on many issues they had built up an impressive amount of practical knowledge that helped them to make good decisions.

Yes, you read that correctly – the text on the image says ‘cacator cave malum’. – ‘shitter, watch out!’ . At least, some inhabitants of Pompeii kind of  understood that shitting everywhere was no good.