Anthropology / Everything Human

What Did Ancient Romans Do Without Toilet Paper?

What Did Ancient Romans Do Without Toilet Paper?

We’ve all been caught unawares by our digestive tract at one time or another.

It happened to the Nash family several months ago. We were nearing the end of an extended road trip, driving down a secondary highway through a sparsely populated area of Colorado at night, when one of my 9-year-old twin sons had to use the bathroom. Despite my pleading, he said he couldn’t make it to the next town. (He had to poop.) So we pulled over and headed for the bushes. After he took care of his business, we realized that we didn’t have toilet paper with us.

The whole dramatic episode got me thinking, and for the next couple of hours, I pondered toilet paper and the cultural nature of bathroom routines. (Cut me some slack. It was a long drive.)

Toilet paper is now such a routine part of our lives that we rarely give it any thought. That boring reality, however, should make us think—because toilet paper is an artifact, a technology, and is therefore grounded in culture.

As we finally re-entered Denver—my wife and kids blissfully asleep—I saw the Colorado state capitol building, beautifully lit on the horizon. I started thinking about the ancient Romans. With tall columns, colonnades, and a high, golden dome, the capitol is nothing if not a Roman temple to civics.

Modern American society, and Western societies more generally, tend to look back on ancient Rome as the pinnacle of Western civilization. We emulate their institutions and cultural practices. Why? Are they worth it?

When I thought more about their everyday habits, I realized that, despite all of their accomplishments, ancient Romans engaged in some practices that many people today would find thoroughly revolting. Take a minute to consider, for example, what many of those supposedly “civilized” people did when they had to go to the bathroom.

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted on August 24 in A.D. 79, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other Roman settlements were sealed as time capsules. They were first excavated in the 18th century, and since then these sites have given us a wonderful view into ancient Roman society.

Many of the bathrooms uncovered at Pompeii and elsewhere were communal. In many cases, they were beautiful, with frescoes on the walls, sculptures in the corners, and rows of holes carved into cold, Italian marble slabs.

ancient roman bathrooms - To ancient Romans, the practice of sitting on a shared toilet in an open room full of people was entirely ordinary.

To ancient Romans, the practice of sitting on a shared toilet in an open room full of people was entirely ordinary. Fubar Obfusco/Wikimedia Commons

Roman toilets didn’t flush. Some of them were tied into internal plumbing and sewer systems, which often consisted of just a small stream of water running continuously beneath the toilet seats.

In the same way that we use an American-style toilet, a Roman user would sit down, take care of business, and watch number two float blissfully away down the sewer system. But instead of reaching for a roll of toilet paper, an ancient Roman would often grab a tersorium (or, in my technical terms, a “toilet brush for your butt”). A tersorium is an ingenious little device made by attaching a natural sponge (from the Mediterranean Sea, of course) to the end of a stick. Our ancient Roman would simply wipe him- or herself, rinse the tersorium in whatever was available (running water and/or a bucket of vinegar or salt water), and leave it for the next person to use. That’s right, it was a shared butt cleaner. (And of course, there were other means of wiping as well, such as the use of abrasive ceramic discs called pessoi.)

OK, so ancient Roman pooping habits seem strange, but what about their customs around pee?

As best we can tell from historic and archaeological data, ancient Romans peed in small pots in their homes, offices, and shops. When those small pots became full, they dumped them into large jars out in the street. Just like with your garbage, a crew came by once a week to collect those hefty pots of pee and bring them to the laundromat. Why? Because ancient Romans washed their togas and tunics in pee!

Tersoriums, used by ancient Romans to clean themselves after defecating, took the idea of “communal” toilets to a whole new level.

Tersoria, used by ancient Romans to clean themselves after defecating, took the idea of “communal” toilets to a whole new level. IV.PA-5334/DMNS

Human urine is full of ammonia and other chemicals that are great natural detergents. If you worked in a Roman laundromat, your job was to stomp on clothes all day long—barefoot and ankle deep in colossal vats of human pee.

(Frankly, I wonder why we haven’t emulated this aspect of Roman culture in our age of green, eco-friendly, and sustainable businesses. I’m thinking of opening a chain called Urine-Urout All-Natural Laundromat. It’s a sparkling business opportunity!)

As peculiar as personal hygiene practices in ancient Rome may seem to us, the historical fact is that many Romans successfully and sustainably used tersoria and washed their clothes in pee for several centuries—far longer than we’ve used toilet paper. Indeed, toilet paper is not a universal technology even today, as any trip to India, rural Ethiopia, or remote areas of China will make abundantly clear.

The memorable stop we made for my son in rural Colorado will always remind me of our culture’s widespread dependence on toilet paper. We’ve become so accustomed to the stuff that we are loath to consider widely used alternatives. (Heck, even the elegant bidet gets short shrift in our society.)

As an archaeologist, this is surprising to me, especially because toilet paper was formally introduced in this country only in 1857, a comparatively short time ago. At that time, New York entrepreneur Joseph Gayetty first created commercial toilet paper; each individual paper sheet bore his name. He claimed that, in addition to their novel utilitarian function, they were medicinal and prevented hemorrhoids.

In 1890, Clarence and E. Irvin Scott developed the first toilet paper on rolls; their brand thrives today. (It happens to be my favorite. Too much information?) Like Gayetty’s sheets, Scott tissue was originally marketed as a medicinal product. In the late 1920s, Hoberg Paper Company marketed Charmin brand toilet paper to women, with an emphasis on softness (thank goodness) and femininity, rather than medicinal properties that didn’t actually work.

Today, toilet paper is ubiquitous in Western cultures; it’s a US$9.5 billion-a-year industry in the United States. Americans, in their typical excess, use more than 50 pounds per person per year! About 1.75 tons of raw fiber are required to manufacture each ton of toilet paper. That doesn’t seem sustainable, and frankly, I’m surprised that people haven’t protested more as a result.

Given these numbers and the marketing efforts behind them, it’s hard to argue that the use of toilet paper is somehow natural. On the contrary, toilet paper is nothing more than a technology. So the next time you’re enjoying a morning constitutional, think about the fact that defecation and urination are more than biological functions; they are cultural activities that involve artifacts and technologies that change through time.

Speaking of which, it’s high time that we consider changing how we clean ourselves after we use the toilet. Tersorium, anyone?


Correction: April 6, 2018

An earlier version of this piece used the term “tersoriums” for the plural form of “tersorium.” After scrubbing for more information, we confirmed that “tersoria” is the correct plural form of the term. The text has also been updated to clarify that the butt-brush “cleaning” ritual varied and to note that tersoria were certainly not the only means ancient Romans used to clean themselves after defecation. We don’t mean to be abrasive, but it’s impossible to convey all the minutiae of personal hygiene practiced by the ancient Romans. (And would you really want to know more?)

Archaeology / / /

  • So what does archaeology say about transmission of parasites using this baton of poo? While vinegar has it’s uses, it seems it would become dilute and contaminated too.

    I wonder who first took a gander at pee and thought it would make a dandy cleaner, dye setter, etc.

  • Thank you for this great exploration. On the first day of an Introduction to Anthropology course, when we are discussing the Nacirema, we include defecation and urination as human universals. I didn’t have a great example of how these are shaped by culture, power, and history. Until now.

  • nivek1385

    There are some small errors and omissions. First, the plural of tersorium is tersoria. In addition, the tersorium wasn’t the only method used as there was also the practice of using terracotta pessoi (rounded discs of terracotta cut smooth. Also your description of how the tersorium would be rinsed is incorrect as it would be rinsed in running water and then placed in the vinegar bucket to be disinfected for the next user. Your description indicated that this was an eitheror and that it would be rinsed in the vinegar.

    • Jeff H

      Also, it’s the “state capital”. “Capitol” only refers to 1) “the seat of the US Congress in Washington DC” or 2) “the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in ancient Rome”.

      Really interesting read apart from that! 🙂

      • SamSam

        No, the author used “capitol” exactly correctly. From MW, first definition: [a] : a building in which a state legislative body meets (e.g. the dome of the state capitol), [b] : a group of buildings in which the functions of state government are carried out. Heck, the author specifically mentioned the dome of the capitol, just as in MW’s example.

  • Tony Ledford

    Tersoria are a great idea! Just bring your own butt brush! A throw-away society, culture, and mentality is unsustainable in any form (toilet paper, plastic water bottles, phones, cars, washers, dryers, etc.). I mean seriously, how long do we think we can keep flushing tons of paper or throwing out plastic or machines?Unfortunately western society is so self-centered, who cares what happens 100 years from now, I just want my toilet paper! I have to admit though, I won’t share a butt brush; I don’t care what it has been soaking in or for how long! Maybe they could adapt the hurricane spin scrubber into butt brush form?

  • henricook

    As a contribution to the discussion, i’ve just finished several weeks in Japan where toilet paper is very much *not* a part of the culture. Practically every toilet in an area that a tourist might frequent is ‘western style’ (i.e. not a squatter) and has a button-press system that extends a little wand to rinse your derriere (or frontage as well, if you’re a lady). I haven’t used toilet paper for the whole trip and it’s glorious! It makes you realise just how wrong we’re getting it.

  • qwertyasdf

    In many cultures, people used their left hands and a pitcher of water to wipe away excess feces and clean up after themselves. Hands would be washed again more thoroughly with soap and water before exiting the toilet area. This is still in practice today in many parts of the middle east and asia. This is also why it is incredibly offensive to shake someones hand with their left hand. And also more economically and environmentally friendly than using toilet paper.

  • someday you’ll probably graduate to a washlet and then a few years after that you’ll be wondering how you ever thought just wiping with paper was a way to clean.

    as the original commercial for the washlet asked “If your hand got dirty you wouldn’t just wipe it with a piece of paper would you? You’d wash your hands right? Why would a butt be any different?”

  • cage

    Well, that’s why in 2032 we will have three shells

  • Fred Rickson

    I’m reminded that certain cultures that live along the sea, build a “one holer” on stilts out over the breakers. Tides take care of the rest.

  • Andre Gaudwin

    Too much information? Here’s one for you. A long time ago at the university, in a class on international development, I came across a passage in a book mentioning that since African don’t eat refined food and have a lot of fibers in their diet that stools in Africa were statistically longer than in Western countries.

    And, since there are fewer hospitals in Africa per million people than in the Western World, the author concluded, when talking about the health factor of fibers, that the number of hospitals in a country is inversely proportional to the average length of stools.

    It is then that I started eating lots of fibers. And still, today when I poop a healthy long one, I can’t help my self at 73 to yell in my head: “I’M ALIIIIIIIVE!”

    • Stacy Hackner

      I feel like that’s a spurious correlation there…

      • UpperLeftCoast

        But its a nice continuous chain of reasoning. The continuity is long awaited and refreshing.

        • Andre Gaudwin

          You capture my feeling

  • Ganesh Ramanathan

    What is wrong with using plain water + hands ? Honestly I find that a lot cleaner – could be inconvenient outside the convenience of your home.

  • Why is there a hole in the front of the toilet?!

  • Александр Личман

    Residents of the former USSR until the 90s rarely used toilet paper. It was very difficult to buy. But for those who grew up in the Soviet Union this is not a problem. Adults used newspapers, they were available in abundance. And as a child, we did not know anything about the toilet boom, the burdock sheet completely replaced it. In Russia, dirty jokes go that if an American soldier takes a toilet paper out of his backpack, he will be demoralized on the battlefield …)))

  • Stacy Hackner

    In backcountry hiking and camping, the use of toilet paper is at odds with Leave No Trace principles (yes, even biodegradable). Instead, I’d encourage everyone to try natural wipes – smooth river stones, large leaves, pieces of moss, and snow for that nice fresh feeling. All perfectly adequate!

  • Uttam Sirur

    Suddenly I’m thinking of that Roman soldier who kindly gave Christ on the cross some vinegar via a sponge tied to a stick. Was it what I now think it is?

  • Nestore Rossi

    Interesting read, but if you allow me I think that any historical discussion about this problem is incomplete without a reference to the famous chapter 13 of Gargantua et Pantagruel by Rabelais which is titled «How Gargantua’s wonderful understanding became known to his father Grangousier, by the invention of a torchecul or wipebreech» an abstract of which you may find here

    Quite obviously this wiping problem has been puzzling mankind since a long time

  • byron dunmatter

    I wrote a song about this once. I have stopped using toilet paper since learning about how gross it is (to cut down the rainforests so we can wipe our butts).