The Morning Crap

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then here’s to Tachevert and his new occasional column, Morning Coffee, the aptly named reflections on his reading during morning caffeine.

For my new irregular missive, I plan to cover ruminations and thoughts occurring during an entirely different sort of morning routine. Those sort of deep thoughts one only has when …

Ancient Roman Toilet

Image Source.

I’ve often wondered why geekdom is so fascinated with the past. The vast and clear majority of our MMO and PnP Roleplaying games are set in an imaginitively improved version of long ago. Dr. Richard Bartle trolled Terra Nova and garnered a huge response with the very same question.

I think most people, almost irrespective of age, have fond memories of the past and a certain healthy concern for what might happen in the future. Yesterday, burnished by the passing of time, is a simple, happy time. Tomorrow is speculative, uncertain and stressful. It’s only natural that, if we are to generate for ourselves an entertaining virtual world, that we should build on elements of history.

But yester year wasn’t all rosy.

I like to have an assortment of interesting bathroom reading around, nothing too straining. Picture books are great. Recently I picked up a book on Pompeii. It was an interesting read. (I’ve since returned the book to the library, or I’d post info here. My apologies.)

I was amazed at the richness of their public works. Public latrines (pictured above), for example. Aqueducts brought clean water from the mountains … lead pipes distributed it amongst the wealthy houses and public places. In the latrines, water ran beneath those seated, carrying away the poop.

Amazing, considering it was nearly 2000 years ago!

Lest we romanticize history too much, let’s also remember what that extra little trench running in front of the shitters was for. The Romans didn’t have use of soft rolls of toilet paper. Instead they buffed their behinds with a sort of a sponge on a stick. Between wipes, they then rinsed their shit-stick … or more properly, ξυλοσπόγγιον (xylospongion) … in that little trench of water that ran in front of the seats.

Brings an entirely new meaning to the term ‘toilet brush’, doesn’t it.

What was unclear from reading the book was whether these wiping sticks were communal or individual. I came across conflicting reports. Some sites said that in a rich man’s house, this sponge-on-a-stick might be stored in a bucket of salt water (ostensiably to keep it fresh). So when a visitor came to your house, were they expected to hold it? Did every visitor carry their own? (Where does one put their poop stick while dining?) Or was the host expected to provide their guests with sponges of their own. Did the entire household share fecal-sticks?

Some sites seemed to suggest that, at least for the public latrines, users would bring their own ass-sponges. Regardless, you’d hate to be ‘downstream’ when rinsing between wipes.

Whatever the truth, the important lesson is that the past wasn’t perfect. I for one am pleased to live in the great day and age of triple-ply tissue infused with lavender and lotion. I wonder if the ancient Romans felt similarly blessed.

In writing this article, I spent a fair amount of time looking around the net for supporting information, pictures, etc. I was not able to find a picture of a genuine poop-stick-of-antiquity. I did, however, come across some wonderful quotes.

From the Wiki article on latrines, a definition for the concept of ‘Flying Latrines':

“Flying latrines” refers to plastic bags used as toilets in African slums, so named because after being filled, “you throw them as far away as you can.” This has led to the banning of the manufacture and import of such bags in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Keep your head low when visiting the slums of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Or my favourite, the Poop Report, a site with articles documeting the various items one might use to wipe one’s ass.

I saved this one for the ‘serious’ finale because these devices were both used in ancient Roman toilets and were mentioned as implements used to torture Christ during his crucifixion. I purchased the closest thing to what might the Romans might have had (a small loofah sponge) and soaked it in some white vinegar I had on hand in the pantry. As with the Sears catalogue, I felt slightly subversive purchasing something in the Wal-Mart cosmetics department that I actually intended to wipe my ass with.

Check out the entry on dry corn cobs. Ouch!

Pure Gold.

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