Why are toilets called toilets

Relaxation in the communal toilet

After a business deal has been concluded, it is still common today to have a good meal together. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that business partners go to the toilet together in order to have a relaxed chat. Different in ancient Rome!

Do not say so; one does not talk about it. After all, it is a very discreet and for many people still embarrassing matter. Certainly it happens to everyone - hopefully - every day, but one disappears secretly, locks oneself up and would consider it extremely improper to be asked about the "success" of the measure by others. May we have ushered in the age of communication, civilized people continue to go to the toilet alone.

Change of scene. It's about trade and business in ancient Rome. The extremely wealthy freed man, Secundus, went to the port city of Ostia, where his merchant ships from Massilia, now Marseille in southern France, have just arrived. The goods, Gallic ham, cheese and olive oil, but also dishes made from terra sigillata, must be brought to the man. The merchant is already expected by his regular customers. And finally the ships, loaded with amphorae of Italian wine, are to continue to Egypt, where they will pick up grain for the annona, the Roman supply authority. Hectic activity is the order of the day. Business should be completed by the end of the morning. One comes to an agreement, one is satisfied. And then everyone, buyers and sellers, first go to the toilet together to literally "relieve" themselves after the stress of the negotiations.

Going to the toilet together, especially among business people, introduced the afternoon otium, the time of rest, mental and physical restoration, relaxation and entertainment. That was a not uncomplicated sequence of cleaning, bathing and massage, accompanied or followed by readings, a musical lecture or even the pleasure of a pretty slave, who ended up in the triclinium with a long meal with colleagues and friends. All of this was governed by the principle of mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body), which is why the otium period naturally began with the easier walk to the latrina, the large communal toilet in the Roman thermal baths. And just as you bathed together, enjoyed the various conversations and then lay at table, so you sat on the toilet in company. Especially in Ostia, the port city of Rome that was never destroyed but was abandoned because of the malaria in late antiquity, you can still get an idea of ​​the communal toilets of the Romans, the magnificent latrines, as Richard Neudecker called them. And they were, in fact, real palaces in which one settled for one's daily needs. Mosaic floors, walls made of marble or decorated with elaborate paintings awaited the visitor. Nobody here peed nervously and in a hurry in a dark corner, here you sat relaxed together, talked about business and everyday life. Today's doctors can only marvel at this relaxed way of completing the long digestive process ...

Explosion included The Roman latrines were - together with the sewage disposal - a boon for public hygiene in the vast ancient cities, but they were also sources of danger. In latrines and sewers, putrefaction and fermentation processes in the faeces could result in the formation of gases, in particular hydrogen sulfide and methane. Together with the oxygen in the air, they formed a combustible and explosive mixture. Although human feces contain comparatively little methane, a large amount of animal feces must be expected in ancient cities the size of Rome. Even air mixtures with five to 15 percent methane are explosive if they come into contact with an ignition source - such as a torch or oil lamp falling to the ground. For comparison it should be pointed out that numerous toilet explosions have been handed down from London since 1842 people began to experience modern urban sewer systems. This could also have been the case in ancient Rome, especially since shut-off valves and sluices in the sewer system were still unknown. In any case, fires in the city were frequent, which is why Emperor Augustus 22 BC. set up the first “state” fire brigade in Rome, the “cohortes vigilium”, which soon numbered 7,000 men.

Dr. Wolfgang Metternich

January 23, 2003

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