What the Romans Used for Toilet Paper

By Caroline Lawrence (Regular Contributor)

The ancient Romans were sophisticated in surprising ways. Take going to the bathroom, for example. In first century Rome, there were over one hundred public latrines, many of them with marble seats, scenes from Greek mythology on the walls, running water and ancient Roman toilet paper provided.

But what DID they use for toilet paper? Well, you could use a leaf, a handful of moss or your left hand! But what most Romans used was something called a spongia, a sea-sponge on a long stick. The stick was long because of the design of Roman toilets. Public facilities had a long marble bench with holes on top – for the obvious thing – and holes at the front: for the sponge-sticks. There were no doors or dividing walls. You sat right next to your friend and did what you had to do.

 

Most Romans wore tunics (a garment like a long tee-shirt) and probably nothing underneath. So you could just hike it up in back and sit on the cool marble seat, leaving the front of the tunic to cover your knees and your modesty. You would sit there, chatting with your friends, and when you finished your ‘task’ you would rinse the sponge in the channel of running water at your feet and – without standing up or revealing anything – you would push the spongia through the hole at the front, give  your bottom a wipe, rinse off the spongia… and leave it in a basin for the next person to use!

Gotta love those ancient Romans.

For further reading:

As the Romans Did, by JoAnn Shelton
Pompeii, by Peter Connolly
Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, by Adkins & Adkins

Caroline Lawrence is the author of the Roman Mysteries series. Visit her website at www.romanmysteries.com.

IMAGE: Picture of Ostia toilets

Comments

  1. Jon says

    What a great article. I remember looking at the toilets at Herculenium and understanding the pear-shaped hole on the horizontal surface, now I know why there would be a similar opening on the front, vertical surface. Great post!

  2. kevin o. says

    think about Jesus on the cross, in luke (23:36) he said the guards mocked him and offered him vinegar (which is what they used to disinfect the ,often used, sponges) and in matthew 27:48 it is actually stated that someone ran and got a sponge, filled it with vinegar, put it on a stick, and put it to jesus’ lips for him to drink.
    I’ve always seen that as an act of compassion, until i read this article, sounds as though i was mistaken. God Bless, Ko

    • Richard Hard says

      By this time, Romans knew of the antiseptic nature of wine vinegar (although not fully understanding about germs). There is documented evidence that Vinegar was being used to successfully treat wounds at that time. Away from the public toilets with running water, the spongia (sea sponge) would be placed in vinegar between uses. Wine went bad so quickly that there was ample supply of it. The Crucifixion guard detail probably used large clay jars as porta potties at remote sites like Calvary. I always thought that the offering of wine-vinegar to a thirsting Christ was an act of compassion, but I now know that it was just another vile denegration of our Lord. Disgusting to add insult to injury at a time of such great suffering. (Ref: Matt. 27:48; Mark 15:36; Luke 23:36; John 19:29)

  3. says

    In Brent Shaw, Spartacus and the Slave Wars (Bedford/St. Martin’s), there’s a story of a gladiator using the sponge and long stick too. I’m surprised citizens would use the same thing. In that story, by the way, the gladiator used his bathroom visit to kill himself, because it was the only moment he wasn’t under supervision. He rammed that stick down his throat, which says something about how much he loved those ancient Romans.

  4. says

    Wow, that would save a fortune on toilet paper and hand soap
    how easy would that be for these modern times? It would also help with cross
    contamination etc of door handles as no hands ever touched anything with “germs
    on it”  

    • Jonnyproperly says

      Yes no hands,…. but everyone’s asshole would be getting touched by the same sponge & that sponge was only rinsed off with water & not disinfected properly, so it sounds like one person with a communicable disease could infect a lot of people just by using a public bathroom.

    • the oncoming storm says

      the spongia were kept in pots of vinegar. the antiseptic properties of the vinegar, which was a stronger sort back then, would have killed any bacteria or viruses present. just to prove the point, it was documented that cleopatra used it to dissolve a handful of pearls, thus winning a wager that she could consume a fortune in one meal. it’s use as an antiseptic was carried on even in the trenches of ww1. i doubt there would have been any danger of communicable diseases.

  5. Joe says

    I believe the sponge contraption was called a Peniculus which is the name of an obsequious slave character in Catullus as well.

    • Richard Hard says

      Peniculus is Latin for ‘artist brushes’, but it also is a term describing a large belly that hangs below the penis.

  6. Linda Wilson says

    Good morning, Caroline.

    I think you’ve just persuaded me to change my blogging style. An excellent and informative read. And judging by the comments toilet humour hasn’t been left at high school!

    I’m most happy to share this.

    Kind regards,
    L

  7. Donnell Sutherland says

    What a fascinating world the Romans lived in. My husband and I would both enjoy reading this book. Thanks for the opportunity.

  8. Gene says

    Had heard this before but a great read. Now the next question… and not meaning to sound gross but is a legit one… because back then they ate so much healthier without all the processed stuff… was their stool different than ours is today? Figuring this and that they probably ate more of the same things on a consistent basis they probably were more regular and a simple wet sponge may have really done the trick. Today it probably wouldn’t.

  9. gaydavisobamasht says

    davis gay Obama is an a$$wipe and parasitical spongia – GOD F*CK him to eternal hell already !!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Mr Clean says

    Home Depot sells a spray hose (bidet) that hooks to your toilet for those who want to get really clean without jumping back in the shower. 40$. keeps your ass from smelling like ass. and no need to keep buying those Charmin wet wipes again and again.

  11. says

    Now I see the connection between the Vienne, France Roman site with toilets
    and will know how to caption the pic taken of me seated (fully clothed)
    on one of these delightful marble Roman toilets. Just think how men and women must have
    enjoyed the sound of the running water that ran constantly through the marble communal toilets.
    but equally important: Going Paperless !

    look for related topics on mythologytweets.com

    Also, how sad to discover that the gesture described in the New Testament is just another
    form of derision toward Jesus during his crucifixion. I too had interpreted it as

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