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Beneath the glitz, ancient Rome was truly disgusting

dungEnergy drink made of goat dung

According to Pliny the Elder, people in Rome patched up their scrapes and wounds with goat dung. Pliny wrote that the best goat dung was collected during the spring and dried but that fresh goat dung would do the trick “in an emergency.” That’s an attractive image, but it’s hardly the worst way Romans used goat dung. Charioteers drank it for energy. They either boiled goat dung in vinegar or ground it into a power and mixed it into their drinks. They drank it for a little boost when they were exhausted. This wasn’t even a poor man’s solution. According to Pliny, nobody loved to drink goat dung more than Emperor Nero himself.

Mouthwash made of pee

In ancient Rome, pee was such big business that the government had special taxes in place just for urine sales. There were people who made their living just from collecting urine. Some would gather it at public urinals. Others went door-to-door with a big vat and asked people to fi ll it up. The way it was used was weird. For example, they’d clean their clothes in pee. Workers would fi ll a tub with clothing and pee, and then somebody would be sent in to stomp all over the clothing to wash it out. Which is nothing compared to how they cleaned their teeth. In some areas, people used urine as a mouthwash, which they claimed kept teeth shining white. In fact, there’s a Roman poem that survives today in which a poet mocks his cleantoothed enemy by saying, “The fact that your teeth are so polished just shows you’re the more full of piss.”

Toilets regularly exploded

toiletWhen you entered a Roman toilet, there was a very real risk you would die. The first problem was that creatures living in the sewage system would crawl up and bite people while they did their business. Worse than that, though, was the methane buildup—which sometimes got so bad that it would ignite and explode underneath you. Toilets were so dangerous that people resorted to magic to try to stay alive. Magical spells meant to keep demons at bay have been found on the walls of bathrooms. Some, though, came pre-equipped with statues of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, guarding them. People would pray to Fortuna before stepping inside.

Romans vomited so they could keep eating

Romans took excess to new levels. According to Seneca, Romans at banquets would eat until they couldn’t anymore—and then vomit so that they could keep eating. Some people threw up into bowls that they kept around the table, but others didn’t let themselves get so caught up in the formalities. In some homes, people would just throw up right there on the fl oor and go back to eating. The slaves are the people you really need to feel sorry for, though. Their jobs were terrible. In the words of Seneca: “When we recline at a banquet, one [slave] wipes up the spittle; another, situated beneath, collects the leavings [vomit] of the drunks.”

Absolutely nil privacy in pooing

Rome has been praised for its advances in plumbing. Their cities had public toilets and full poosewage systems, something that later societies wouldn’t share for centuries. That might sound like a tragic loss of an advanced technology, but as it turns out, there was a pretty good reason nobody else used Roman plumbing. The public toilets were disgusting. Archaeologists believe they were rarely, if ever, cleaned because they have been found to be filled with parasites. In fact, Romans going to the bathroom would carry special combs designed to shave out lice. The worst part came when you fi nished. Each public toilet, which was shared with dozens of other people, would have a single sponge on a stick that you used to wipe yourself. The sponge would never get cleaned—and it was shared with everybody.


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