paleopathologist

The ancient Romans were obsessed with both water and cleanliness. They “brought aqueducts, heated public baths, flushing toilets, sewers and piped water. They even had multiseat public bathrooms decked out with contour toilet seats, a sea sponge version of toilet paper and hand-washing stations.” You might think that this would have helped overall health in this ancient civilization– but not so!

“With all their body oils and bath rituals, [Piers Mitchell, a paleopathologist at the University of Cambridge] says, “they would have smelled clean, but they would have had infectious disease nonetheless.”

Mitchell focused his research on many reports that have tested for disease-causing microbes at Roman sites–– in mummies, fossilized feces, latrines, etc.

“’I thought we’d see a drop in the intestinal parasites that are spread by feces and poor sanitation compared with the Iron Age, when there weren’t any toilets. But, in fact, I didn’t see a drop at all,’ says Mitchell.”

The types of microbes and parasites that frequently cropped up in his research include: whipworm, roundworm, fleas, bedbugs, three varieties of lice, hookworm, pinworm, and and a single-celled parasite that causes dysentery. “Mitchell also posits that the Romans may have spread a humongous tapeworm from northern Europe as they carted their favorite condiment, fermented fish sauce, around the empire.”

Be sure to read more of this NPR story, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend Us Your Toilets (Without Parasites)” to find out the current hypotheses behind these prevalent Roman microbes.