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By Drain Doctor on 19/01/2016
“What have the Romans done for us?” asked activist Reg (John Cleese) in Monty Pyhton’s Life of Brian. The aqueduct and sanitation were the first two replies. His colleague Stan said: “Oh yes…sanitation, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like.”
“All right, I’ll grant you that the aqueduct and sanitation are two things that the Romans have done for us,” said Reg and a whole list of Roman public innovations are reeled off by his mates.
While the Romans were the one of the first civilisations to develop indoor plumbing, it seems that its effectiveness may have been exaggerated somewhat.
According to recent parasitology research carried out by the University of Cambridge, archaeological evidence for parasites in the Roman era demonstrates that there were health consequences for people living under Roman rule.
Whipworm, roundworm and Entamoeba histolytica that causes dysentery were widespread despite the Romans' large multi-seat public latrines with washing facilities, sewer systems, sanitation legislation, fountains and piped drinking water from aqueducts. The research suggests that the Romans’ public sanitation measures couldn’t protect the population from parasites spread by faecal contamination.
Fleas, head lice, body lice, pubic lice and bed bugs were also present and delousing combs have been found. The evidence fails to demonstrate that the Roman culture of regular bathing in the public baths reduced the prevalence of these parasites.
Fish tapeworm was noted to be widely present and was more common than in Bronze and Iron Age Europe. It is possible that the Roman enthusiasm for fermented, uncooked fish sauce (garum) may have facilitated its spread.
Perhaps the Roman practice of using a wet sponge on a stick to wipe their bottoms – which was re-used in public toilets – has something to do with the spread of disease. And, despite the fact that faeces was removed from the cities, it was used as fertilizer and therefore parasites could find their way into the food chain that way as well.
Fortunately modern indoor plumbing means that we are a much healthier lot than the Romans but they did give us the idea in the first place.