Although the Roman Empire is viewed as one of the most advanced civilizations of their age, it seems that not all of their inventions brought prosperity to the empire, because Romans did not gain health benefits from using public toilets. In fact, they were suffering from parasite outbreaks just like the barbarian groups that were continuously assaulting their territories.
The study that pointed out this fact was published in the journal Parasitology and focused on analyzing fossilized feces, known as coprolites, hair combs and other objects linked to sanitation and health care. The main goal of this study was to see the percentage of parasites present in restrooms and if there is any evidence of lice or dysentery in the empire.
It seems that by using public restrooms and indoor plumbing, the Romans didn’t really quell the number of parasitic infections. Instead, with every newly conquered territory, the number of parasites grew as well.
The prevalence of ectoparasites, lice in particular, did not diminish through the use of public baths. But this fact could have also been helped by another important factor, completely parallel to the Roman laws regarding public sanitation and sewer laws.
The empire had a rather peculiar fondness of a specific type of condiment. Garum, a food condiment that could basically be described as a type of fish sauce, had most likely benefited the massive spread of internal parasites. This was due to its transportation methods, being sealed inside of massive jars which allowed fish tapeworms to be transported from their original endemic habitat in Northern Europe all across the Roman empire, infecting everyone along the way.
Fortunately, although garum has started to resurface once again as an extremely popular food condiment, it no longer poses the threats that it once did, due to our advancements in food processing technology and transportation.
However, this study might change the public consensus regarding the cleanliness and general of the Roman empire. In comparison to Iron Age civilization, the presence of internal parasites like roundworm and whipworms did not actually diminish from the use of public sanitation at all.
Another factor that lead to the widespread of parasites was the mode of cleaning and transporting the waste from public bathrooms. This task was carried out by Roman workers known as stercorarii, which carried the solid chunks of feces to the outskirts of the city in order to sell them as fertilizer to farmers. Along the way to the city’s outer walls, parasite eggs would fall out of the cart, being eaten by rats or birds that would eventually lead to to these parasites’ spread.
Either way, even though the sanitation advancements of the Roman empire might not have been extremely beneficial, their massive spread across three continents, with the entire empire encompassing 20% of the global population at its peak, brought alongside other improvements. Paved roads, aqueducts and other similar inventions were made available to each conquered land, improving that civilization alongside them.
Even if Romans did not gain health benefits from using public toilets, their regular de-lousing routines and systematic human waste removal somewhat postponed the massive outbreak of bubonic plague which eventually made the whole eastern empire’s fall become possible.