Rubbish Throughout the Ages 1: Ancient Rome

Rubbish Throughout the Ages 1: Ancient Rome

Rubbish Throughout the Ages

Number 1: Ancient Rome


When considering how the inhabitants of Ancient Rome dealt with their rubbish, it is important to realise that the things they discarded were not as complicated as today’s waste. With no plastics or intricate packaging, their garbage would mostly have been biodegradable. Furthermore, the amount of rubbish produced by individuals and businesses was far less than in today’s disposable society. However, some element of waste is only natural and it had to be disposed of. How did the Romans achieve this and were the same methods used by everybody?


Rome City


Ancient Rome conjures up images of beautiful villas and luxurious town houses, but the reality was very different for the majority of the population. Over ninety-five percent lived in small apartments, known as insulae, where overcrowding and poor sanitation led to a short life expectancy. The apartments were usually three to five stories high and housed between thirty and fifty people.

The regular, house-to-house rubbish collection that we enjoy today did not exist for these Romans, which led to refuse being dumped in alleyways and sometimes even thrown straight out of windows. In poor districts, the piles of rubbish that were left lying around could get so thick that stepping stones were placed to aid those going about their daily business. Indeed, new buildings were often constructed on top of rubbish, which had never been cleared away.

There is evidence that people were employed to remove waste in carts, and that water was used to clean the streets, but the frequency of the clear-ups, particularly in poorer neighbourhoods, is unclear. It is likely that these early binmen were private contractors, who, by their very nature, would want paying for their services. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that there would be a stark contrast between the cleanliness of the streets surrounding luxurious, private homes and those separating the blocks of insulae.


Appia Antica in Rome


The general assumption is that most waste ended up being dumped into the River Tiber, although it is also certain that Romans had their own landfill sites, or rubbish piles, which were known as middens. The largest of these, Monte Testaccio, can still be seen today.

Testaccio is the biggest artificial hill in Rome. It is made up of an estimated twenty-five million pieces of shattered amphorae, accumulated over three centuries. These storage jars would have contained wine and olive oil, which probably became spoilt during transportation. The remnants were stacked carefully, to avoid landslides, on top of existing rubbish. The top of the pile was then sprinkled with lime, to combat the inevitable stench. Centuries later, caves were dug in the hill, which were used as storage facilities. They provided a constant temperature, were resistant to damp, and air was able to circulate around the stacked shards of broken pottery, providing perfect storage conditions. Remarkably, some of these caves are now used as nightclubs and even restaurants.

The most natural waste is, of course, human waste, and the Romans were capable of dealing with this effectively. They were well known for their remarkable feats of engineering, including the use of aqueducts, which brought over a quarter of a million gallons of water into the city every day. Much of this supplied the sewers, which, very much like their modern counterparts, were covered by stone. The accumulated waste of the city ran through them and out into the River Tiber.  

Public sewers were maintained by the state, and state buildings and some private homes were connected to the sewerage system, through outlets that ran underneath the toilets. To dispose of bodily waste, one sat on a wooden board, astride a hole that was carved into it. Water ran underneath the board, transporting the excrement into the sewers, very much like it does today.


Colosseum in Rome


Again, though, there would have been a huge difference between the facilities enjoyed by the rich minority and those suffered by the plebeians. Not all homes were connected, and waste was sometimes taken by hand from these areas and dumped into the sewerage system.

Public latrines, which date back to the second century BC, were another option for the poor. According to Lord Amulree, the site of Julius Caesar’s murder was turned into a public latrine because of the dishonour it had witnessed. Some are believed to have charged an admittance fee, whilst others were probably free. The long wooden benches that the occupants sat on offered little scope for privacy. Indeed, some historians suggest that visiting them became a social occasion for many people.  

However, not everybody was conscientious enough to defecate where they were supposed to, and it appears to have been commonplace for the contents of chamber pots to be emptied onto the streets. This would have been particularly hazardous for pedestrians if the pot was dropped from an upstairs window. Such was the problem that a law was eventually passed whereby violators were forced to pay damages to anybody who sustained injury after being hit by a pot, or its contents. The law was only enforced during daylight hours, presumably because of the need to clearly identify the culprit. What is certain is that this added another hazard to wandering the streets, after dark, in less salubrious neighbourhoods.

The irresponsible dumping of rubbish is a problem that still blights us today, although one would like to think that this doesn’t normally take the form of flying excrement. Indeed, although our modern system of waste management has come a long way over the past two thousand years, we have a lot to thank and respect the ancient Romans for. Some of their streets may have been messy, and many of their practices might now make us snigger, but their most important innovations still benefit us today. Their sewerage systems were truly remarkable feats of engineering, which were lost after their empire collapsed, and not surpassed until recent times. Furthermore, their methodical use of landfill sites, which have provided benefits, rather than headaches, for future generations is something that today’s society could learn a lot from.

To read about Britain in the Middle Ages, click here