Unlike the relaxation associated with Roman baths, ancient Roman bathrooms triggered trepidation. They consisted of dark, dank holes leading to sewer channels from which emerged biting creatures or even, because of methane buildup, naked flames. Independent archaeologist Gemma Jansen has studied these unsavory sites for the past 20 years, becoming one of the go-to latrine gurus among classical researchers.
In January 2013, beneath layers of architectural ruins in Rome’s Palatine Hill, Jansen examined something of a treasure among toilets: a chamber likely to be the loo that slaves in Nero’s palace would have frequented 2,000 years ago. The stone bench that wraps around the room would have housed some 50 soccer ball-size holes, but no dividers.
“Like public toilets today, they are convenient if you need them, but mostly they are not pleasant nor desirable places,” says Ann Koloski-Ostrow, an archaeologist at Brandeis University who collaborates with Jansen.