Print Friendly, PDF & Email
A Roman latrine

A Roman latrine, feeding into the Roman sewers.

Why did the Romans build aqueducts and sewers?

In larger Roman towns, people often got sick or died from drinking water that had sewage in it. Sewage is human waste – poop or pee.

When people drink water with poop in it, they can get other people’s germs. They may get sick with dysentery or die. Dirty water was especially dangerous for babies and old people, and anyone who had been sick.

More about dysentery
Lots more Ancient Rome articles

Roman aqueducts and clean drinking water

To fix this problem, many Roman towns built aqueducts. The aqueducts brought in fresh water from the hills outside of the towns.

More about Roman aqueducts

A Roman brass valve that allowed you to turn the water off and on in water pipes.

A Roman brass valve that allowed you to turn the water off and on in water pipes.

Inside Roman towns, water flowed through clay pipes or lead pipes. The pipes had valves in them so you could turn the water on or off, or control how much water flowed through the pipes.

Did Roman lead pipes give people lead poisoning?

Probably the lead pipes did result in somewhat higher levels of lead, which isn’t healthy. But Roman water didn’t stand in the pipes – it was always running, so it wouldn’t have picked up too much lead. The Romans knew what lead poisoning looked like, and if people had been getting it, they would have changed their system.

How did the Romans deal with sewage?

The Romans also built public latrines and systems of sewage pipes to carry sewage out of the streets and dump it into the river. Roman sewers were a big improvement on Greek sewage arrangements, where many people just poured their waste into the street however they wanted.

Public latrine at Ostia (Thanks to Lynn Lichtenbaum)

Public latrine at Ostia (Thanks to Lynn Lichtenbaum)

Roman public toilets

There were also big public toilets that had room for lots of people at the same time (this one is from Ostia). Apparently, Roman people weren’t shy about all going together in one big room!

Did Roman women use the public toilets?

Nobody knows whether Roman women used these public bathrooms along with the men, but there aren’t any separate women’s rooms, so they probably did.
Unlike latrines in China, in Rome people sat down to go to the bathroom. They didn’t have toilet paper, so they used bits of broken pottery (rounded off so they weren’t sharp) instead.

Sewage and toilets in ancient China
More about Roman pottery

Street drain in a Roman street

Street drain in a Roman street

Roman sewers – pipes and storm drains

Roman toilets drained into the sewer pipes underneath them. Then the Roman sewers just dumped raw sewage into the river, which was better than leaving it lying around in the streets, but still did spread germs sometimes.

The Romans didn’t have any way of treating sewage to kill the germs, as we do today. And they didn’t understand that germs made people sick.

Roman clay drainpipe

Roman clay drainpipe

a round stone tunnel with water in the bottom - Roman sewers

The inside of the tunnel that drains water from the Roman Forum – the Cloaca Maxima.

Some of these Roman sewers are still being used today. In Rome, the Cloaca Maxima, the Big Drain, still carries rain water away from the Roman Forum to the Tiber River.

More about the Cloaca Maxima

Sewage collectors and fertilizer

In smaller towns, though – most of the towns in the Roman Empire – there weren’t any sewers. Sewage collectors came through and got the poop from each house and carried it off to sell to farmers to use as fertilizer on their fields, just like in ancient China at the same time.

In small villages (where most people lived), they didn’t even have outhouses, and people just walked out to the fields every morning and pooped there.

Are you looking for a second source to cite? Check out this great article on Roman sewage from a real expert.

Learn by doing: Build a Roman arch
More about Chinese sewage systems
More about Roman baths

Bibliography and further reading about Roman sewage:

More Roman Architecture
Ancient Rome home

Roman sewers - ancient Roman toilets, poop, pipes
Article Name
Roman sewers - ancient Roman toilets, poop, pipes
Roman aqueducts brought clean water to Roman towns, and Roman sewers carried away dirty water from storms, and from Roman toilets (really latrines).
Publisher Name Study Guides
Publisher Logo