In the quarter of Ephesus located to the north-east of the junction of Marble and Curetes streets, a public latrine was found. It was constructed in the 1st century CE over a channel with an uninterrupted flow of water and the toilet seats, formed by cutting holes into marble benches that line the walls. There were three rows of toilets along three sides of the latrine. The toilets were wholes cut in a marble bench, and their total number was 48.
In the centre, there was an uncovered pool that collected rainwater and provided refreshment in the hot days of summer. The clients were protected from rain by a wooden roof supported by the columns surrounding the pool. The floor was covered with a mosaic. The public latrines were erected as a part of a larger building scheme — of the so-called Scholastica Baths that provided grey water for flushing the toilets. In winter, the latrines were kept warm by an underground heating system that funnelled steam from the baths.
In the ancient cities of the Roman period, most of the inhabitants did not have a luxury of a private bathroom or toilet. This privilege was limited to the most prominent and wealthy citizens such as the owners of splendid villas situated on the slope of the hill opposite to the public latrines, or the bishop of Ephesus who had a grand residence built for him in the vicinity of the Church of Mary. However, the vast majority of the Ephesians had to use public toilets on a regular basis. The whole idea of using the toilet in a company might be shocking to many modern visitors, but it was standard practice in the cities of the Roman Empire.
Probably nothing worked better to diminish the perception of one's status and importance that the necessity to use the public latrine — in the company of several dozens of other clients. The latrines were actually a meeting place, to chat and exchange gossip and news. Surprisingly for the modern tastes, the latrines were actually quite comfortable places, where people spent a lot of time, reading, thinking, or begging the dinner invitations as in the famous ditty by Martial: "Why does Vacerra spend his hours in all the privies, and day-long stoop? He wants a supper, not a poop."
As there was no toilet paper available in the Roman period, the issue of getting clean after using the restroom naturally arises. The clients used sponges attached to sticks that were stored in vinegar for hygienic purposes and washed in the channel with running clean water after each use. Sounds disgusting, does it not? Let’s just add that to keep the seats warm, public slaves were sitting there, waiting for the customers. It is an excellent illustration of how different was the idea of privacy and personal hygiene two thousand years ago.
The latrines of Ephesus were also studied by archaeologists and biologists who were interested in the hygienic conditions and parasite infections in the Roman period. They analysed the mineralised faecal material from a private house latrine, the sewer drain of a public communal latrine, and sediment from the harbour canal. The results demonstrated that the inhabitants of ancient Ephesus suffered from the parasites as eggs of roundworm were found in the public latrine, whipworm in the house latrine, and both whipworm and roundworm in the harbour canal. Surprisingly, taking into account the unique position of Ephesus as the capital of Asia Province and huge trading harbour, there was a lack of diversity in parasite species found. It is essential to mention that these parasites spread by the contamination of food and drink by human faeces. It seems that the Ephesians did not always wash their hands before cooking and eating.
This text is a fragment of a guidebook to Ephesus: "The Secrets of Ephesus".