The Roman sponge-on-a-stick

The Romans didn’t use toilet paper.  Instead they used a sponge on a stick.  Or at least, that is my understanding.

I’m not sure what our sources are for this, but one came my way this week.  It’s from Seneca’s Letters 70, ch. 20:

20.  Nuper in ludo bestiariorum unus e Germanis, cum ad matutina spectacula pararetur, secessit ad exonerandum corpus – nullum aliud illi dabatur sine custode secretum; ibi lignum id quod ad emundanda obscena adhaerente spongia positum est totum in gulam farsit et interclusis faucibus spiritum elisit. Hoc fuit morti contumeliam facere. Ita prorsus, parum munde et parum decenter: quid est stultius quam fastidiose mori?

20.  For example, there was lately in a training-school for wild-beast gladiators a German, who was making ready for the morning exhibition; he withdrew in order to relieve himself, – the only thing which he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body. That was truly to insult death![1]

I wonder if they had to share a stick?

  1. [1]Latin from the Latin Library here; English taken from the Loeb translation, found here on Wikimedia Commons.

11 thoughts on “The Roman sponge-on-a-stick

  1. Those poor sea-creatures. If only they knew what the Romans were using them for, they would roll over on their sticks.

  2. Roger,

    On the subject of suicide, I must part company with Seneca and side with Jesus. A propos, I knew a Chinese Catholic priest who endured enslavement in a communist prison camp for a staggering forty years. During Mao’s Famine, when even camp officials were starving, this priest sustained himself on wild forage, while offering his scanty camp ration to the camp commandant’s wife. The couple survived and eventually became Catholics.

    All the best,

    Patrick

  3. This reminds me of a line (poorly expressed) in one of the letters of Claudius Terentianus (P. Mich. VIII, 467-72) which we translated in a Latin class.

    At P. Mich. VIII 471.29:
    “…non magis quarauit me pro xylesphongium”
    Roughly:
    “…he treated me as if I were a sponge stick”

  4. Comes from the archive of Claudius Tiberianus, a set of documentary papyri dug up in Egypt (there are a handful of papyri in Latin, nowhere near the volumes and volumes which we have in Greek of course). So not part of the manuscript tradition.

  5. “I wonder if they had to share a stick?”

    AFAIK yes they did. They were kept in a large basin of brine-water although the one I seen at the Villa Oplontis had the fresh water piped-in and the overflow was used for either for the flush section or the water cleaning trough at the person’s feet.

    I think at the famous latrine at Ostia Antica the basin was in the center of the room but likely later looted. The paving and something else I noticed which I don’t recall seemed to put something that was a large rectangle at that location?

    3C Roman Villa;
    http://www.vroma.org/images/mcmanus_images/latrine2a.jpg

    Hadrian’s Wall Barrack’s Latrine;
    http://www.toilet-guru.com/pictures/roman-vercovicium-01-tn.jpg

    Villa Oplontis (basin on right);
    http://italie-chroniques.fr/images/oplontis11.gif

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