“Waste Management” in Ancient Rome

If you’ve read any of my stories, you know the main tenets they’re based on: Ancient Rome, an Occult Mystery — and a trip down the sewers…

It’s not a Felix’s Mystery unless he’s literally dumped in it at least once!

In the current WIP of In Victrix, one of the main villains is in the “waste management” business. While a nod to The Sopranos (he’s a gangster), there’s also the real element of him working on the aqueducts, sewers, cesspits, and rubbish disposal. This article is going to be about all those aspects which are a central theme in Felix’s life (organised crime is as well, but we’ll leave that for another day).


History of the Cloaca Maxima

Like everything else in ancient Roman history, this is shrouded in legends and myths. The most common narrative is that the cloaca started as an open-air drainage system of the Forum during the kingdom era. With the geography of Rome, the Forum — the flattish area between the hills — tended to get marshy. As the early Romans made it their common ground for trade and civic assemblies, drainage was needed to make better use of it.

Over the years, the open channels were covered as Rome was built-up and over it (probably around the 3rd century BCE). This is a common theme in many long-used settlements — earlier layers are covered up and built over. You can find this all over the world, and why urban archaeology is so important. I grew up next to Jaffa, and pretty much anywhere in Israel you can see such successive layers. Recent works in London have uncovered entire Roman streets, and in fact what started this post was an article about how Melbourne was a complete literal dump during the 19th century (you can probably tell I’m a Sydney-sider 😉).

Anyway, back to the Cloaca Maxima. What started as mainly a storm-drain was used where possible for waste disposal because why not. Rome had its first aqueduct by the late 4th century BCE, and seven by the time Augustus was deified. The influx of water helped flush the cloaca to the Tiber (you definitely didn’t want to go swimming anywhere south of the Campus Martius!). Main baths and public lavatories were build close to the Cloaca, to take advantage or water management.

The Cloaca was renovated by Agrippa under Augustus, Pliny the Elder mentioned the sturdiness of the structure in the face of occasional back-wash, and Julius Frontinus made a mention of it in his inspection of the Aqueducts (and I suspect he made more studies for his main work, even if they didn’t get included).

It seems to have grown disused and damaged in later centuries, together with the rest of Rome. Today what remains are mostly bricked-up entrances along the river (to protect from back-wash). Some areas still allow a trickle of water, and some access is possible although I don’t believe for random tourists. In 2012 a robot scanner was sent down (which looks absolutely sci-fimore pictures here). The conclusion was that the cloaca is in a bad state, and some renovations and restoration works were scheduled.

Side Note: Other waste disposal

Not everyone was close enough to the cloaca to build toilets that could connect to it. Buildings would have had cesspits, and if you lived upstairs in an insula, like a majority of Romans, that meant nightpots that had to be takes down.

Cesspits means that liquids get soaked by the rocks, but solids have to be periodically removed. To help with the soaking, private houses places the cesspits next to the kitchens so that excess water could be dumped directly in there.

If you aren’t completely green yet, bear in mind that to supply a city as large as Rome with food before refrigeration, farmers drove produce from market gardens or live animals to the city daily (or nightly, during the years when wheeled traffic wasn’t allowed during the day). And once you’re in the city with an empty cart, why not take some ready manure back to the farm? Those same carts that were bringing food were used to haul the human excreta to fertilise the fields…

This cycle might explain why population growth relied on immigration — once you were in the city, chances were high you’d contract some nasty bowl disease and die unpleasantly.

Gods

Romans being Romans, if you had something, it had a god associated with it. The goddess of the Cloaca was Cloacina (surprise), and both words originate from the verb to cleanse (cluo). She had a small circular temple located in the Forum, over what originally was a small stream.

Because a thousand years is a lot of time to get myths and stories confused, to say nothing about the two thousand years to lose sources since, the aspects of the goddess got merged with Venus. This is probably related to the shrine being erected on the spot where the Romans and the Sabines made peace after the Rape of the Sabine Women (“rape” meaning abduction in old texts, rather than the modern meaning — although considering the abduction was by the Romans in order to obtain wives, that’s not far off).

Anyway, Cloacina got conflated with Venus, and the two became aspects of the goddess. Or, as Felix puts it in the novel, Cloacina was the goddess of the sewers and marital sexual relations.

Yeah, and you thought the cesspits/salad-fertiliser was gross.

Egretia

In Egretia, as part of my excuse for a more stable society, I used the mix of engineering and magic to build a somewhat more sanitary environment. My vision was always that the Egretians would take the same practical approach the Romans took to everything, and extend it to magic. While the Collegium Incantatorum borrows from the Alexandrian Museon, it’s the real-life applications that concerned the Egretians.

So using magic to extend the (realistically Roman) already-advanced engineering, we end up with aqueducts that supply clean water to the whole city, and a fuller network of sewer lines.

Well, the engineers and incantatores do those grand designs. The actual waste disposal is far to menial, and left to slaves and plebs.

WIP

During the events of In Victrix Felix runs into a brute of a mob leader, who runs a carting cartel. These controlled the access into the city by carts by way of organised crime. My own nod to The Sopranos when the fat man is identified running a “waste management” business.

And naturally Felix runs afoul of him and his goons, and they chase him all over the city, and then under it because it wouldn’t be a Felix novel without a trip in the Cloaca Maxima. So here’s a tantalising (I hope) bit of that chase, just to show that life isn’t all that bleak when you’re literally dumped in the sewers.

I reached the alcove and swung in. In the dark I bumped into Aemilia. She squealed, but I held her tightly, saying “It’s me, it’s me.”

We stayed huddled like that for a long moment. I listened intently, but couldn’t hear much of anything over the rushing waters. “How are you doing?” I asked.

“Oh, just fine. There is nothing more romantic than being pursued down pitch-black sewers by homicidal ruffians. In the months leading to my first Bona Dea festival, this is exactly how I envisaged the night to end.”

“It could have been worse,” I said.

“Oh? Do tell. Right now, with I-don’t-even-want-to-think-what oozing between my toes, I’m finding it hard to imagine anything worse.”

“Yeah. You could have missed me at the Bona Dea, and spent the rest of the night there stuck with drunk auntie Atia while she’s asking you with a mouth full of honey cakes how was your summer vacation and when can she expect the pitter-patter of little feet.”

Aemilia snorted and laughed. “Her name’s Verginia, but otherwise you got her to a T.” Her body relaxed against my chest, her fingers twining in mine softly, no longer clutching desperately.


There were plenty other aspects of waste disposal that I haven’t covered — like the city dumps (the purgamenta mentioned in Murder In Absentia), the public burial grounds, or the literal mountain of broken clay amphorae shards (Monte Testaccio), the result of centuries of supplying the city with imported olive oil and wines. Maybe another time.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to meet Felix in person in his first-ever trip to the Clocaca, I’d suggest you read the (very) short story Burnt which is freely available here. Or see my articles about footwear fashions and cost of living in Ancient Rome.

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