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Flea-Bitten Empire

With the Legions Came Another Invader ....

With the Legions Came Other Invaders ….

According to an article in The Guardian, we tend to give a lot of credit to the Romans for cleanliness and hygiene. What is not commonly associated with them are “lice, fleas, bed bugs, bacterial infections from contamination with human feces, and 25ft-long tapeworms, a misery spread across the empire by the Roman passion for fermented fish sauce.”

But what about all those Roman baths? Well, how often was the water changed? Or did the bathers regale themselves in a bacteriological soup until the bucket brigade of slaves renewed the water? Unchanged water “left the bathers swimming in a warm soup of bacteria and the eggs of parasites such as roundworm and whipworm.” Then, too, many simply bathed themselves in olive oil, which was cleaned off with a strigil, an kind of scraper with a curved blade used to scrape sweat and dirt from the skin in a hot-air bath or after exercise.

Roman Baths

Roman Baths

And what about those tapeworms? Here the culprit was the Romans’ use of a fermented raw fish sauce called garum. According to Piers Mitchell, from whose article in The Journal of Parasitology this information is derived: “Wrapped around the Romans’ intestines …, the parasites could remove nutrients from food before it could be digested, which could cause severe or even fatal anaemia. Evidence from some Roman sites in Italy revealed that up to 80% of the child skeletons had evidence of severe anaemia.”

Another common source of ill health was the use of human feces to fertilize vegetable gardens. If the human wastes were allowed to compost for a year or more, there would be no danger from bacteriological infections; but there is no proof that the Romans knew of this.

Archaeologists found that the Romans with their baths were no freer from infection and worms and such like than the supposedly more primitive Vikings.

Sic transit gloria Imperii!

One thought on “Flea-Bitten Empire

  1. In the Germania, and the Agricola, Cornelius Tacitus (Agricola’s son-in-law) makes the point that both the Germans tribes, and the Gauls (Celts) were fairly hygenic, bathed, dressed their hair, and wore clean clothing (when clothed), sterilized their eating utensils (kitchen type knives, spoons and skewers) and had extensive “medical” attention from mid wives, herbalists, and shaman/priests/priestesses, who also attended to their war wounded, and treated the important animals such as horses and live stock. Farriers and black smiths were held in high esteem. So, in some ways, they were not entirely primitive and as “clean” and healthy as the Romans. They memorized long tracts of poetry, ritual, astronomy, and folk remedies, and had a rude alphabet. The Romans, of course, were superbly organized for war, were impressive builders, and had an ancient, literacy based culture. They were farther advanced in science than we give them credit for. Evidently (yuck) they were less hygienic than the Egyptians and Greeks. Both of those groups had an idea of hygiene based on the theory of elements, and sanitized with fire and water, and kept their baths and drinking water cleaner than the Romans, hence the value of Greek doctors.

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