Ancient Romans Were Riddled With Parasites, Despite Sanitation Innovations

Despite the introduction of public sanitation, parasites such as roundworm became increasingly prevalent in the Roman Empire. Peter Bernik/Shutterstock

The importance of personal hygiene is one of the first things that children learn these days, although back in Roman times, the introduction of public sanitation measures was something of a novelty. However, despite all the praise that the empire has received for its efforts to improve the cleanliness of its subjects, new research indicates that ancient Romans were in fact more riddled with parasites than those who lived in the Iron Age or medieval Europe, when sanitation was virtually non-existent.

Among the innovations introduced by the Romans were flushing toilets, bath houses, drains and sewers, aqueducts for distributing fresh water, and legislation requiring human waste to be removed from cities. Yet, while one might assume that this would lead to a decrease in parasitic infections, a paper that appeared this week in the journal Parasitology suggests that the spread of the empire in fact had the exact opposite effect.

Pulling together data from a number of archaeological studies across the area that once fell under Roman control, Dr. Piers Mitchell of Cambridge University has discovered that at least 12 different types of endoparasite – meaning those that live within the body – were prevalent among Roman subjects. These include the likes of whipworm and roundworm. Additionally, at least five ectoparasites, such as fleas and lice, were found to be common.

Roman toilets such as these failed to decrease the spread of fecal oral parasites. Fubar Obfusco via Wikimedia Commons

The walls of most intestinal parasitic worms – or helminths – contain a component called chitin, which enables them to remain preserved for thousands of years. Consequently, archaeologists have gained a window into the contents of ancient Romans’ guts by studying latrine soil, preserved pieces of human feces called coprolites, and human burials.

Drawing on several such studies conducted in 10 different countries, Mitchell found that human whipworm was present in eight of these countries, while roundworm was common in six. Both of these are fecal parasites that are normally spread when food is contaminated with feces.

Mitchell suggests that the high infection rates may have been caused by the fact that human waste, once removed from cities in accordance with Roman legislation, was often used to fertilize crops. While this may have improved yields, feces that is not composted for several months before being applied to fields is likely to contain large numbers of parasitic eggs. Thus, the measures introduced by the empirical authorities may in fact have had a detrimental effect on subjects’ hygiene.

Evidence suggests that head lice, pubic lice, body lice, fleas and bed bugs were also common throughout the Roman Empire. By analyzing sediment layers in the English city of York, researchers have discovered that the presence of these ectoparasites was roughly equivalent during the Roman era as it was during the Viking and medieval periods. Furthermore, the discovery of delousing combs at Roman sites – some of which still contained lice – suggest that their use may have been part of many Romans’ daily routines.

The Roman empire extended across most of western and southern Europe at its peak. Andrei nacu via Wikimedia Commons

The spread of these parasites may have occurred in a number of ways, although Mitchell suggests that many were probably passed around in the water at public baths, which was probably not changed as often as it should have been, and therefore could have acted as a source of infection.

Finally, the study suggests that fish tapeworm, which was present in only France and Germany during the Bronze and Iron Ages, became prevalent in six countries during the Roman Empire. This is likely due to the popularity of a sauce called garum, which contained uncooked, fermented fish pieces. It’s diffusion through the empire probably led to the spread of fish tapeworm, reaching areas where the parasite was not endemic.

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