A newly unearthed mosaic-tiled bathroom floor discovered in an ancient Roman city suggests humans’ knack for potty humor isn’t a new trait.
Located in modern-day Turkey, Antiochia ad Cragum was once home to more than 6,000 people during the height of the Roman Empire. For the last decade, this coastal city has been the site of archaeological projects that tell researchers more and more about how ancient societies lived – and how they joked. As it turns out, ancient Romans had a twisted sense of humor.
The floor was discovered on the last day of the 2018 season and is the first known in this region to depict a figured mosaic. In a statement emailed to IFLScience, art historian and mosaic expert Birol Can said there are very few surviving latrines with mosaic paving and even fewer depicting human figures. But this one has some rather dirty jokes depicted in its storylines.
It shows Ganymedes, a Trojan youth usually depicted with a stick in one hand and a hoop in the other, playing. In the Greek myths, Ganymedes was kidnapped by an eagle that was really Zeus, and spirited away to Olympus to act as Zeus' cupbearer, in what researcher Michael Hoff says served as a metaphor for his being Zeus’ “boytoy," so to speak.
“The myth probably came about as a way to explain the common institution of older male/younger male homosexual affection,” explained Hoff. Except in this mosaic, the eagle is a heron and Ganymedes’ stick doesn’t have a hoop but rather a sponge typically used to clean oneself after going to the bathroom. The heron holds this sponge in its beak using the tip to dab Ganymedes’ penis, meaning the boy had either had or was about to engage in sex.
“It’s bathroom humor that would have been appreciated by the males who would have been visiting the latrine while doing their business,” said Hoff.
Narcissus, the boy who was so in love with his own beauty seen in a reflecting pool and either died from pining away or took his own life depending on the telling, was also depicted in the mosaic but with a long nose, which would not have been considered attractive, and also probably represented his penis.
“Here, the ironic change of this story was made consciously and intentionally: humor. If the function of the structure – in other words, a toilet – is considered, the emphasis and content of humor here is better understood,” explained Can.
The latrine is “one of the most solid examples” of ancient potties meant to serve large crowds, offering a humanistic perspective to ancient artifacts.
“The humor that is expressed from these mosaics really does put humanity into our abandoned city. We had been working here for 10 years and we’ve found buildings, markets, temples, and bath buildings – it’s all neat but it doesn’t speak that much to the people who actually lived here,” said Hoff. “I think this was really the most intimate piece of evidence that we have of the humanity who lived and breathed and worked and played here at our ancient city.”
Hoff says that after further research, his team plans to put the mosaic on display.
“This time it won’t be just people using the toilet that will be seeing it,” he concluded.