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Sanitation Among the Ancient Greeks

In the the very first sentences of the Theogony Hesiod describes the Muses. “And after they have washed their tender skin in Permessus or Hippocrene, or holy Olmeius, they perform choral dances on highest Helicon,…”

Odysseus says
‘Eumaeus, verily this is the fair house of Odysseus, and
right easily might it be known and marked even among many.
There is building beyond building, and the court of the
house is cunningly wrought with a wall and battlements, and
well-fenced are the folding doors; no man may hold it in
disdain….”

And then Homer says:
“Thus they spake one to the other. And lo, a hound raised up
his head and pricked his ears, even where he lay, Argos,
the hound of Odysseus, of the hardy heart, which of old
himself had bred, but had got no joy of him, for ere that,
he went to sacred Ilios. Now in time past the young men
used to lead the hound against wild goats and deer and
hares; but as then, despised he lay (his master being afar)
in the deep dung of mules and kine, whereof an ample bed
was spread before the doors, till the thralls of Odysseus
should carry it away to dung therewith his wide demesne.
There lay the dog Argos, full of vermin. Yet even now when
he was ware of Odysseus standing by, he wagged his tail and
dropped both his ears, but nearer to his master he had not
now the strength to draw.”

This suggests the following scenario. Wastes in the house were collected in jars and carried by the maids to a pile by the front door of the house. Servants then carried the wastes to the fields to be spread out as fertilizer. Any elimination was then done into jars or pots. Such chamber pots can be identified by their low shape and the presence of a lid. This probably was the method used until near the Roman period when latrines were used. The Romans built continuously flushing latrines which had a stone with a hole in it mounted over a continuously flowing trough. The water was provided by an aqueduct and carried to well-built sewers. The Romans provide no treatment though, so the outlets to the rivers were quite polluted. This did keep their cities relatively clean. The Greek cities often dumped the waste into the streets. This practice was more prone to the spread of disease.

The following pot is the size and shape of a chamber pot:

Click here:

In the Odyssey of Homer Book 6 the Princess Nausicaa cleans laundry. First Athena tells her line 35 “bestir thy noble father early this morning that he make ready mules and a wagon for thee, to bear the girdles and robes and bright coverlets. And for thyself, too, it is far more seemly [40] to go thus than on foot, for the washing tanks are far from the city.” Then line 75 “Her mother gave her also soft olive oil in a flask of gold, [80] that she and her maidens might have it for the bath.” The place where the washing is to take place is described at line 85 “Now when they came to the beautiful streams of the river, where were the washing tanks that never failed–for abundant clear water welled up from beneath and flowed over, to cleanse garments however soiled”. How they washed is then described, “and themselves took in their arms the raiment from the wagon, and bore it into the dark water, and trampled it in the trenches,” Then “they spread them out in rows on the shore of the sea… and waited for the clothing to dry in the bright sunshine” The oil did not go on the clothes but rather, “they had bathed and anointed themselves richly with oil,”

Resources:


Sanitation and Public Health in Ancient Greece

Questions and Answers

Question: What did law or custom required citizens to dump garbage outside the city instead of leaving it on the street. This has been a hard subject to find.

Answer: I have not found a law like this in ancient Greece though the
information I have is that garbage was taken to the fields rather than being thrown in the streets. The Romans installed a sewer in the middle of their streets and this encouraged garbage in the streets because the sewer washed the garbage away.

Question: What was the average life expectancy of people living during ancient greek?

Answer: About 35 years. But much of this figure is explained by a higher infant mortality. Lack of sanitation caused many babies to die and be born disfigured.

Question: was it good sanitation in ancient greece

Answer: The sanitation in ancient Greece was some of the best in the world at the time, but it was not good by our standards. The Greeks were just beginning to understand the value of cleanliness. Some communities did have better sanitation with clean water, good sewers, and running water for removal of wastes. These communities had less problems with disease. By the end of the Greek period this was obvious and the newer cities were built with
this in mind. With the Greek experience the Romans were able to improve sanitation a lot. Soap was a Roman discovery which helped to raise their quality of sanitation over that of the Greeks.

Question: When a person had to use the bathroom how did they clean theirself after doing their business. Did they have toilet paper as we do or did they use some other type of material in place of our toilet paper.

Answer: There are many pictures of persons washing at a wash basin. Most washing of this sort was done with wash cloths and water. Toilet paper was invented in the 19th century. Though it is convenient, it has not helped our sanitation that much. It is another substance that must be disposed of. When the quantity of sewage is too large then sewage leaks and can cause infections.