Last week photos of Roman toilets were splashed across the web breaking the news that the Romans were not a healthy as most people seem to have assumed. As with many public health interventions, the real value of a sanitation system is out of view (and out of mind) to most people. Its not the toilet that keeps us healthy; its the water treatment plant. Plumbing just moves waste with its microbes and parasites from one place to another.
Paleoparasitology specialist Piers Mitchell put the Roman public health system to the test by evaluating the evidence for human parasites in archaeological remains from before, during and after the Roman Empire. Comparisons before and after the empire are more difficult in North Africa and the Middle East because these areas had long standing sophisticated civilizations before the Roman empire. There is more clarity between civilizations in Europe since Celtic and Germanic societies did not have anything like Roman infrastructure. Contrary to his expectations, there were just as many parasites and ectoparasites in the Roman era as before or after. In some cases the empire helped spread parasites across Europe. Relative amounts of parasites across times is difficult to ascertain for a huge variety of reasons. So while the same parasites were present, the degree of infestation would have varied by place and time period, and archaeology can’t reliably predict this.
The Roman achilles’ heel was their use of human waste for fertilizer and fecal contamination of rivers. Human waste was added to the other manure and redistributed to farm fields and the watershed. What they could not have understood is that human waste is a greater risk for the transmission of human parasites and bacterial diseases. Mitchell also suggests that Roman bath water, that was rarely changed, could have transmitted worm eggs and other parasites. Aquaducts did bring in cleaner water to some of the larger cities but the system could be contaminated and not all Roman sites had access to water from aquaducts. Walter Scheidel (2015:8) has claimed that the city of Rome itself was an example of the”urban graveyard” effect with a very unhealthy population despite having a “heavily subsidized food and water supply”. Scheidel emphasizes the impact of malaria and gastrointestinal disease. We should also keep in mind that a large proportion of gastrointestinal disease would have been bacterial or viral.
As the mosaic to the left shows, the Romans did change agriculture throughout the empire. They spread Mediterranean preferences for cereals and more fish and other aquatic food sources. Mitchell suggests that the Roman love for fish products, especially the fermented fish sauce garum, probably help spread fish tapeworms found throughout the empire. Many parasites and bacterial spores have evolved to withstand preserving methods like smoking, pickling, and osmotic preservation (like salting or sugaring). Whipworm was the most common parasite found, but round worms and tape worms were also common. Lancet liver flukes were widespread and indicate the (presumably accidental) consumption of ants. Antibody based detection (ELISA) has been able to identify Entamoeba histolytica that causes the usually endemic amoebic dysentery (as opposed to the epidemic bacterial dysentery caused by Shigella species). Although not strictly speaking parasites, Mitchell notes an abundance of evidence for flies around cesspits suggesting that they contributed to the spread of diseases associated with fecal contamination. He also notes that schistosomiasis has not been identified in Roman Europe, even though it has been found in medieval European remains.
Turning to ectoparasites, Mitchell found ample evidence of head lice, body lice, public lice, human fleas and bed bugs across the Romanized world. Human fleas (pulex irritans) have been particularly well preserved in Roman, Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval York in Britain. Mitchell notes that human fleas and body lice were present in over 50 archaeological layers at York. He concludes that “the Roman habit of washing in public baths does not seem to have decreased their risk of contracting ectoparasites, compared with Viking and Medieval people who did not use public baths in the same way” (Mitchell 2016: 6). Mitchell suggests that there were enough ectoparasites to support particularly lice transmitted diseases. He notes that Plague of Justinian was transmitted by fleas but is non-committal on the likely specific vector.
In examining the impact of the Roman empire, Mitchell notes that the transition from a wide variety of zoonotic parasites to those primarily associated with human fecal contamination had already occurred before the Roman expansion out of Italy. This shift is paralleled elsewhere and is tied to shift from hunter-gathers to settled agriculture. Whipworm, roundworm and amoebic dysentery were the primary parasites of Roman Europe, while the Romans seem to have made a lesser impact on North Africa and the Middle East where endemic zones of parasites were well established.
Malaria is the one parasitic disease I would have liked to see Mitchell discuss more. Mitchell notes that malarial aDNA has been found in Egypt and anemia possibly caused by malaria in Italy. He overlooks all the malaria work by Robert Sallares including malarial aDNA from Late Roman Italy and better anemia studies correlating with malaria have been done in Italy and Britain by Rebecca Gowland’s group. Yet, malaria is such a big topic that it would be hard to cover along with all the other parasites.
Mitchell, P. D. (2016). Human parasites in the Roman World: health consequences of conquering an empire. Parasitology, 1–11. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0031182015001651
Scheidel, W. (2015). Death and the City: Ancient Rome and Beyond. Available at SSRN 2609651.
Hall, A., & Kenward, H. (2015). Sewers, Cesspits, and middens: a survey of the evidence of 2000 years of waste disposal in York, UK. In P. D. Mitchell (Ed.), Sanitation, latrines and intestinal parasites in past populations (pp. 99–120).