As the Roman Empire spread its tendrils across the surrounding geographic landscape, it disseminated ideas regarding literature, engineering, culture, cuisine, religion, and even hygiene. In fact, the Romans are credited with introducing sanitation technology to Europe roughly 2,000 years ago.
But Romanization can also be defined by its spread of parasites.
New research from Univ. of Cambridge’s Piers Mitchell, a member of the Archaeology and Anthropology Dept., has revealed that despite the Roman’s penchant for cleanliness, intestinal parasites and dysentery persisted and even increased following the Iron Age.
“The spread of Roman knowledge such as clean fresh water in aqueducts, under floor heating for houses, elaborate bathhouses for washing, flushing toilets, civic drains and sewers could in theory have improved the health of the inhabitants,” writes Mitchell in the journal Parasitology.
For the study, Mitchell compiled evidence of parasites found in ancient latrines, human burials, coprolites (fossilized feces), combs, and textiles, which were excavated from Roman Period sites.
“At the time of the Romans, we see the most widespread and dominant species were roundworm and whipworm,” Mitchell writes.
The findings led Mitchell to wonder why such parasites flourished in light of advancing sanitation techniques. He suggests that the eggs of roundworms and whipworms were spread from person to person in the warm waters of the public bathhouses. “In some baths the water was only changed intermittently, and could acquire a scum on the surface from dirt and cosmetics,” Mitchell writes.
Another possibility is that the parasites were spread via human feces. The Romans actively collected human excrement from towns, and used it to fertilize their crops. While the technique increased crop growth, “unless the feces are composted for many months before being added to fields, (it) can result in the spread of viable parasite eggs to the plants grown,” according to Mitchell.
Fish tapeworms were also widespread during the reign of the Roman Empire. During the Bronze and Iron ages, fish tapeworm eggs were only in France and Germany. But Mitchell postulates that the spread could be explained by the prevalence of a fish sauce known as garum, which was also used as a medicine. A fermented sauce, garum was comprised of pieces of fish, herbs, salt, and other flavorings. The sauce subsequently fermented in the sun until ready for ingestion.
“It is quite possible that this fermented fish sauce may have acted as a vector for the spread of fish tapeworm and hence contributed to the rise in the archaeological evidence,” writes Mitchell.
Roman doctors, who believed intestinal worms spontaneously generated from heated putrefied matter, may’ve tried to treat these infections by rebalancing the four bodily humors: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. This was accomplished via dietary modification, bloodletting, and other medicines.
“It seems likely that while Roman sanitation may not have made people any healthier, they would probably have smelt better,” Mitchell said.