Thursday, 12 November 2009

Reader review: Latrinae et Foricae

In our series of reader reviews, here is the latest review of Barry Hobson’s Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World.

by Désirée Scholten,

Latrinae et Foricae opens with the question ‘why, you may ask, a book on Roman toilets?’, words which were a relief to me (no pun intended), as they reveal that the author is conscious of the oddity of his chosen topic. And yet, who can deny that the lavatory has become one of the most important rooms in our homes? My second question, ‘Why would anyone do this?’, was also answered almost immediately. The author was, until his retirement, a GP. His career combined with his studies in archaeology at the University of Bradford ‘caused an interest in hygiene and disease [in relation to] the distribution of latrines in the community and their situation within individual buildings […] and perception of the development of the provision of facilities over time […].’

However, this trend of answering questions is limited to the preface. The main shortcoming of Hobson’s book lies in its organisation. The first three chapters provide an introduction to toilets in the Roman world, Roman Britain, and Pompeii. They essentially constitute a summary of recent excavation projects during which toilets have been found. However, whilst the appearances of the objects are described and some contextualising facts provided, no interpretative conclusions are drawn. It is not until the last two chapters (chapters 12 and 13) that the reader understands the purpose of the previous descriptive chapters about relatively unfamiliar artefacts. Thus the various features of individual types of lavatories, which are described at length in the first three chapters, are eventually interpreted. To an extent, chapters 12 and 13 should be read first in order to make full sense of the preceding ones.

With the exception of the last two chapters and two others about drains and the location of toilets, the book tends to lack criticism. Hobson has carried out a lot of work in the field and his expertise is obvious from the thoroughness of the examples used. His book is also well-argued; however, in the sections where the author has to lean on secondary literature this attitude disappears. The book fails to move beyond given theories and to explain the pros and cons of a particular theory as given by other authors, or the author’s own opinion on the matter. In pages 81-82, for example, Hobson asks a very legitimate question about gender and the use of toilets and issues of privacy and modesty. He presents the views of various authors, but no real answers are given and the author reassumes his discussion on shared and separate toilets with modern assumptions on gender and embarrassment.

Moreover, Hobson tends to make references to classical literature without considering the specific genre of the works which he quotes. This is particularly true when quoting satiric plays, for example. The author’s interpretations of certain quotes are also, at times, unconvincing. Hobson quotes the Latin poet Martial (p.111), for example: ‘Philaenis wears purple-dyed garments every night and day, but she is not ostentations or haughty, she likes the odour, not the colour.’ He concludes from this quote that Philaenis wears purple because the smell of the purple dye disguises her body odour. But that is not what it says; it says that she likes the scent. In this case, Hobson’s conclusion is in my view a bit premature and needs further explanation to convince me.

Latrinae et Foricae is primarily a survey rather than a well-balanced study on a new topic. Much more could have been made of it, especially since the many pictures of the sites make it easy to follow the author’s descriptions. With its detailed descriptions and illustrations, the book is of great value to those who are already familiar with the topic. However, many chapters lack critical assessment to the extent that the book remains, above all, an inventory of lavatories.

Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World, Barry Hobson (Duckworth)

Desiree Scholten is an MA student in Medieval Studies at the University of Utrecht.

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