Monday, May 30, 2005

The Stench of Ancient Cities

A few weeks ago, I was reading a portion of Genesis Rabba (Parasha 34) with some HUC grad students, and we came across a story that begins: "Two women were coming out of Tiberias, and one said to the other: Blessed is He who brought us out of this bad air!"

The story is told to demonstrate how parochial the two women are, for Tiberias was a noted resort and famous city. But it seems likely that, for someone who lived in the country, ancient cities had a definite bad odor. In one of his letters, Seneca writes:

I expect you're keen to hear what effect it had on my health, this decision of mine to leave (Rome). No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city and that reek of smoking cookers which pour out, along with a cloud of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they've accumulated in their interiors whenever they're started up, than I noticed the change in my condition at once....

Of course, the ancients had very different ideas about sanitation, cleanliness, and modesty. Readers of Josephus will remember the amount of time he devotes to the "strange" Essene toilet habits:

War 2:148-9: "Nay, on the other days they dig a small pit, a foot deep, with a paddle (which kind of hatchet is given them when they are first admitted among them); and covering themselves round with their garment, that they may not affront the divine rays of light, they ease themselves into that pit, after which they put the earth that was dug out again into the pit; and even this they do only in the more lonely places, which they choose out for this purpose; and although this easement of the body be natural, yet it is a rule with them to wash themselves after it, as if it were a defilement to them."

Josephus obviously thought it excessively modest to defecate in private (uncovered public latrines were common in his day), and excessively fastidious to wash afterwards — which sheds a certain light on the stench of ancient cities.

Interesting observations (including the quote from Seneca) and bibliography can be found here.


Jim Davila said...

Tiberias was built over a graveyard, which may not have helped matters.

David Baird said...

One of the first things I learned in my Into to Archaeology class at the Oriental Institute at the UofC was that the palace / temple complex was always built in the corner of the site that was upwind most of the time. It really did not take a long stretch of imagination to figure out why.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that cities don't still stink? That's a somewhat humorous parochial view.

Anonymous said...

Herodotus 2.35.2-3

[2] Just as the Egyptians have a climate peculiar to themselves, and their river is different in its nature from all other rivers, so, too, have they instituted customs and laws contrary for the most part to those of the rest of mankind. Among them, the women buy and sell, the men stay at home and weave; and whereas in weaving all others push the woof upwards, the Egyptians push it downwards. [3] Men carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women pass water standing, men sitting. They ease their bowels indoors, and eat out of doors in the streets, explaining that things unseemly but necessary should be done alone in private, things not unseemly should be done openly.

If the Egyptians do things the opposite of everybody else, what does this tell us about Greek sanitation?