Discover more from Qui Ante Nos
Roman gladiators didn’t use toilet paper
Covid toilet paper shortages, and snippets the history of hygiene
So let’s talk about anal hygiene. How do you keep your butt clean?
A lot was going on in March 2020. The day my company announced it was closing the office, I went to my local supermarket and bought some disaster preparedness food: one big sack each of rice and beans. I felt sheepish. Was I being a fool for buying these things? Was I hoarding food that I didn’t really need?
I pondered these questions while I waited in the long checkout line, which had snaked through an aisle I normally didn’t visit. It took me a while to recognize what aisle it was, because the shelves were empty: paper goods.
Little did I know, toilet paper would become the hot commodity. At a time when it felt like little was under your control, you could stock up on toilet paper and know that you were good, at least on one very basic front. Also, when everyone else is buying a lot of toilet paper, you start to wonder: what do they know that I don’t? Might as well buy some toilet paper, just in case.
I didn’t stock up on toilet paper because I had invested in bidets. (“Invested” is a strong word. A good bidet on Amazon will run you $20, about the cost of a big pack of high-quality toilet paper. A bidet will pay for itself pretty quickly. You could also get a travel bidet for a similar price.)
In case you don’t know, a bidet is one of many ways to wash your butt with water. The cheap things on Amazon are spray guns, marketed as cloth diaper washers. In older European hotels, you’ll find a porcelain bidet, next to the toilet. In Japan, you’ll find high-tech bidets on many toilets.
Why don’t we see many bidets in the United States? I suspect a self-reinforcing cycle. I wouldn’t want to be a business owner and put a bidet in my bathroom, because people wouldn’t know what to do with it, and they would make a mess, either water-based or otherwise. And if I’m a builder, I wouldn’t put a bidet in a home, because it would freak people out, and the extra cost to put it in would only decrease the value of the home.
There are arguments that, in the American consciousness, bidet usage got linked to prostitution and menstruation. That may well be, but then why are the Europeans down with bidets? Toilet paper was commercialized in the Western world in the mid-1800s, so people were doing something to clean themselves before that. I don’t have a satisfying answer why bidets didn’t catch on in the US, any more than I have a satisfying answer why routine circumcision did.
If you think bidets are weird, you’re wrong, logically. Imagine you had some poop somewhere on your body. Would you scratch at it with a piece of dry paper, or apply some water? Why is the answer different for your butt?
Historically, it’s harder to say with precision. Toilet paper has been the exception, at least in the West. The Chinese, after inventing paper, also developed toilet paper. But commercialized toilet paper was only available in the West some 1,000 years after that.
There are numerous written references to using different kinds of tools for cleaning one’s butt, including flat sticks, rounded stones, and bits of broken pottery reused as a kind of scraper.
Curiously, I found it hard to find anything in the anthropology literature about contemporary anal hygiene among non-industrialized people. I do find laundry lists of what kinds of natural products you can use as a scraper –corncobs seem to come up a lot– but I don’t know how much those are empirically based.
I do know that the outdoor leadership school NOLS recommends the “backcountry bidet” method: pick a hand to be the dirty hand, use it to wipe everything off, and then use the clean hand to dispense a lot of water and soap until the dirty hand is clean too.
If you ask about the Romans, much will be made of a single quote from the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca. In one of his letters, Seneca writes that “the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.” A philosopher would consider suicide, fit it means that he could end his life in a dignified way. “It is not a question of dying earlier or later, but of dying well or ill. And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill.” Seneca writes that suicide is always within our power, giving this example about a gladiator who had the choice to die in the arena or to take matters into his own hands:
For example, there was lately in a training-school for wild-beast gladiators a German, who was making ready for the morning exhibition; he withdrew in order to relieve himself, – the only thing which he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body. That was truly to insult death! [...] Let each man judge the deed of this most zealous fellow as he likes, provided we agree on this point, – that the foulest death is preferable to the fairest slavery.
Some people take this single quote as evidence that all Romans used the sponge-on-a-stick. I once had the pleasure of asking a scholar of ancient Rome if this quote from Seneca was the sum total of our evidence about anal hygiene habits in Republican Rome, and he told me, yes. So I suspect that there might have been some greater diversity in Romans’ habits.
The thing I take away from this sponge-on-a-stick story is that the combination of water and some other tool has been the way to go, in many places, for thousands of years. So get a bidet, and then after number two, use the bidet as step one. Use just a little toilet paper for step two.
Thanks to Evi Van Itallie, who encouraged me to start writing in general, and who prodded me when I raved about bidets.