What were sanitary conditions like in a typical Roman town? The New Zealand classicist Alexander Scobie considered all the available evidence in a 1986 article, “Slums, Sanitation, and Morality in the Roman World” (Klio 68:2). Focusing on problems that had largely been ignored—inadequacies in housing, deficiencies in the disposal of human and animal waste (efficient transmitters of disease) and shortcomings in the legal code—Scobie concluded that hundreds of thousands of impoverished Romans were trapped in urban squalor.

Ancient Rome’s high mortality rate was in part due to food and water contamination by fecal matter, a general lack of washing facilities, garbage and human waste simply left in the streets, and insufficient fly control. Furthermore, housing for the disadvantaged was itself a frequent cause of death. Ruina, decrepit structures where the poor lived, lacked piped water and toilets. The high density of living quarters in unsanitary spaces without effective or easily available medical care meant a short and often desperate life for most Romans.—A.O.K.O.