Archaeology photo

The Romans have done a lot for modern civilization. Roads, a calendar, an alphabet, and so much more. But it turns out some of the so-called improvements they gave us weren’t so great after all.

In a study published today in the journal Parasitology, researchers found that the Roman fondness for baths, toilets, and indoor plumbing didn’t keep them any cleaner than the barbarians at their gates.

Researchers looked at the archeological record, examining coprolites (fossilized poop), combs, and other hygiene artifacts for traces of parasites, evidence of dysentery, and lice. They found that after the Romans conquered entered an area, bringing along their baths and toilets, the number of parasites didn’t fall. Instead, they grew.

“This latest research on the prevalence of ancient parasites suggests that Roman toilets, sewers and sanitation laws had no clear benefit to public health,” Piers Mitchell, author of the study, said in a statement. “The widespread nature of both intestinal parasites and ectoparasites such as lice also suggests that Roman public baths surprisingly gave no clear health benefit either.”

Not only did their baths and toilets encourage disease instead of curing it, but their favorite condiment, a fish sauce called garum probably helped spread parasites as well.

“The manufacture of fish sauce and its trade across the empire in sealed jars would have allowed the spread of the fish tapeworm parasite from endemic areas of northern Europe to all people across the empire,” Mitchell said. “This appears to be a good example of the negative health consequences of conquering an empire.”

Whipworm egg

Whipworm egg

A whipworm egg from Roman times. Whipworms are intestinal parisites.

Interestingly, the study comes out just as garum is making a comeback in modern cuisine (you can have modern versions without quite so many tapeworms).

So, without public health and sanitation, what have the Romans ever done for us? Well, there were the aqueducts…

Archaeology photo