Saturday, September 09, 2006


Ancient Tersive Materials Again

Fr. Gerard Deighan wonders whether there is any evidence that the Romans, like the Greeks, also used stones to wipe themselves after defecating. I'm not aware of any literary evidence, and I haven't seen Ann O. Koloski-Ostrow, "Roman Latrines: How the Ancients Did Their Business," Archaeology Odyssey 7.3 (2004) 48-55, or Richard Neudecker, Die Pracht der Latrine. Zum Wandel öffentlicher Bedürfnisanstalten in der kaiserzeitlichen Stadt (Munich: Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil, 1994).

Fr. Deighan also writes:
Catullus's arid Furius came to mind (carmen xxiii), whose fundament also knew the rub of little lithoi, if but rarely, and in another way:

nec toto decies cacas in anno
atque id durius est faba et lapillis.
Which means
Nor do you defecate even ten times in an entire year, and what you produce is harder than a bean and little stones.
Part of the fascination about studying classics is the realization that the Greeks and Romans were subject to the same aches and pains that we are, including constipation. This realization somehow makes them more human and familiar, less distant and alien.

The Roman emperor Vespasian had a habitually strained expression, and Suetonius (Life of Vespasian 20, tr. J.C. Rolfe) tells this anecdote:
He was well built, with strong, sturdy limbs, and the expression of one who was straining. Apropos of which a witty fellow, when Vespasian asked him to make a joke on him, replied rather cleverly: "I will, when you have finished relieving yourself."

Statura fuit quadrata, compactis firmisque membris, vultu veluti nitentis: de quo quidam urbanorum non infacete, siquidem petenti, ut et in se aliquid diceret: "Dicam," inquit, "cum ventrem exonerare desieris."
Martial 3.89 makes a similar joke:
Use lettuce and soft mallows: for you have the look, Phoebe, of one who is taking a hard crap.

Vtere lactucis et mollibus utere malvis:
  nam faciem durum, Phoebe, cacantis habes.
Phoebe's expression reminds me of a scene in the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Steve Martin, pretending to be Prince Ruprecht, asks his brother prince (played by Michael Caine) for permission to go to the bathroom. Permission is granted, whereupon Prince Ruprecht dirties his drawers on the spot, with appropriate facial contortions.

A graffito (in hexameters, with Homeric echoes) from a latrine in Ephesus also gives a vivid impression of a man obeying the call of nature with difficulty:
λὰξ ποδὶ κινήσας καὶ πὺξ χερὶ μάκρον ἀείρας
κ(αὶ) βήξας κραδίηθεν, ὅλον δὲ τ[ὸ] σῶμα δονήσας
ἐξ ὀνύχων χέζων φρένα τέρπεο, μηδέ σε γαστὴρ
μήποτε λυπήσειεν ἐμὸν ποτὶ δῶμα μολόντα.
I don't have access to the collection Die Inschriften von Ephesos (Bonn, 1979 ff.), where this inscription appears. I know the text only from a database of Greek inscriptions on the World Wide Web, which gives it the citation IEph 456.1. I can't find a translation of the inscription either, so here's a quick and dirty version of my own:
After kicking with your heel and after lifting far up with clenched fist and after coughing from deep within and after shaking your whole body from your fingertips, gladden your heart as you defecate, and may your belly never give you pain when you come to my house.
One phrase is a bit tricky, and it probably shows in my awkward translation -- μάκρον ἀείρας (after lifting far up). The verb ἀείρω (lift, raise up) is normally transitive, and so one would expect a noun as direct object here. I have translated the adjective μάκρον as a sort of inner accusative with adverbial force (Smyth, Greek Grammar § 1606). Tadeusz Zieliński speculated that μάκρον might be corrupt. In Philologus 64 (1905) 3, he conjectured μάκτρον (towel, wiper), so that πὺξ χερὶ μάκτρον ἀείρας would mean something like "after lifting toilet paper with clenched fist."

But μάκτρον is a rare Greek word. In fact, the only citation in the Greek lexicon of Liddell-Scott-Jones is from the first chapter of a work on fever by the late Greek medical writer Alexander of Tralles, quoted here from Theodor Puschmann's edition and German translation of Alexander's works, 2 vols. (Wien: Wilhelm Braumüller, 1878-1879):
βέλτιον δ᾽οἶμαι ἀποπλῦναι τὸν ἰδρῶτα χλιαρῷ πολλῷ εἰς τὸν ἐκτὸς οἶκον ἐξελθόντα ἐναπομάσσειν τῷ μάκτρῳ καὶ οὕτως ἀλείφεσθαι τῷ ὑδρελαίῳ.
This means, roughly,
But I think it is better to wipe the perspiration off with lots of warm water, and after the patient has come into the outer room to rub him with the towel and in this way daub him with a mixture of water and oil.
The rarity of μάκτρον, however, is only apparent. Good, early authors (Herodotus, Aristophanes, Xenophon) use the compound form χειρόμακτρον (cloth for wiping the hands, towel, napkin). With the meaning head-cloth or scarf for women, χειρόμακτρον also occurs in Sappho.

If Zieliński's conjecture is correct, the inscription from Ephesus is evidence of an ancient tersive material less abrasive than stones. Of course we know from other sources that sponges were also used for this purpose.

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