Romans suffered from body parasites just as much as Vikings, study finds

Despite reputation for hygiene, it seems the likes of intestinal worms and skin lice increased during Roman occupation

They gave us soap, hot baths and communal toilets. But when it comes to asking what the Romans did for us, it seems their fixation on personal hygiene did nothing to protect us from body parasites.

A study of the middens, latrines and burial grounds of ancient Britain has found evidence to suggest that parasites such as intestinal worms and skin lice actually increased during the Roman occupation compared to the preceding age of the great unwashed.

Archaeologists scoured the earth for signs of an improvement in personal hygiene after the Latin invaders established themselves as conquerors in AD43. But all they found in the discarded Roman combs and textiles, the latrines and fossilised faeces or “coprolites”, were more and more parasites, from the whipworm and roundworms of the gut, to the hair lice and fleas of the head.

The “ectoparasites” living outside the body on the skin and hair were it seems just as prevalent during the time of the Romans as in the following centuries when the country was invaded by Vikings, Danes, Angles and Saxons – a time when bathing was a notoriously niche activity. 

In fact, excavations suggest that the special combs used by the Romans to strip lice from their hair were always in demand and “delousing” may have been a daily routine right across the Roman Empire.

The findings, published in the journal Parasitology, are at odds with what would be expected from regular washing with soap and hot water, and good public sanitation, according to Piers Mitchell, of Cambridge University’s department of archaeology and anthropology. “This latest research on the prevalence of ancient parasites suggests that Roman toilets, sewers and sanitation laws had no clear benefit to public health. 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,” Dr Mitchell said.

“It seems likely that while Roman sanitation may not have made people any healthier, they would probably have smelt better,” he said.

“Modern research has shown that toilets, clean drinking water and removing faeces from the streets all decrease risk of infectious disease and parasites. So we might expect the prevalence of faecal-oral parasites such as whipworm and roundworm to drop in Roman times – yet we find a gradual increase. The question is why?” he asked.

One possible explanation is that although the Romans were keen advocates of hot-water bathing, the high temperatures were also conducive to the spread of parasites, especially in bathing houses where the water was not changed regularly.

“Clearly not all Roman baths were as clean as they might have been,” said Dr Mitchell. Dirty water led to a build up of scum were parasites could have thrived while passing from one bather to another, he explained.

Another possible explanation comes from Roman innovations in public sanitation, exemplified by the communal toilets seen in many city centres, and the careful separation of human excrement rather than the use of open sewers.

Although the Romans realised the importance of public sanitation, this did not extend to a knowledge of the dangers of using human excrement as a crop fertiliser. Without several months of composting, the parasite eggs in faeces could survive on crops and be eaten with food, Dr Mitchell said.

“It is possible that sanitation laws requiring the removal of faeces from the streets actually led to reinfection of the population as the waste was often used in farms,” he said.