Latrines make urbanity ?!

Not just prestigious fountains in large public squares, luxurious bath houses and monumental stepwells are outstanding expressions of urbanity: latrines also can contribute to the production of an urban, cultured and sophisticated way of life (on my work on historical water places in urban South Asia, see the bibliographical list given here and check my profile with the Max Weber Centre).

Fountain mosaic in the Aachen cathedral (picture by Sara Keller)

Roman latrines in Aachen

My recent visit to Aachen at the occasion of the 53. annual conference of the Koldewey-Gesellschaft was a clear call for that. City archaeologist Andreas Schaub guided us in the lanes of Aachen/Aix-la-Chapelle, once the royal residence of Charlemagne’s empire. Before becoming what is sometimes seen as the cradle of Europe, the site of Aachen was occupied by a roman settlement known as Aquae Granni, dedicated to Grannus, the Celtic god of light and healing (see Schaub 2012 and Schaub 2022). As indicated by the epithet Aquae, the city was born upon significant waters, in this case, sulphurous springs that can reach up to 74 °C — in fact some of the hottest springs of central Europe. The roman town grew in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE around two major spa complexes, the so-called Büchelthermen and Münsterthermen. Associated with these spas, a square with portico, a temple and a basilica have been brought to light by archaeological excavations, which suggests the existence of a forum and, thus, speaks for the established urbanity of the place (Schaub 2022, on the concept of urbanity, see Rau 2020, Rüpke and Rau 2020 and Rüpke 2021). If that wasn’t enough, the discovery of roman latrines confirms, so Andreas Schaub, “the urban character of Roman Aachen” (Schaub 2018: 31).

Roman public toilets, Ostia Antica (public domain)

Several latrines have been evidenced in the Büchelthermen complex, while an independent public latrine also existed some 20 meters north-east of the spa (Schaub 2018). The latter is a fascinating infrastructure that shows advanced hydro-technicity: the latrine was constantly flushed by a strong and permanent water flow provided by the nearby Büchelthermen. Moreover, its spatial setting ranks it as a respectable, if not important, urban space. Indeed, the latrine was solidly built and particularly spacious. The latrine 2 even shows evidence of polychromatic painting. Both technical and artistic character of the building demonstrates the significant quantity of resources (human as material) involved in the materialisation of this urban project.

Artist impression of a roman latrine (source: Siggy Nowak from Pixabay)

Spacious latrines in Madinat al-Zahra, medieval Spain

Not just provincial roman towns were equipped with prestigious places of relief. As I interacted in Aachen with archaeologist Heike Lehmann, she reported about her fascinating work on the latrines of the socalled Upper Hall at the Madinat al-Zahra near Córdoba (Lehmann upcoming 2024). Madinat al-Zahra was a residency town of the Caliphate of Córdoba founded in the mid-tenth century few kilometres away of the existing capital city of Córdoba (Arnold 2020). A great number of latrines were included in the planning of this residential project, amongst which the visitors’ latrines of the Upper Hall are particularly interesting – although there are not public latrines as in roman Aachen. Built outside the royal residence, the Upper Hall is interpretated as a reception and banquet hall for diplomats, foreign delegations and other visitors of the Madinat al-Zahra. Certainly, the dining activities of the Upper Hall required the construction of relief spaces. The archaeological investigation of the latrines brought to light exceptional rooms, equipped with fresh water supply, constant flushing and voluminous vaulted spaces decorated with the same architectural vocabulary that the Hall itself. Variations in the water technology and the space indicate a hierarchically ordering of the various latrines. Clearly, the Upper Hall welcomed visitors with a sophisticated urban setting that was entirely part of the representational program of the Madinat al-Zahra.

Medina Azahara; Exterior view of the Upper Basilical Hall or Dar al-Jund, partly reconstructed today (-JvL-, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Public sanitation and urbanity
Both these striking examples are telling for the role of public sanitation in the making of urbanity. The presence of latrines underlines the existence of a number of elements that make a city a city: Firstly, public latrines speak for the acknowledgment of the need to regulate sanitation in dense and complex urban spaces used by locals and temporary visitors. A coherent (though not necessarily inclusive) civic community is aware about itself and the benefice of producing guides to and standards of urbanity .

Secondly, public latrines show that these aspirations resulted in the effective provision of public infrastructures in sufficient amount across the urban area. Urban actors and/or institutions were key players in initiating such urban projects that provided them with civic legitimation in return. Donation, philanthropy and public duty were some of the instruments used for the production of infrastructures, whereby urban politics, mercantilisation and religion were tightly entangled. Infrastructural projects could contribute to city branding and to the creation of the mental image of a modern and safe city.

Thirdly, the architectural characteristics of the latrines are revealing for the state-of-the-art in water management system, while it also demonstrates the aspiration of creating sophisticated and hygienic places. Rich architectural techniques and styles result from labour division and professionalisation (Christ et al 2023: 47, Keller 2023).

Finally, the historical and archaeological investigations of public latrine are also an open window on the history of body culture (Koloski-Ostrow 2018, Antoniou et al 2016). Cultural, ethical and religious aspects come into play in the shaping of health knowledge, privacy, social status and norms, which illustrates a new aspect of the entanglement of urbanity and religion. It is striking, for instance, that the roman latrines of Aachen were collective places equipped with seats, while the one of the Madinat al-Zahra were designed for a single person taking a squatting posture.
Sanitation in early South Asia
Globally, the history of sanitation and body culture shows big technological back and forth, regional variations and significant class differentiations. The Indian subcontinent, to come back to my own project on water places in South Asia, is not untouched by great disparities explained by urbanisation phenomena and social struggles. If a history of sanitation in South Asia is still awaiting to be written, punctual works have already brought to light fascinating evidence about sophisticated systems of the past. It is in particular the case of the first urbanisation phase, also known as Indus valley civilisation, one of the early civilisations we know about globally (c. 3300-1300 BCE): Indus valley or Harappan cities were equipped with astonishingly advanced systems of sanitation. Public latrines were found, but more surprisingly, almost every housing had its own bathroom including flushing toilet and lavatory, which were connected to the general sewerage system (Tiwary and Saurabh 2018, Antoniou et al 2016).
If latrines make urbanity, the advanced, spacious and sophisticated examples of the past, might they be in Aachen, Madinat al-Zahra or Harappa, certainly invite us to revise our view on our post modernity cities deprived of free public toilets.

Sara Keller is a postdoctoral researcher with the Religion and Urbanity group in Erfurt. Her research in spatial history investigates the articulation of materiality and meaning in the production of space and place. She works multidisciplinary and associates building-archaeological surveys of historical monuments and urban structures with historical and theorical approaches. Her leading works are the theory of architectural resonance and her current project on historical water places in urban South Asia.

Further Reading

Antoniou, Georgios P., Giovanni De Feo, Franz Fardin, Aldo Tamburrino, Saifullah Khan, Fang Tie, Ieva Reklaityte, Eleni Kanetaki, Xiao Yun Zheng, Larry W. Mays and Andreas N. Angelakis. 2016. “Evolution of Toilets Worldwide through the Millennia.” Sustainability, 8, 779; doi:10.3390/su8080779

Arnold, Felix. 2020. “The evolution of Madīnat az-Zahrāʾ as capital city of the Umayyad caliphate.” Madrider Mitteilungen 60: 308–337.

Christ, Martin, Martin Fuchs, Elisa Iori, Sara Keller, Asuman Lätzer-Lasar, Klara-Maeve O’Reilly, Susanne Rau, Jörg Rüpke, Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli, Simone Wagner. 2023. “Entangling Urban and Religious History: A New Methodology.” Archiv für Religionsgeschichte, vol. 25, no. 1: 1-72.

Keller, Sara. 2023. “Vāstu Śāstra as Ideological Guides to South Asian Urbanity (5th–15th Century and Beyond).” In Religion and Urbanity Online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter.

Koloski-Ostrow, Ann Olga. 2018. The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems. The University of North Carolina Press.

Lehmann, Heike. (forthcoming 2024) “Between privy and throne. Building facilities as an expression of sophistication at the court of the Western Umayyad Caliphate (tenth century, Spain)” 8th International Congress on Construction History – Zurich. ISBN 978-3-7281-4166-8

Rau, Susanne. 2020. “Urbanity (urbanitas, Urbanität, urbanité, urbanità, urbanidad…) — An Essay.” Religion and Urbanity Online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Rüpke, Jörg and Rau, Susanne. 2020. “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations.” Religion and Urbanity Online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Rüpke, Jörg. 2021. “Foundation Stories: Concepts of Urbanity in Augustan Rome”. Religion and Urbanity Online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Schaub, Andreas. 2012. “Aachen in römischer Zeit aus archäologischer Sicht – Versuch einer Neubewertung.” In Römisches Aachen. Archäologisch-historische Aspekte zu Aachen und der Euregio, edited by Raban von Haehling and Andreas Schaub. Regensburg: 131-205.

Schaub, Andreas. 2018. “The latrines of Roman Aachen.” In Latrinae. Roman toilets in the northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire, edited by Stefanie Hoss and Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen. Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing. 29-34.

Schaub, Andreas. 2022. “Die römische Säulen-Arkadenwand aus Aachen – Neues zu Chronologie und funktionaler Deutung.” In Entwerfen und Verwerfen. Planwechsel in Kunst und Architektur des Mittelalters und der Frühen Neuzeit. Festschrift für Matthias Untermann zum 65. Geburtstag, edited by Andreas Diener, Marlene Kleiner, Charlotte Lagemann und Christa Syrer.  Heidelberg: 627–642 (

Tiwary, Sachin Kr. and Shubham Saurabh. 2018. “Archaeological Evidences of Toilet System in Ancient India.” Heritage: Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology 6: 764‐781.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Sara Keller (May 29, 2024). Latrines make urbanity ?! Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from

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