Not long before my trip to Italy last month, a friend asked me about a particular text in Herculaneum. Her question stirred a vague recollection, which of course piqued my curiosity. Not only did I look up the text before I went, but I went looking for it on site.
Little remains of the original painted notice, on the side of a water tower at the intersection of the decumanus and Cardo IV between Insulae V and VI:
Investigations by various scholars, including one using New Infrared Reflectography (NIRR), have revealed the existence of two notices, one painted on top of the other. The earliest, dated prior to AD 60, has been reconstructed thusly:
CIL IV 10489
M(arcus) Rufellius Robia A(ulus) Tetteius Se[verus] / IIvir[i iure] dic(undo) / b(onum) f(actum) ad laev[and – – -]pu[- – -]erte ut[- – -]ipe[- – -]e / [e]dicemus HS XX si [prim]os(?) t[- – -] praesent[- – -] HS n(ummum) servom verberibus coercueramus.
‘Marcus Rufellius Robia and Aulus Tetteius Severus, duovirs [for the administration of jusitice]. We declare a fine of 2o sesterces if free citizens […], we will punish slaves with […] lashes.
The lost portions of the text render it impossible to know what the punishment described is actually for. However, the overlaying text, dated to sometime in the years of the AD 60s to 70s, provides the missing information.
CIL IV 10488
M(arcus) [Alf]icius Pa[ul]lus / aedil(is) / is velit in hunc locum / stercus abicere nonetur n[on] / iacere si quis adver[sus ea] / i(u)dicium fecerit liberi dent / [dena]rium n(ummum) servi verberibus / [i]n sedibus admonentur.
‘Marcus Alficius Paulus, aedile, (declares): anyone who wants to throw excrement in this place is warned that it is not allowed. If someone shall denounce this action, freeborn will pay a fine of […] denarii, and slaves will be punished by […] lashes.’
In essence then, what we have is notices put up by local magistrates warning of the punishment to be meted out in any instances of dumping excrement in the vicinity of the water tower.
There are a number of things that I find really interesting about these dipinti. Whilst I am no expert on health and disease in the Roman world, my first thought was that it was potentially unusual to see a notice prohibiting the dumping of waste near a water supply. The only similar inscription that comes to mind was found on a cippi on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, dated to the first century BC:
CIL VI 31614
L(ucius) Sentius C(ai) f(ilius) pr(aetor?) / de sen(atus) sent(entia) loca / terminanda coeravit / b(onum) f(actum) nei quis intra / terminos propius / urbem ustrinam / fecisse velit neive / stercus cadaver / iniecisse velit.
‘Lucius Sentius, son of Gaius, praetor, by decree of the Senate, has ordered the fixing of this boundary. No burning (cremation) to be undertaken beyond the markers of the boundary in the direction of the city. No dumping of excrement or corpses.’
Added beneath this text in red paint, CIL VI 31615 provides an additional similarity to the text in Herculaneum, as someone added the line Stercus longe / aufer / ne malum habeas (‘Take a shit well away, if you don’t want trouble.’) The pestilent nature of the Esquiline Hill was described by Horace, who was pleased with the effort made to clean up the area, no doubt as a result of such prohibitions.
Horace Satire I.8.12-16
‘Here a pillar marked a width of a thousand feet for graves,
Three hundred deep, ground ‘not to be passed to the heirs’!
Now you can live on a healthier Esquiline and stroll
On the sunny Rampart, where sadly you used to gaze
At a grim landscape covered with whitened bones.’
The inscription from Rome, however, had nothing to do with water source, but was more in regards to the danger of fire and the stench of decaying corpses and rubbish (as well as human waste). The addition to the text suggests it was enforced. This still seems to make the notice from Herculaneum unique.
Three additional aspects of these dipinti are worth noting. First, the existence of two texts within roughly a twenty year span suggests that making the public aware of this prohibition was necessary on more than one occasion. True, the first notice could have faded to illegibility hence the idea of reissuing it, but if dumping waste by the water tower wasn’t a problem, there would have been no need. That in itself suggests this was at least a semi-regular occurrence. Second, there is the matter of the different punishments: beatings for slaves, a fine for freeborn. As callous as this sounds, it is quite logical. Freeborn offenders are more likely (in theory) to have cash available than a slave might. But the final point I wish to make goes back to the actual dumping of waste. The location of these notices on a water tower makes sense if the magistrates are interested in keeping the water source relatively clean. However, the physical location of the tower, the notice, and the topography of the immediate area makes the dumping of waste here seem like a rather odd choice. Just look:
The tower is at a crossroads between two insulae and the decumanus. The sidewalk that runs down either side of Cardo IV is quite a steep step down to the street itself, such that there is a ramp leading down to the street level (just visible behind the water tower in the photo). There isn’t actually a lot of room for dumping anything in this location. The only place that seems a likelihood is a small space at the base of the tower on the left side. This is, perhaps uncoincidentally, the only place from which the prohibition is actually visible. How or why this small space became so frequently used to dump waste that the town magistrates felt the need to post a notice outlawing it twice is, frankly, beyond me. Regardless, the repetition of the notice and the specificity of punishment makes it quite clear that the magistrates of Herculaneum took no shit. Literally.