Essay: History is in the Eye of the Historian
Two viewpoints about the sanitation and hygiene efforts of the ancient Romans have been presented, (Scobie and Morley), along with the question ‘which view of Roman sanitation practices is correct.’ Is Scobie who paints a very bleak disease-filled environment the correct view of the Roman past or is Morley’s who does not quite see Roman hygiene and sanitation as the problem Scobie makes it out to be? In light of the following influences this paper will argue that Morley is probably the more accurate view of Roman past and that Scobie is misreading the evidence.
In answering the question above two major influences play a large role in determining which scholar holds the most accurate view of the Roman past. The first influence comes from Kenneth Kitchen, a leading Egyptologist, who coined and applied the statement ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ (Olaussen, 2009).It must be recognized that over the past 2000 +/_ years that have transpired since the Roman Empire existed much construction and renovation has been done to Rome and what evidence that may have existed to support either view is now lost. Conclusions about Roman practices must be drawn from sources that may or may not be telling the truth.
The second major influence is the tried and true statement that history is in the eye of the historian. This means that what Rome actually practiced sanitation wise depends upon the viewpoints and interpretation of both Scobie and Morley. These two scholars are not looking at different pieces of evidence or ancient literature to draw their conclusions. They are looking at the exact same extant physical remains and ancient literary sources and coming to two completely different conclusions about ancient Rome and its sanitation practices.
This is the nature of archaeological studies. There is only so much physical evidence available and Scobie himself stated this problem when he complained about the lack of information studying this topic. He complains about how archaeologists do not concern themselves with sewer systems and other ancient literature do not address the topic either while they may talk about the delivery of water to individual villas, etc. (Scobie, 1986, pgs. 400-401).
This complaint may be moot as a look at another later study’s bibliography shows ample writing on the topic, even from Scobie’s time. This latter study came to the conclusion that the Romans were not slack in their building of a good sanitation system and that they improved upon the technology used by other previous civilizations to make their system work for their needs (De Feo, et al, 2014).
On the other hand, Morley using the same ancient sources does not make the mistake that Scobie does and rush to a conclusion about the lack of unsanitary conditions ancient Rome may or may not have possessed. While Morley confirms that there is little archaeological and literary evidence to support a well-examined conclusion about Rome’s sanitation issues, he does not misread Vitruvius. Instead of thinking that the ancient Roman writer was painting a desperate picture of hygiene and sewer problems in ancient Rome, Morley sees that Vitruvius and others were writing about a situation that was carefully planned with enough facilities available for the comfort of Roman citizens (Morley, 2017,pg. 192).
The lack of archaeological evidence and the misreading of ancient literary sources are not the only reason Scobie’s view is inferior to Morley’s. The next piece of evidence that supports Morley’s view over Scobie’s is the latter’s reference to slums. Scobie uses the presence of overcrowding as well as the design of some of the extant homes as evidence that Roman sewers and other sanitation habits may not have been up to par (Scobie, pg. 401). But this is not evidence that Rome did not have a proven and reliable sanitation system. It is only evidence that it was possible that the ancient Roman citizen did not adhere to the sanitation and building laws governing their city. Again, Scobie could be misreading historical documents or allowing his own private, personal bias to influence how he views the ancient and archaeological evidence
Morley agrees with that conclusion as he states that while modern authors may look at some of the extant archaeological evidence most of their evidence comes from those authors who may be classified as ancient fiction writers. The information provided by those authors would serve a different purpose other than retelling of factual Roman conditions 2000 years ago (Morley, pg. 193).
To illustrate thisproblem, Morley cites how Suetonius writes about Vespasian’s life and includes an event where a dog brings into the latter’s home a human hand it had found on the street. Morley explains that this event can be taken in two ways, either it is purely a fictional account meant to spice up the story or exaggerate the desperate disposal system of human waste or cadavers; or it can be taken as something that was likely to have happened because it is plausible example of sanitation conditions of ancient Rome (Morley, pg. 194).
Scobey falls into the latter category as he records the same incident in his article but not as an example of literary exaggeration but as actual fact. He uses this example to support his belief that the ancient Romans cared nothing about their loved ones and simply discarded their dead bodies in the street as food for dogs and vultures (Scobie, pg. 418). The reason for Scobie’s decision to make Seutonius’s account factual may stem from the fact that the extant archaeological evidence provide the modern researcher with no real idea of how the ancient Romans actually lived. The other factor in this is that any evidence left behind is very bendable and is vulnerable to the bias and perspective of those studying the left over remains (Morley, pg. 194).
That fact brings us to a third good reason to take Scobie’s account of Rome’s lack of hygienic and sanitation past with a grain of salt. His citing that Vitruvius did not grasp or say anything about the problem of the Romans using lead pipes to transport their water from its sources to the city exposes his weak perspective (Scobie, pg. 424). This is in direct contrast to Morley who wrote that Vitruvius explicitly warned about their use but was ignored by city officials (Morey, pg., 194). It is hard to take Scobie as factual in his rendering of the past and one wonders how he is analyzing the information he is looking at. It is not as though Vitruvius’ writings were not extant in Scobie’s time. They have been studied by different historical and other students since the Renaissance (Calter, 1998). It is these facts which strains the credibility of Scobie’s conclusions and analysis of the past.
The discussion on water and pipes brings us to the final reason why Morley’s view of Ancient Rome and its sanitation situation seems to be more accurate rendering of history over Scobie is the discussion on baths. While Morley does not address the baths directly he does so indirectly through discussing water delivery and other aspects associated with the baths. Scobie makes a separate distinct section for this topic in his article and goes to great lengths to try to prove that the Romans had no knowledge of how to provide clean and sanitary facilities. He says that there is no evidence that the Romans knew of disinfectant and that it took a declaration from Hadrian to separate the healthy bathers from the unhealthy (Scobie, pg. 425).
Yet this thinking flies in the face of common sense as Morley talks about the constant flow of water which would have been purer and healthier than wells, etc (Morley, pg. 198). It would seem logical that there would be health enthusiasts of that time who would appeal to the governing officials about health standards like they do today. Or that they would warn their fellow citizens through a variety of means of the healthy environment, or lack thereof, of the public baths. Scobie continues to use the example of some bathhouses as evidence for his thesis that Rome was a very unsanitary and unhealthy city to live in (Scobie, pg. 426). But again this flies in the face of logic as while disreputable bathhouses may have existed at that time that is not evidence to support an extrapolation to all Romans and all sanitary measures of that age. It is evidence that some of the owners of the bathhouses skirted the laws and did what they could to save on expenses and maximize profits.
A detailed study on Roman baths does not uphold Scobie’s argument as why would the Romans go to such great lengths and expense to build their elaborate baths only to have them ruined by a lack of proper sanitation and health codes (Crystalinks, 2017). Sanitation, human waste and other hygienic issues were not new problems so avoiding health issues would be on the Romans minds when they constructed their baths and sewer systems.
The declaration ‘the absence of evidence is not evidence for absence’ is a double edged sword for sometimes the absence of evidence is evidence for absence. But this turn of that declaration is not supporting Scobie or his account of the sanitary situation of ancient Rome.Morley’s use of the evidence makes his account superior and far more accurate than Scobie’s. This paper has cited many reasons why this conclusion is so and there is one more to add to the list.
In reading Scobie’s account of Rome’s supposed sanitary conditions his version makes it seem like the ancient Romans lived in some sort of intellectual vacuum. By that it is meant that Scobie’s view of the ancient Romans is that they were not intelligent enough to figure out any solutions to the sanitary problems they faced or they did not care to do so. But we know that is wrong as the Romans learn from their predecessors, other ancient societies that built sewer systems, and improved upon those systems.
It is also to mean that Scobie does not give any credit to ancient people or other health enthusiasts to be aware of these problems and strive to work to correct them. His rendering of the past falls directly into the realm of the second influence, history is in the eye of the historian. He seems to limit his observation to what little extant archaeological evidence is available and extrapolate that one single piece of evidence to all Romans. This would be an unfair interpretation to make as one or two pieces of evidence does not speak for 1000 years of Roman history. It may speak to one segment of the population or one or two bad examples who tried to save money by ignoring the rules.
It is certain that he misreads ancient literary authors and takes their accounts of different events as fact instead as Morley pointed out, literary exaggeration or fictional writing for entertainment. It is this narrow perspective of ancient Roman and its citizens that undermine Scobie’s opinion about that era and city.
On the other hand, Morley was far more open-minded when it came to analyzing extant archaeological remains as well as the literary evidence written by ancient authors and he provided a much more balanced view of what life was really like in ancient Rome. He gave the Romans credit for their intelligence as any people who could build roads and other magnificent structures certainly had the intelligence to know about the dangers of a bad sanitation and sewer system, as well as how to avoid them. This is indicated in Morley’s writing when he mentions that the Romans knew the different qualities of the water supply and designated them to their proper use in the city (Morley, pg. 201). They were not as haphazard about the use of water which provides evidence that they were not as uncaring about sanitation and human waste as Scobie implies.
The ancient Romans were not some dumb knuckle dragging humans who lived like animals. They took care of their sanitation problems like any intelligent society would and protected their people from unhealthy conditions.
Calter, P., (1998) “Ad Quadratum, the Sacred Cut, &Roman Architecture”, Dartmouth
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Morley, N., (2017) “The Salubriousness of the Roman City”, Retrieved Oct. 4, 2017 from
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Scobie, A. (1986) “Slums, Sanitation and Morality in the Roman World”, KLIO 68, 2,
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#1.In light of these influences this paper will argue that Morley is probably the more accurate view of Roman past concerning their sanitary practices and that Scobie is misreading the evidence in order to build his own view of what he wants the past to be instead of painting an honest picture of the Roman situation. (removed and edited into the first paragraph)
#2.about how the Roman government and population practiced their sanitary needs.(Taken frm the 3rd paragraph)
#3.for such an unsanitary situation in ancient Rome (taken from pargraph with morley pg. 193)
#4.One thing that works against Scobie’s account of ancient Rome is his obsession with dogs and vultures along with the normal marketing of domesticated animals for food consumption. (Scobie, pgs. 419-421). He spends far too much time emphasizing the activities of the dogs and vultures when it is highly unlikely that vultures would be near such a highly populated area.(Red -my addition if you use this paragraph. I knew it was out ofplace so I recommend not using it)