Everyone poops, is one of the first things we learn as children. Everyone, including you, me, your mother, and the President. But, yeah, we don’t all approach it in the same way. If you’re reading this in the United States of America, you probably wipe your butt after a number two with toilet paper. The bidet reigns dominant elsewhere in the world, and in Japan, things can be so high-tech and complicated that the flushing and cleaning procedure comes with its own instruction manual.
All of these strategies have one thing in common: they all rely on technology. Sure, you might not think of paper as technology, but it is – and it’s one that took a long time to reach Europe and America. Even in China, where it was invented over two millennia ago, and the Islamic world, where it was quickly adopted, people weren’t in the habit of using it to clean their butts: the first purpose-made toilet paper didn’t exist in the world until 1857.
Which begs the question: before paper, what did humans use? While butts and what comes out of them are unquestionably universal, cleaning procedures have evolved throughout history due to a variety of factors such as local customs, societal hierarchy, and even climate. In China, for example, people at the very top of the social ladder were using toilet paper as early as the sixth century CE, while the Chinese hoi polloi – which we assume to be the – had to make do with spatula-like bamboo sticks for personal hygiene.
The preferred Roman method of wiping, the tersorium, is even more squirm-inducing to modern eyes. The xylospongium, or “sponge on a stick” in modern English, is another name for this instrument. Which you shared with the rest of the group. “The most famous example of ancient ‘toilet paper’ comes from the Roman world,” according to Erica Rowan, an environmental archaeologist at the University of London, who also told History about “Seneca’s story about the gladiator who killed himself by going into a toilet and shoving the communal sponge on a stick down his throat.”
If you needed to use the restroom in an Ancient Roman city, you’d have to rush to the nearest public restroom, which “must have been rather filthy – dung and urine on the chairs and floor, insufficient lighting… “Certainly not a location one would want to spend a lot of time,” Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, a Brandeis University professor of classical studies and a Roman bathroom expert, told The Atlantic. There would have been a bucket of vinegar or saltwater in the center to plop the tersorium into between usage, and no stalls or partitions – not even the strange gappy ones that the rest of the world thinks Americans are strange for accepting.
Basically, you’d be sitting there, doing your business in the company of a group of strangers who were all similarly ill, and waiting for your time to use the sponge. There was an alternative to sponges on a stick if sponges on a stick weren’t your thing. Pessoi – which means “pebbles” for reasons that will become evident later – were another popular choice for Ancient Greeks and Romans who needed a rapid wipe. These were small stones or pottery shards, and they were used exactly as you hoped they wouldn’t be.
According to a 2012 BMJ article on the ancient instruments, “use of a pessos may still be seen on a Greek cylix (wine cup)… dating from the 6th century BC.” “It depicts a man in a semi-squatting position with his garments elevated. The man is obviously washing his buttocks with a pessos while maintaining his balance with a cane in his right hand.” On the positive side, nobody else was using your pessoi – and there’s evidence that people might have scrawled their opponents’ names on the porcelain shards before coating them in their feces, which must have given them a smug feeling.
Wiping your ass with something we just described as “ceramic shards,” on the other hand, had some unsurprising downsides. According to the BMJ article, “the abrasive properties of ceramic suggest that long-term usage of pessoi could have caused in local irritation, skin or mucosal injury, or complications of external haemorrhoids.” “Perhaps Horace’s crude and satiric depiction of an ass at the center of dry and aged buttocks mimicking that of a defecating cow’ in his 8th epode (1st century BC) refers to issues arising from such anal discomfort.”