The History of Plumbing - Greece

First published in July 1989, P & M magazine

Greece's plumbing history is brought to you courtesy of P & M Magazine

We have received written permission to reprint

"When you consider the contributions that plumbing and sanitation makes to the quality of our lives, then much of the other things that we do just seems so much less significant." - 1995, our founder

Until Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, rampaged through and destroyed the city in 432 B.C., Olynthus was a rich and flourishing metropolis, its people enjoying the luxury of the latest plumbing innovation - bathtubs. Excavations at Olynthus, in northern Greece, attest to tiled bathrooms and self-draining tubs. Several of the tubs have survived intact, shaped like present-day models though with one sloping end cut off. It is assumed that underground piping was made of since-deteriorated clay, as there was no lead piping found.

At this stage the early plumbers were still toying with a new metal -- lead. Indeed one tub uncovered in a tiled bathroom was repaired with lead clamps. (Archaeologists also found the skeletal remains of a woman near the tub, her jewelry evidently overlooked by Philip's soldiers as they plundered the town.)

From the shapes of the ancient tubs uncovered, the bathers apparently sat upright and rested their feet on a depression formed at the bottom. No doubt they were influenced by Hippocrates, the "father of medicine," who said that sitting in a tub was more healthy than reclining. Hippocrates also advocated cold water baths as a cure for almost any ills. The Greeks followed his advice very carefully.

The ancient Greeks set a high standard for themselves in promoting bodily and mental fitness. This was a concept reflected in their approach to exercise and cleanliness - having created the Olympic Games in 776 B.C. In any large city from the 7th Century B.C. onwards, one could find a gymnasium that featured hot and cold shower baths. As using hot water was considered effeminate, a man's bath typically was a quick douse of cold water over the head. On average, his "tub" typically was a 30" high, polished marble bowl. He probably stood beside it.

Private bathrooms, on the other hand, usually contained portable earthenware tubs for milady, whose taste no doubt demanded warm water for a more relaxing soak.

A Traveler's Treat: More ritual than hygienic, it was considered good manners for a host to offer his guest the services of his bathroom after a dusty and arduous journey. Ah, the joys of being treated by a winsome slave girl as she scraped his skin of perspiration and dirt with an iron utensil! Ah, the shock when she completed her work with a good dousing of cold water from an urn setting on a stand nearby! (As a rule, the Greeks much preferred sponges, oils, scrapers and rinses over the type of soap available at that time. Perhaps it was no wonder, for Grecian soap was manufactured from a combination of goat fat and ashes.)

Many houses in ancient Greece were equipped with closets or latrines that drained into a sewer beneath the street. They seemed to have been flushed by waste water. Some of the sewers were fitted with ventilating shafts.

The Greeks gave special protection to their water supplies to ward off severance by enemy attack. Aqueducts were generally laid underground, sometimes to a depth of 60 feet. Some were broad enough to accommodate two men waltzing abreast; the deeper ones connected with the surface through large wells.

The city of Athens required many aqueducts to bring water from the mountains. The people also depended upon deep wells which they laboriously had to dig through layers of rock to secure. The water supplies were directed to storage cisterns which in turn fed a multitude of street fountains, some of which are still in use today. Water porters carried a supply to homes of the well-to-do.

Heavenly Water: To the people of ancient Greece, everything in nature possessed religious significance. Water especially played a key role in the development of their culture. For instance, fountains and springs were held to have certain mystical and medicinal powers which were imbued in a pantheon of gods and goddesses that the people worshipped.

A free citizen would bathe at three significant times in his life: at birth, marriage and after death. To assure a long and happy life, for example, a bride would bathe in water taken from a fountain with nine pipes, called Calirrhoe. In Athens, the Calirrhoe fountain was also the principal source of water supply, for the most part conveyed by a conduit which brought the water in from the river Illisius.

The Greeks made strong headway in the development of water systems, especially cold water systems. But it would still remain for others to expand upon their achievements. In 201 B.C., Carthage would fall to the relentless Roman legions, and then Macedonia four years later. The ancient Greeks would lose their hold on themselves and soon their Near East conquests, including Assyria, Judea and Egypt.

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