City Sanitation: a challenge in the 1st century

After taking a week off, we are continuing to examine the usage of σκύβαλον in various contexts. This post puts us half way there. Today we’re interested in urban contexts where σκύβαλον is used. There are two that stand out, one in Strabo and one in Josephus. Both involve the difficulties in urban sanitation systems.

Right at the beginning of the 1st century CE, Strabo uses the term fairly matter-of-factly in his Geography (~15 CE?):

  • ἔστι δὲ πρὸς τῇ ἄλλῃ κατασκευῇ τῆς πόλεως καὶ λιμὴν κλειστός. ἓν δʼ ἐλάττωμα τῶν ἀρχιτεκτόνων ουʼ μικρόν, ὅτι τὰς ὁδοὺς στορνύντες ὑπορρύσεις οὐκ ἔδωκαν αὐταῖς, ἀλλʼ ἐπιπολάζει τὰ σκύβαλα καὶ μάλιστα ἐν τοῖς ὄμβροις ἐπαφιεμένων τῶν ἀποσκευῶν.
    Still, there is a problem and not a small one in the work of the engineers. When they paved the streets they did not install beneath them underground drainage. Instead τὰ σκύβαλα covers the surface, and especially in the rain when τῶν ἀποσκευῶν is thrown out (Strabo, Geography. 14.1.37).

Here I leave also ἀποσκευή untranslated. The use of two different terms of filth/dung/excrement/feces in the same context is useful. Both have the same “real world” referent. Ἀποσκευή could be glossed as ‘household filth’, perhaps, or simply feces. The situation seems to be that the people of the city consider rain storms as the best time to empty their chamber pots into the streets. That would normally be an effective strategy, but without drainage gutters, the σκύβαλα simply builds up on the paving stones. That is indeed not a small engineering failure. Like the medical texts, the social acceptability of σκύβαλα is not clear, though it seems rather unlikely that an author with as much literary polish as Strabo would use σκύβαλον if it were obscene. That ἀποσκευή is used first could mean a couple of things. It could be that the spatial and temporal differences matter: ἀποσκευή indoors, more proximate to the chamber pot and σκύβαλον outside farther from regular life. Alternatively, ἀποσκευή might have a more general semantic sense, referring to a wider variety of household refuse, but that in the context of the streets, σκύβαλον is the type of refuse that is particularly problematic.

As a hypothesis, it seems possible that the distance from the chamber pot (and in turn its production) interpretation might conceivably motivate the medical usages, since the authors in maintaining a similar distance analogically as a means of signaling formality in the midst of their discussion.

The second urban example is from Josephus’ account of the extreme challenges Jerusalem was facing coming up to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

  • καὶ τοῦ μὲν σίτου τὸ μέτρον πραθῆναι ταλάντου, μετὰ ταῦτα δ ̓ ὡς οὐδὲ ποηλογεῖν ἔθ ̓ οἷόν τ ̓ ἦν περιτειχισθείσης τῆς πόλεως, προελθεῖν τινας εἰς τοσοῦτον ἀνάγκης, ὥστε τὰς ἀμάρας ἐρευνῶντας καὶ παλαιὸν ὄνθον βοῶν προσφέρεσθαι τὰ ἐκ τούτων σκύβαλα, καὶ τὸ μηδ ̓ ὄψει φορητὸν πάλαι τότε γενέσθαι τροφήν.
    Translation: And a medimnus (~1.5 bushels) of wheat would sell for a talent. When, later on, it was no longer possible to gather herbs, because of the city’s surrounding walls, some people were driven to such horrible distress as to search the sewage system and old dung hills of cattle, and to eat the σκύβαλα that they found there. What they previously could not have endured so much as to look at, they now used for food (Wars of the Jews 5.571)

Here Josephus is describing the extent to which the siege of Jerusalem had affected the population of the city in terms of desperation and famine. Recall that the NET Bible, in its translation note on Philippians 4:8 argued that σκύβαλον was being used by Paul for the purpose of shock value. That also seems to be a legitimate possibility here, as well, where Josephus is seeking emphasize the dire straits the people of the city were in. This could arguably be another context that the NET Bible note would appeal to as evidence of “shock value.” The famine, the desperation, the misery, all of these would invite such usage. And it functions as the climax of Book 5 of the Jewish War. Eventually in Book 6.200-213, Josephus turns the shock value up to eleven with a mother eating her child, but the space that separates that event with this one here allows him to create maximum shock in both places.

Still, what this example and the example from Strabo above tell us is important. In city life there were clear and well-established social attitudes toward the referent of σκύβαλον: people take pains to avoid encountering it. That this is so, and the larger context of the Josephus example generally, affirms the indoor vs. outdoor contrast. What is not repulsive in the field or the threshing floor has become revoking in the streets and by ways of the city. Human and animal feces are a serious health threat for ancient city life and the success of a city often depended upon the citizen’s ability to manage such waste. The power of the Roman engineering or removing of waste was often as impressive as their engineering feats for bringing water into a city.