Poking fun at Russia and its organisation of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi has become a new pastime.
Among the more recent entertaining news feature stories of loos that lack dividing walls between individual toilets – a gaffe that has triggered yet another predictable shitstorm (quite literally, for a change) as well as a lot of web-based creativity.
While the absence of proper cubicles in the loo may seem surprisingly liberal for a country whose current government otherwise frowns upon any acts of homosexuality, communal latrines are, of course, not a new invention. A disturbing thought nowadays, partly due to current notions of shame and disgust, they were perfectly normal, for example, in the Roman world (and some of the most famous thinkers of the ancient world have even, if ironically, been credited with behavioural advice for such places):
A libelous poem of Martial’s, for example, suggests that communal loos in ancient Rome provided an opportunity to meet and mingle:
In omnibus Vacerra quod conclavibus
consumit horas et die toto sedet,
cenaturit Vacerra, non cacaturit.
That Vacerra spends his time in all the privies, sitting there all day: it’s so that Vacerra gets to eat, not to poop.
The problem with a communal loo is, of course, that, once there are no physical barriers in between the fellow users, other barriers may soon fall as well. Suetonius reports how the poet Lucan, after he had fallen out with Nero, behaved in that environment (Suet. Vita Luc. p. 51 R; transl. Rolfe – Goold):
neque uerbis aduersus principem neque factis extantibus post haec temperauit, adeo ut quondam in latrinis publicis clariore cum crepitu uentris hemistichium Neronis magna consessorum fuga pronuntiarit: ‘sub terris tonuisse putes.’
[H]e afterwards did not refrain from words and acts of hostility to the prince, which are still notorious. Once for example in a public privy, when he relieved his bowels with an uncommonly loud noise, he shouted out this halfline of the emperor’s, while those who were there for the same purpose took to their heels: ‘you might suppose it thundered ‘neath the earth’.
In that respect, the visitors to Sochi’s communal loos may wish to rehearse a line of the mimographer Laberius, who in his play Compitalia famously wrote (frg. 22 Panayotakis):
sequere me in latrinum, ut aliquid gustes ex Cynica haeresi
Follow me to the loo to get a taste of the Cynic school.