Suburban Agriculture in the Mediterranean World: Did Romans Use Human Excrement as Fertilizer?

Mr Mamoru Ikeguchi (PhD candidate at Faculty of Classics, King's College)

Saturday, 27 January 2001; 7:30-9:30pm

Erasmus Room, Queens' College

A large proportion of the fertilizers applied in Japan today are chemical ones, the continuous use of which has been causing not only the deterioration of soil fertility but also the destruction of environment by eutrophication of rivers and lakes. However, it is rather a recent phenomenon that Japanese agriculture came to be dependent upon chemical fertilizers; before the economic boom in the 1960's, it used to be common for farmers to apply night soil as fertilizer. Night soil is known to have applied not only in Japan but in China and Korea as well, forming a part of tradition in the East Asian Agriculture. In the contemporary Europe, by contrast, they usually discarded human excrement through sewers into rivers, while using animal excrement as fertilizer. Thus, the contrast between East Asia and Europe in manuring is fairly clear.
Then, how far in the past could we trace back the contrast? And if we could find the diverging point, what caused the divergence? The problem of the use of night soil is related to the interpretation of archaeological field survey data in the outskirts of cities, as so-called 'halo' (thin scatter of pottery/tile sherds) is sometimes interepreted as a result of manuring. Moreover, consideration of it would allow us not only to get a perspective of the hygiene in cities but also to gain an insight into mental aspects such as the sense of sanitation or the view of human beings held by ancients. In this talk, I shall provide a clue for solving the problem by examining evidence of manuring and night soil disposal in Roman times. The evidence used will include agricultural writings by Cato the Elder (2C B.C.), Varro (1C B.C.) and Columella (A.D. 1C), 'Natural Hisotry' by Pliny the Elder, 'Letters' by Pliny the Younger, Justinian's 'Digest' as legal sources, graffiti on walls in Pompeii, and other archaeological evidence in Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia. In addition, reference to Japan, which developed the use of night soil especially from Edo era onwards, would be beneficial.