Monday, January 23, 2017


Cornelis van Tilburg, Streets and Streams: Health Conditions and City Planning in the Graeco-Roman World. Leiden: Primavera Pers, 2015. Pp. 206. ISBN 97889059972131. €39.50.

Reviewed by Jordan Pickett, University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Roman toilets, effluvia, streets and sewers are topics for several important monographs and edited volumes that have appeared in the last decade.1 The book under review – by Cornelis van Tilburg, a senior researcher for the Department of Classics at the University of Leiden – is a compilation of the author's dissertation (Leiden University, 2015) with reprints of journal articles and chapters from edited volumes, excepting the new introductory essay and one more chapter identified as a forthcoming article. These are listed in full below, at the end of this review.

The chapters in this book hang loosely together. The volume reads as a variorum and not a monograph, with chapters set in pairs around the themes 'city and traffic', 'city and body fluids', and 'city and environment'. Contextual notes and briefly updated bibliographies precede each chapter / reprinted article.

Tilburg will be familiar to readers of Acta Classica or Mnemosyne as a scholar of Roman road-systems who published an important monograph in 2007 / rept. 2012, Traffic and Congestion in the Roman Empire.2 He is very much a philologist with thorough knowledge of Greek-Roman medical writers and the canonical historians: little attention is given to minor but relevant sources like panegyric, epigraphy, legal compendia, or hagiography. His case studies come almost entirely from Italy (esp. Pompeii) and Northern Europe (esp. Xanten, Cologne, and Trier): Tilburg is undoubtedly intimate with these places and their bibliographies, but the limited scope of his case-studies is at odds with his empire-wide conclusions.

The introductory essay is one of two new essays in this book, and it is interesting. 'Interaction between Anatomical and Civil Engineering terminology' (3-22) explains the metaphors by which "anatomic nomenclature and the description of physiological processes [were] used for traffic and architectural terminology – and the reverse" (4). Tilburg is heavy into Vitruvius, but he does not cite Joseph Rykwert's The Dancing Column (1996) or George Hersey's Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture (1988), even if this section reads as their complement. All three re-contextualize architectural vocabulary with careful and creative reference to Classical terminology for human anatomy. Tilburg takes as his subjects the words dorsum, ἔχοδος, κιών, κοιλία, κυκλοφορία, ὁχετός, πεδίον, πύλαι, and πυλωρός. Homeric words like κιών, πεδίον, and πύλαι had meanings for landscape and civil engineering that anticipated their adoption in medicine. For instance, πεδίον meant 'plain' or 'plowed field' for Homer [Il. 5.222] before it referred to metatarsals, those front-bones of the foot between toes and arch which contact the earth. On the other hand, Homer uses κιών and πύλαι to refer not to landscape features [Od. 8.66 ; Il. 3.145], but to artificial structures (poles / columns and gates, respectively) long before these were adopted in medical literature to denote other vertical structures: κιών for the uvula, internasal septum, wart, and penis; πύλαι for portal veins that split like trees into branches. Tilburg (11) notes, healthily, that πύλαι and πυλωρός along with ἔχοδος and ὁχετός refer to structures visible only upon vivisection of an animal or human body, and so these semantic shifts should be related to developments in exploratory medical practice after the third century BCE in Alexandria, as led by Herophilus and Erasistratus.3 On the other hand: dorsum or κοιλία / Lat. venter and geniculus are the reverse: these were medical terms only later adopted into civil engineering's terminology for the pavement of roads and aqueducts, respectively (13-15).

In the final section (15-18), Tilburg relates how terms like κυκλοφορία / Lat. circulatio have an even longer trajectory. Originally, these words referred to circular motion of cosmic bodies or dizziness. Only after the early modern discovery of pulmonary circulation by William Harvey in the 17th century (who himself preferred circuitus to circulatio) was the circulatory metaphor adopted with words to describe traffic patterns and congestion problems on roads like artery, circulation, blockage, infarct, and etc.

'Traffic Policy and Circulation in Roman Cities' (31-51) adopts the old and new foundations of Pompeii and Xanten as case studies with which to demonstrate that "fixed traffic routes, which road users were encouraged to follow, were quite usual" in Roman cities despite the lack of surviving signage (32). Relying on Tsujimura (1991) and Wallace-Hadrill's (1995) street maps of Pompeiian wheel-rut depths, stepping-stones, and corner angles, Tilburg explores how the city's traffic was controlled with one-way and blocked or closed streets subject to alteration by the local government. Tilburg suggests that the railway-like ruts at Pompeii were created by road-workers rather than traffic, as is commonly assumed (34-5).4 As evidence, Tilburg points to the extreme regularity and straightness of Pompeian ruts and their occasionally unfinished state. Noting that ruts are more frequent in obtuse corners, Tilburg argues that these were preferred for vehicular traffic at Pompeii, then extends this conclusion to the rut-less streets of Xanten and Cologne.

'Gates, Suburbs and Traffic in the Roman Empire' (54-81) follows on the author's book (2012) to conclude – again adducing Pompeii, Cologne, Xanten and Trier as case studies – that "there is a definite connection between the number of passages in a city gate (or gate complex) and extramural buildings" (56). To wit, the author argues that the presence of pre-existing or planned suburban residences and workshops stimulated construction of two- to four- passageway gates for vehicular interurban traffic, with or without side passage-ways for pedestrians and locals. Cemeteries and churches were, according to Tilburg, less demanding because they may be readily found outside single-passage gates, too.

The chapters that follow, also reprints, will be less familiar to many readers: these are concerned with Roman water, medical history, and infrastructure.

'Greek and Roman Ideas about Healthy Drinking-water' (85-106) divides up drinking water into its contradictory ancient categories: standing or living, warm and cold, clear or unclear, light and heavy; then by source, from rain, springs, wells, or surface waters like rivers and lakes. One contradiction unacknowledged by Hippocrates' conservative Roman copyists or Tilburg, for instance, is the source and status of cisterns. Cisterns were typically used at small scales to collect rainwater at the household level but, at larger scales after late antiquity, could also collect spring water directly from an aqueduct.5 Tilburg does not relate developments in water preferences to the spread of Roman aqueducts across the Mediterranean after the first century BCE, nor does he touch upon the numerous Late Antique or Byzantine sources concerned with hierarchies of preferred water sources and their perceived potability.6 Nevertheless Tilburg wisely observes the sharp differences between Roman water habits, which prioritized spring water consumption via aqueducts, and the opinions of ancient medical writers who preferred fresh rainwater, following the Hippocratic tradition's statement on these matters.7

The second essay in 'City and Bodily Fluids' is concerned with 'Opinions concerning Faeces and Urine in the Graeco-Roman World' (107-134). Tilburg here explicitly attempts to fill the lacuna in recent assessments of Roman toilets by examining them from the perspective of ancient hygiene and medicine, surveying ancient anatomical theories on digestion and excretion, the diagnostic and medicinal value of excrement ("was taste also a research item?"), and the role of excrement in urban pollution and notions of 'dirtiness'. These are valuable, learned discussions without parallel in the literature since Scobie.8 Tilburg concludes that Greek and Latin words for faeces "are only considered as stinking in case of deviating smell; in that case there is disharmony [and sickness] in the body" (122). A very brief discussion of archaeological remains for sewers follows: Tilburg accepts that early drainage at the Athens' Great Drain or the Cloaca Maxima was constructed for drainage of low-lying areas, and that only later were toilets or baths connected to them. It was impossible to universally connect Greek or Roman toilets and cesspits to sewers with aqueduct flow-through, "so that a vast quantity of faeces and dung was still left in the streets, and many cesspits remained in use" (126). Indeed, "the idea that sewers were built to remove faeces and urine as in our modern times was a misunderstanding" (127). This idea is the foundation for Tilburg's penultimate chapter, 'A "Healthy Mistake": The Excrement Problem from Ancient Greece to Nineteenth Century Holland' (137-158), which examines the development of urban sewers in Renaissance Italy and early modern Holland.

There are infelicities throughout this book that distract the reader. At best these are simple oversights or difficulties in translation from Dutch. At worst they are oversimplifications or errors. For instance, the author states (24) without qualification that "the majority of cities which are nowadays in ruins were deserted by their inhabitants because the infrastructure was insufficient… e.g. Ephesus, Leptis Magna, Dorestad, and Bruges." Whether or not Bruges is "nowadays in ruins" may be debatable, depending on one's feelings about current events in Belgium, but it is clear that the settlement history of Leptis Magna or Ephesus cannot be reduced to this hypothesis.9 Elsewhere, errors with the archaeology jump out: for instance, Tilburg suggests (100) that Sagalassos relied on rainwater because its territorium lacked springs for aqueducts, when in fact Sagalassos had at least four aqueducts and relied on an evolving assemblage of water from springs, rain, and snow, as documented and published by archaeologists during the last decade.10

To conclude: this volume contains articles which summarize Cornelis van Tilburg's work on Roman roads, better known through his previously published book (2007 / rept. 2012). Those interested in Roman water supply, effluvia, and infrastructure will also find reprints of little-cited articles that deserve wider citation and scrutiny.

Table of Contents

Introduction, 1-2
Interaction between Anatomical and Civil Engineering terminology, 3-22
Overview of the Chapters, 23-26
I. City and Traffic, 27-28
Traffic policy and Circulation in Roman Cities, 29-52 / prev. published in Acta Classica 54 (2011): 149-171
Gates, Suburb and Traffic in the Roman Empire, 53-82 / prev. published in BABesch 83 (2008): 133-147
II. City and Body Fluids, 83-84
Greek and Roman Ideas about Healthy Drinking-water, 85-106 / prev. published in Eä Journal of Medical Humanities & Social Studies of Science and Technology (June 2014): 1-30
Opinions concerning Faeces and Urine in the Graeco-Roman World, 107-134 / "under review for an international journal"
III. City and environment, 135-136
A 'Healthy Mistake': The Excrement Problem from Ancient Greece to Nineteenth Century Holland, 137-158 / prev. publ. in A. Karenberg, D. Gross and M. Schmidt (eds), Forschungen zur Medizingeschichte. Beiträge des 'Rheinischen Kreises der Medizinhistoriker, Schriften des Rheinischen Kreises der Medizinhistoriker 3 (Kassel, 2013), 103-117
A Good Place to Be: Meteorological and Medical Conditions in Ancient Cities, 159-178 / prev. publ. in Mnemosyne 68 (2015): 794-813
Errata and Corrigenda, 179-180
Index Locorum, 181-186
Index Generalis, 187-191


1.   See A. Koloski-Ostrow, The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy (Chapel Hill, 2015); G. Jansen, A. Koloski-Ostrow, and E. Moormann, Roman toilets: their archaeology and cultural history (Leuven, 2011); and B. Hobson, Latrinae et foricae: toilets in the Roman world (London, 2009).
2.   C. R. van Tilburg, Traffic and congestion in the Roman Empire (London and New York, 2007).
3.   See for instance V. Nutton, "Medical thoughts on urban pollution" in Death and Disease in the Ancient City, eds. V. M. Hope and E. Marshall (London and New York, 2000), 65-73.
4.   S. Tsujimura, "Ruts in Pompeii: The traffic system in the Roman city" in Opuscula Pompeiana 1 (1991): 58-90; A. Wallace- Hadrill, "Public honour and private shame: 'The urban texture of Pompeii'" in Urban Society in Roman Italy, eds. T. J. Cornell and K. Lomas (New York, 1995), 39-62; R. Laurence and D. J. Newsome, eds. Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (Oxford, 2011), p. 13.
5.   e.g. from Constantinople, where Justinian's Basilica Cistern was constructed to capture overflow water from the city's aqueduct, see Procopius, Buildings 1.11.12-15; or at Syrian Apamea, where cisterns in large residences throughout the city drew water from aqueducts: see B. Haut and D. Viviers, "Analysis of the water supply system of the city of Apamea, using Computational Fluid Dynamics. Hydraulic system in the north-eastern area of the city, in the Byzantine period" in Journal of Archaeological Science 34 (2007): 415-427
6.   J. Pickett, "Water and Empire in the De Aedificiis of Procopius" in Dumbarton Oaks Papers 71 (2017), forthcoming.
7.   De aere aquis et locis 8.
8.   Fundamental for Roman urban sanitation and hygiene is A. Scobie "Slums, Sanitation, and Mortality in the Roman World" in Klio 68 no. 2 (1986): 399–433.
9.   For Ephesus see S. Ladstätter and A. Pülz, "Ephesus in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Period: Changes in its Urban Character from the Third to the Seventh Century AD" in Proceedings of the British Academy 141 (2007): 391-433.
10.   The bibliography from Sagalassos is substantial: see F. Martens, "Water Abundance and Shortage at Sagalassos (SW-Turkey)" in Cura Aquarum in Jordanien, ed. C. Ohlig (DWhG: Siegburg, 2008), 247-262; J. Richard, Water for the City, Fountains for the People: Monumental Fountains in the Roman East. An Archaeological Study of Water Management = Studies in Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology 9 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012); I. Jacobs and M. Waelkens, "Five Centuries of Glory. The North-South Colonnaded Street of Sagalassos in the First and the Sixth Century A.D." in Istanbuler Mitteilungen 63 (2013): 219-266.

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