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‘Cacator Cave Malum’: What Collective Latrines Teach Us About Ancient Rome




“I love this place,” exclaims the English scholar Mary Beard in How the Romans lived, one of her historical documentaries for the BBC. The monument she is referring to is a public latrine.

Defecation, for the Romans, was not always a private matter. They shared stories, jokes… and even a sponge attached to a stick that they used to clean themselves.

“If you want to understand the culture, look at its baths,” says Beard, sitting in a nearly intact latrine at Ostia Antica, one of Italy’s best-preserved ruins, reachable from Rome by commuter train. “In the center of Rome, according to an ancient guide, there were 144 latrines, although we do not know how many seats each one had,” continues the Cambridge-trained historian, who has authored books such as Pompeii.

Latrines in Ostia Antica.
Latrines in Ostia Antica.getty

In the documentary, Beard asks questions about the use of public latrines: were they co-ed? What were the small canals at the bottom of the structures used for?

“This is how we should imagine the old city: everyone going to the bathroom at the same time. Toga up, pants down, chatting all the while.”

The fascination with Roman latrines is not unusual among specialists of the ancient world. An enormous amount of information can be extrapolated from the defecative customs of the Romans and, in general, from their relationship with bathrooms.

Historian Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, an expert on the cities destroyed by Mount Vesuvius’ volcanic eruption in the year 79 AD, carried out an exhaustive investigation of the remains of feces that were preserved in Herculaneum. He discovered some objects that were lost in the almost fossilized human waste and obtained a lot of information about the Roman diet. Foods like chicken, lamb, fish, figs, fennel, olives, sea urchins and mollusks were “a completely standard diet for ordinary townspeople,” he explained in a documentary for National Geographic. “It’s a very good diet; any doctor would recommend it.”

General view of latrines in Ostia Antica.
General view of latrines in Ostia Antica.getty

Researcher Barry Hobson, who spent 14 years excavating Pompeii, is the author of two reference books on the subject: Toilets in the Roman world and Pompeii latrines. By analyzing toilets and public latrines, Hobson provides a great deal of information about the Roman world – about its sense of privacy, for example. Collective baths reflect a considerable distance from the Western world today, where this matter is almost always private. On the other hand, many individual baths have also been found in Roman ruins.

Hobson recounts a story told by Seneca about a gladiator committing suicide with a sponge when he went to the bathroom unaccompanied, which would mean that he claimed privacy:

“During a gladiatorial fight with the wild beasts, one of the Germans who was to participate in the morning show retired to the outhouse – nowhere else was he allowed to go without an escort,” wrote the philosopher and adviser to Emperor Nero. “There, [he took] the stick that, attached to a sponge, is used to clean the impurity of the body, stuffed it all into the throat and drowned.”

However, both archeology and graffiti reflect a clear fraternization in the multi-seater latrines. A mysterious and disturbing epigram carved into several places in Pompeii reads: “Cacator cave malum” – or “pooper, be careful,” which warned of hidden evil that one could find in the latrines. Other graffiti indicated which well-known individual had relieved himself in which location, or warned against defecating in a certain area.

Hobson also studied the concept of hygiene in ancient Rome and, above all, if its inhabitants were aware of the danger that the accumulation of feces represented, beyond the stench.

“Did the Romans know about the health problems that human excrement could pose?” he writes. He doesn’t find a clear answer, but he considers that “the transmission of diseases was misunderstood.” He emphasizes, however, that 19th-century London was not much more hygienic than Pompeii in the 1st century. It is true that the Romans had a strong relationship with water, via aqueducts and baths, but their concept of hygiene was very different. In the hot springs, for example, the water was stagnant – taking a dip with a foot injury was a bad idea.

One of the best works that analyzes the Roman world from the point of view of baths, water and latrines is actually a manga, Thermae romae, by Mari Yamazaki. It has also been released as an anime series on Netflix. It tells the story of a Roman spa engineer who travels forward in time to present-day Japan, where he learns all kinds of tricks to improve his buildings.

With great humor and careful historical research, Yamazaki shows what united two cultures for which hot springs were an essential element, but also what separated them: for instance, the Romans were light years away from the Japanese obsession with keeping toilets clean. In fact, one of the first chapters of the series shows the abyss that separates the Roman foricae, with their disgusting sponges, from the technologically-advanced Japanese toilets.

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US Senate Approves Biden’s Climate And Tax Bill: ‘This Is Going To Change America For Decades’




The US Senate on Sunday passed a sweeping $430 billion bill intended to fight climate change, lower drug prices and raise some corporate taxes, a major victory for President Joe Biden that Democrats hope will aid their chances of keeping control of Congress in the midterm elections in November.

After a marathon, 27-hour weekend session of debate and Republican efforts to derail the package, the Senate approved the legislation known as the Inflation Reduction Act by a 51-50 party line vote. Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking ballot.

The action sends the measure to the House of Representatives for a vote, likely Friday when representatives plan to reconvene briefly during a summer recess. They are expected to pass it, which would then send the bill to the White House for Biden’s signature. In a statement, Biden said he looked forward to signing the bill into law.

“The Senate is making history,” an elated Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, after pumping his fists in the air as Democrats cheered and their staff members responded to the vote with a standing ovation.

“To Americans who’ve lost faith that Congress can do big things, this bill is for you,” he said. “This bill is going to change America for decades.”

Schumer said the legislation contains “the boldest clean energy package in American history” to fight climate change while reducing consumer costs for energy and some medicines.

Democrats have drawn harsh attacks from Republicans over the legislation’s $430 billion in new spending and roughly $740 billion in new revenue.

Nevertheless, Democrats hope its passage will help the party’s House and Senate candidates in the November 8 midterm elections, at a time when Biden is suffering from anemic public approval ratings amid high inflation, which is the highest it has been in four decades.

The legislation is aimed at reducing carbon emissions and shifting consumers to green energy, while cutting prescription drug costs for the elderly and tightening enforcement on taxes for corporations and the wealthy.

The act includes $3.69 billion in spending and tax incentives over 10 years to promote clean energy, with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030. It does not, however, set a cap on emissions, and there are concerns the green energy transition may slow down if the cost of fossil fuels falls.

The bill imposes 5% minimum tax on corporations that make more than $1 billion each year. This tax was meant to have broader applications, but seven Democratic senators voted in favor of a Republican amendment that will exempt some private equity firms from the tax.

The legislation also caps out-of-pocket drug costs for the over-65s on Medicare to $2,000 a year – a move that will be especially beneficial to seniors with chronic and serious illnesses. Also, for the first time, Medicare will be able to negotiate drug prices directly with big pharmaceutical companies, which is expected to cut costs. This change, however, won’t take effect until 2026.

Because the measure pays for itself and reduces the federal deficit over time, Democrats contend that it will help bring down inflation, an economic liability that has also weighed on their hopes of retaining legislative control in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.

Republicans, arguing that the bill will not address inflation, have denounced the measure as a job-killing, left-wing spending wish list that could undermine growth when the economy is in danger of falling into recession.

Democrats approved the bill by using a parliamentary maneuver called reconciliation, which allows budget-related legislation to avoid the 100-seat chamber’s 60-vote threshold for most bills and pass on a simple majority.

After several hours of debate, the Senate began a rapid-fire “vote-a-rama” on Democratic and Republican amendments on Saturday evening that stretched into Sunday afternoon.

Democrats repelled more than 30 Republican amendments, points of order and motions, all intended to scupper the legislation. Any change in the bill’s contents wrought by an amendment could have unraveled the Democrats’ 50-senator coalition needed to keep the legislation on track.

Democrats were unable to muster the votes necessary to retain a provision to cap soaring insulin costs at $35 a month on the private health insurance market, which fell outside the reconciliation rules. Democrats said the legislation would still limit insulin costs for those on Medicare.

In a foreshadowing of the coming fall election campaign, Republicans used their amendment defeats to attack vulnerable Democrats who are seeking reelection in November.

“Democrats vote again to allow chaos on the southern border to continue,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement that named four Democratic senators who are facing tight contests for reelection.

The bill was 18 months in the making as Biden’s original sweeping Build Back Better plan was whittled down in the face of opposition from Republicans and key legislators from his own party.

Biden made calls to senators about the bill over the weekend, a White House official said, and senior aide Steve Richetti kept an open line with Democratic US Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia over the last several months to help move the measure forward. “It required many compromises. Doing important things almost always does,” Biden said in a statement.

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Nancy Pelosi, The Democratic Leader Who Imposes Her Agenda On Biden




Party discipline is very elastic in the United States, as President Joe Biden well knows. Leading Democrats, almost always the usual suspects (Joe Manchin, Kirsten Sinema), behave like loose cannons, tripping up White House-sponsored bills and sometimes derailing them, but none had gone so far as to push the world to the brink of an incendiary conflict. Nancy Pelosi (Baltimore, 82 years old), president of the House of Representatives and third authority in the country, was awarded that dubious honor thanks to her controversial visit to Taiwan this week, in which she confirmed her commitment to the free world. “The determination of the United States to preserve democracy in Taiwan and around the world remains unshakeable,” she said last Wednesday in Taipei. “The United States has come to make it clear that we will not abandon Taiwan,” she added, that majestic plural dragging in Joe Biden and those in Washington who feared the consequences of her excessive enthusiasm, including the immediate provocation of China.

Pelosi is one of the heavyweights of the Democratic establishment, white and manifesting historical figures like herself, almost eternalized in politics: a congresswoman from California since 1987, she has held the presidency of the Lower House for two terms, between 2007 and 2011, as part of Barack Obama’s term, and since 2019, is the first woman to hold this position. Therefore, despite Biden’s warnings about the inconvenience of visiting the island, her initiative does not seem like the decision of a novice, but rather one that responds to her own agenda, and probably also to that of Congress, including many Democrats, in favor of a more determined support for Taiwan than that offered by, in her opinion, timid Washington diplomacy. Hawks from both parties push Biden to toughen his policy towards China and the Senate had planned to send 4,500 million dollars in military aid to Taiwan last week, as well as declaring the island the “main non-member NATO ally”, but the commander in chief has asked for containment so as not to further fuel the fire around a self-governed island that Beijing considers its own.

Politics runs in the family of Nancy Pelosi. Her father, Thomas D’Alessandro, was a prominent Democrat at the time of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Pelosi is her married surname, also of Italian-American origin and she is faithful to certain cultural traditions such as a large family (five children) and a cultural Catholicism, though not exempt from friction with the curia, such as her defense of the right of women to abort. Like Biden, he too, a Catholic, that position has caused him more than one headache. The first, being denied communion by the archbishop of his diocese. In late June, on a visit to the Vatican, Pelosi, dressed in stark black, took communion at a mass celebrated by Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica. There are no images of the communion, which was confirmed by two witnesses next to her, but Pelosi and her husband were photographed with the pontiff before the Eucharist.

After graduating in Political Science in Washington in 1962, and spending six years raising their children in New York, the Pelosi family moved to San Francisco in 1968, where she began her career as a Democratic volunteer. She was soon recognized for her talent in fundraising campaigns, a key factor in the success or failure of a politician in the US. From there she made the leap to the Democratic National Committee, the party’s bridge of command, and, shortly after, to the State Congress. Leader of the party in Congress since 2003 – another breakthrough the glass ceiling – Pelosi uses her personal experience to arbitrate between opposing factions of the formation. She calls it the “mother of five children” strategy.

Despite the balance that she advocates in favor of party unity, she has given numerous signs of aligning herself with the most open or liberal faction ―although the affiliations are sui generis in the US, without allegiance to the precise definition of the concept―, voting in favor of arms control measures and the right to abortion, or against the war in Iraq. Her critics blame her for her “west coast leftism”, also called “left coast” – a copy of the European caviar left -, keeping her detached from the real country. The political microclimate of San Francisco, like that of Washington, was one of the targets chosen by Donald Trump to successfully attack the self-absorbed Democratic elites alienated from ordinary Americans.

As a member of the elite, Pelosi is wealthy. Her husband, businessman Paul Pelosi, owner of the Sacramento Mountain Lions football team, has been involved in several financial operations that sometimes border on insider trading. At the end of July, Paul Pelosi sold nearly 5,000 shares of chipmaker Nvidia for $4 million, just days before the House approved a major legislative package that provides subsidies and tax credits to boost the US semiconductor industry. This is not the only dubious example, but the Speaker of the House has always closed ranks with the father of her children, even after he was arrested in May in California for being drunk while driving a Porsche that was involved in an accident. The leader’s husband pleaded not guilty last week in court.

After the arrival of Obama to the presidency, and during the Great Recession, Pelosi helped the president carry out his stimulus program, worth 787,000 million dollars, in February 2019 in Congress; and a year later, the health reform known as Obamacare. Pelosi has never spared support for social measures such as those that Biden encourages today. Her role was also decisive in preventing the closure of the Administration during the last stretch of Trump’s mandate, when she managed to twist his arm. In January 2020, she opened the proceedings of the first impeachment against the Republican, of which he was acquitted, and a year later, she championed the creation of a commission to investigate the assault on the Capitol by insurgent Trumpists.

In the US, representatives are responsible to their constituencies and voters, rather than to the party and, of course, to any other earthly or heavenly authority. Faced with the dilemma posed by the conservative Archbishop of San Francisco, also Italian-American Salvatore Cordileone, retracting from defending the right to abortion or taking communion, Pelosi has responded by qualifying the repeal of the Roe v. Wade doctrine by the Supreme Court as “scandalous and heartbreaking” a decision that succumbs to the “dark and extreme objective of the Republican Party to take away the right of women to make their own reproductive health decisions.” The fact that Pelosi doesn’t shrink even before a world power is evidenced by the continuation of her visit to Asia while the Taiwan Strait literally sparked. For those who demonstrated in 1991 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square with a banner dedicated “to those who died for democracy in China”, even an incendiary act such as this doesn’t seem excessive.

Translated by Xanthe Holloway.

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From Alicia Vikander To Sharon Stone And Rita Moreno: How Celebrities Broke The Taboo Of Talking About Abortion




The Supreme Court’s decision in late May to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the legal case that upheld the constitutional right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, has given rise to numerous demonstrations throughout the country. These included the arrest of several US congresswomen—among them Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—for civil disobedience after a protest outside the Supreme Court, as well as flipping the bird via messages in support of women’s reproductive rights on July 4 (Independence Day). The ruling has also brought to light the stories and confessions of numerous actresses and singers who have had an abortion and/or miscarried. Until now, few celebrities dared to share their experiences publicly. Today, they do so in solidarity with those who are going through or have already experienced similar situations, now in the context of a country that no longer guarantees a safe procedure for millions of women.

Most recently, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander went public about her miscarriage. “I kind of stopped and thought, ‘Am I going to talk about this?’ But I think it’s universal and so many women go through similar things.” The 33-year-old Ex Machina performer suffered an “extreme, painful” miscarriage before having her first child in 2021 with fellow actor Michael Fassbender. “We have a child now, but it took us time,” the Tomb Raider star confessed in an interview with the British newspaper The Times on Sunday, July 24.

Sharon Stone also recently told the public about having endured nine miscarriages. When People magazine posted on Instagram about Dancing with the Stars’ Peta Murgatroyd’s recent interview about her miscarriage, the Basic Instinct star explained how she had struggled with her own pregnancy loss. The actress lamented that “[w]e, as females don’t have a forum to discuss the profundity of this loss.” Stone—now the mother of three adopted children, Quinn Kelly, Laird Vonne, and Roan Joseph –went on to say that “[pregnancy loss] is no small thing, physically nor [sic] emotionally yet we are made to feel it is something to bear alone and secretly with some kind of sense of failure. Instead of receiving the much needed [sic] compassion and empathy and healing which we so need.”

In contrast with the taboo that previously surrounded miscarriages, talking about them and having society perceive them as natural is beneficial and therapeutic for women grieving that loss. “It is very important for them to talk, especially in a society like ours, where the prevailing idea is that personal success is based on getting everything you want, if possible, immediately,” says psychiatrist and psychotherapist Lucía Torres Jiménez, who specializes in gestational and perinatal bereavement and has extensive experience as a perinatal psychiatrist at Madrid’s Gregorio Marañón Hospital. “Finding out that even people who personify the image of absolute success also experience loss and pain grounds us in reality,” adds Torres, who is also the medical director at the TranquilaMente mental health center.

Abortions that save lives

Outrage in the United States over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade after almost 50 years of serving as the legal precedent for a woman’s right to choose—and the step backward it implies—has prompted actresses like Rita Moreno, 90, to recall her abortion decades ago. It occurred years before Roe vs. Wade, a ruling that was met with great jubilation. “I’m really nervous and frightened and horrified that this is taking place. I can’t believe that some of those people are telling us what to do with our bodies,” she said in an interview with Variety magazine after the Supreme Court reversed the landmark decision.

The 1962 Oscar winner for best supporting actress for West Side Story was forced to have an abortion by her then-partner, Marlon Brando. “He was a real doctor — Marlon paid him $500 — as opposed to something in a back alley,” the actress recalled in her 2011 memoir. That procedure turned out to be a disaster and left her with sequelae that required a second operation. “Marlon took me to the hospital. I had what they told me was a ‘disturbed pregnancy.’ The doctor didn’t do anything really, except make me bleed. In other words, he didn’t do it right. I didn’t know it then, but I could have died. What a mess. What a dreadful mess,” she said. Her toxic relationship with Brando made her contemplate suicide. After they broke up, Moreno went on to marry cardiologist Leonard Gordon, with whom she had her only child, Fernanda.

Debbie Reynolds’s traumatic experience also resurfaced in the wake of the court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade. In a 1989 interview with Joan Rivers, the Singin’ in the Rain star—and Moreno’s contemporary—recounted that as a mother of two (Carrie and Todd Fisher), she got pregnant with her third child, who died in utero at seven months of gestation. “In those days abortions were not allowed, if you were sick, if you had been raped, if the child had died. Which is disgusting to think that there [are] those laws,” explained Reynolds. She was denied an abortion and her doctors recommended that she wait to deliver her stillborn baby. Ultimately, however, the doctors had to intervene and remove the fetus from Reynolds’s body because her life was in danger. “They couldn’t leave it anymore because now the child is in the sac but, of course, finally after so much time, all the poisons and everything would have killed me,” she revealed.

Before welcoming a son, Ender Ridley, with partner Alev Aydin in July 2021, the pop star suffered three miscarriages before the age of 24; the experience was traumatic and led them to rewrite their will. Halsey is clear about their position on voluntarily terminating a pregnancy. “My abortion saved my life and gave way for my son to have his. Every person deserves the right to choose when, if, and how they have this dangerous and life-altering experience. I will hold my son in one arm, and fight with all my might with the other,” the letter concluded.

Many singers and actresses have also spoken about their experiences of choosing to end a pregnancy as adolescents, including Mila Jovovich, Ashley Judd, Ireland Baldwin, Alissa Milano, Lilly Allen, Uma Thurman, Jennifer Grey… Thurman wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post that “[it] hurt terribly, but I didn’t complain. I had internalized so much shame that I felt I deserved the pain.” The Kill Bill star decided to terminate her pregnancy in her late teens while in Germany, a decision she reached with her family. “The abortion I had as a teenager was the hardest decision of my life, one that caused me anguish then and that saddens me even now,” she said. The Pulp Fiction star now has three children, Maya, 23; Levon Roan, 19; and Luna, nine, whom she described as her “pride and joy.” As Lucía Torres explains, “Many teenagers report suffering a lot in the process of having an abortion, even if it was a voluntary decision. It’s painful for them to recall how they made the decision, how they faced financial difficulties, their partner’s position at the time and its effect on their relationship, the loneliness and fear of seeing themselves in the operating room, or their uncontrollable crying without understanding why. Often, the story reveals a traumatic component. They talk about how the smell of that room, or some [other] detail, has remained etched in their memory, and it causes them emotional or physical reactions like nausea every time something brings them back to that place.”

Like Uma Thurman, Jennifer Grey had a hard time as well. In her memoir, Out of the Corner, the star of Dirty Dancing—a film in which one of the dancers undergoes an illegal abortion in the 1960s—detailed her life of excess and rebellious adolescence, as well as her abortion at age 16. “No teenager should be swimming in waters that dark,” she wrote. “I wouldn’t have my life. I wouldn’t have had the career I had, I wouldn’t have had anything. And it wasn’t for lack of taking it seriously. I’d always wanted a child. I just didn’t want a child as a teenager,” the actress explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Times when her autobiography came out. At 41, Grey gave birth to her daughter, Stella Gregg, 20, with her then-husband Clark Gregg. “It’s such a grave decision. And it stays with you…[Overturning Roe] is just so fundamentally wrong, and it is sounding a bell for all women to rise up and use their voice now because we have assumed, since 1973, that our choice was safe and that it was never going to be overturned.”

All the experiences that celebrities have shared involve guilt and trauma, but they also reflect a commitment to continue standing up for women’s reproductive rights. Feminist and activist Gloria Steinem promised Dr. John Sharpe, the doctor who performed her abortion in London in 1957, that she would do what she wanted with her life. As she wrote when she dedicated her book My Life on the Road to the doctor: “I have done the best I could.”

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