The Romans were good at certainties. They were excellent, as you will all know, at Death. They did death spectacularly. And they were really great at Taxes, too. For everyone else, not themselves, obviously.
But they were also super-efficient at that third certainty, which no-one likes to mention.
Toilets. Latrines, dunnies, bogs, privies, lavs, potties, crappers, commodes. Thrones.
The best-preserved latrine from Roman Britain is, as I write, shrouded in dark and wet, much as it was two thousand years ago. These days, however, it does not have a roof, and local folks prefer to use the water closets which have been gracing Northumberland for the last couple of centuries or so.
It is one of the most prominent features of Houseteads, the remains of a Roman fort perching high up in the green wastes of English borderland on Hadrian’s Wall. It was built in 124AD.
Despite the ravages of English weather, the centuries of relentless rain which once soaked Roman sandals, the toilets are in fairly good nick. What you see is a central rectangular raised island, surrounded by a small,deep, dry-stone moat.
It does not take much imagination to realise that here ran water, once upon a time. The tanks sit nearby which used to collect one of the most plentiful commodities of Northumberland: rain. And rainwater was sluiced through the little man- made moat, or sewer if you prefer, as soldiers sat above on wooden planks with rear-shaped holes and passed companionable time of day together.
Together being the operative word. This latrine was the main port of essential call for 800 soldiers garrisoned there.They fought together, they drank together, they defecated together. They would sit there, giving the inevitable plenty of time together; and where modern man disappears into a small private water closet, they would talk and ruminate.
I am reminded of my cat; who, once he has dropped his log for the morning, is put in immediately frisky and positive mood.
Is this how the soldiers were? Does the frisky effect magnify if there are many defecations happening at once?
Alas, they can unearth long dead villainous kings from underneath car parks, but not even the most incisive archaeology can answer that question.
Housesteads was not just a fort. There were hangers on; and outside the fort proper were civilian houses.
And lurking there is the reminder of another certainty: Death.
These days, they call it the Murder House.
It was actually a shop, according to all the signs. But when the house was excavated in 1932, the most unsettling evidence lay under the shop floor.
The skeletons of a man and a woman were found there. Lodged stubbornly in the man’s ribs was part of a sword.
For such aficionados of death, the Romans had some funny attitudes towards it. Burials were forbidden within a settlement as a matter of course.
Ergo, concluded the archaeologists who uncovered this strange untold story: ergo, these two were murdered and buried under the floor.
And no-one ever found them. Not until the whole Roman civilisation had gone back home, and many others had risen and fallen.
And man had discovered water closets.