Toilet History Meets Biblical History
Differing privacy norms in ancient toilets illuminate the Biblical story of Ehud and Eglon
Biblical Archaeology Society Staff
February 24, 2012
Ancient toilets at Ephesus in Turkey offered virtually no privacy for users—whether poor or elite. When it comes to privacy on the toilet, history suggests that royalty in particular may have seen little need for it, often receiving visitors while on the privy. This may offer context for understanding the unusual story of Ehud and Eglon in Judges 3. Photo by Todd Bolen/www.bibleplaces.com.
We have long known that notions of privacy in ancient toilets
were different from ours. At several Roman-period sites, archaeologists have found long benches with rows of ancient toilets with no provision for privacy.
In the story of Ehud and Eglon in Judges 3, an Israelite named Ehud delivered the Israelite tribute to the Moabite king Eglon. At the time, Eglon, a very fat man, was apparently sitting on the toilet, and Ehud thrust his dagger into Eglon’s belly. When Ehud left, he locked the door of “the cool upper chamber.” Eglon’s courtiers returned and assumed Eglon must be on the toilet. When they finally broke the lock and entered, they found Eglon lying on the floor dead.
According to a recent best-selling biography that includes some toilet history, in 16th-century Europe sitting on the toilet—history reveals—was “a common way for royals to receive visitors.” (Read more in “An Expert’s Take on Toilet History and Customs from Antiquity to the Renaissance.”
) Royalty was unconcerned with privacy. But the issue may not have been privacy at all. Royalty could do what it wanted. What might be distasteful for the average person was a prerogative of status. It seems at least possible to conclude from the Biblical text that this was also true of ancient toilets in Eglon’s time.
To read more about how ancient toilets and toilet history could shed light on the Biblical story of Ehud and Eglon in Judges 3, see Hershel Shanks’s First Person column “Privies and Privacy”
in the March/April 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review