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A replica xylospongium (sponge on a stick)
Ancient Roman latrines in Ostia Antica

The xylospongium (greek) or tersorium (roman), also known as sponge on a stick, was a hygienic utensil used by ancient Romans to wipe their anus after defecating,[1] consisting of a wooden stick (Greek: ξύλον, Xylon) with a sea sponge (Greek: Σπόγγος, Spongos) fixed at one end.

The tersorium was shared by people using public latrines. To clean the sponge, they simply washed it in a bucket with water and salt or vinegar.[2] This became a breeding ground for bacteria, causing the spread of disease in the latrine.[3]

In the classical antiquity a xylospongium might be used in the same way as we use a toilet brush.[4]

In the baths of the seven sages in Ostia, a fresco from the 2nd century contains the Inscription (u)taris xylosphongio[5] which is the first known mention of the term. Also in the early second century a papyrus letter of Claudius Terentianus to his father Claudius Tiberianus uses the term xylospongium in a phrase.[6]

In the middle of the first century Seneca reported that a Germanic gladiator had committed suicide with a sponge on a stick. The German hid himself in the latrine of an amphitheater and pushed the wooden stick into his gullet and choked to death.[7]


  1. ^ Mirsky, Steve. "Getting to the Bottom". Scientific American. 308 (3): 85–85. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0313-85.
  2. ^ "What Did Ancient Romans Do Without Toilet Paper?". SAPIENS. Retrieved 2018-04-05.
  3. ^ "Death and Disease in Ancient Rome". www.innominatesociety.com. Retrieved 2018-01-02.
  4. ^ Wiplinger 2012, S. 300-301.
  5. ^ L'Année épigraphique 1941, 5.
  6. ^ (29)…Non magis quravit me pro xylesphongium meo. Non magis cunavit me quam xylosphongium (30) sed siam negotium ct circa res suas. – Translation: (29)…He did not care for me more than for a xylospongium, (30) even for his own things. (Michigan Papyri VIII, 29-30)
  7. ^ Seneca, Epistulae morales 8, 70, 20. …lignum id, quod ad emundanda obscena adhaerente spongia positum est

Primary sources[edit]

  • Claudius Terentianus, Michigan Papyri VIII, 29-30.
  • Seneca, Epistulae morales Liber 8, 70, 20.
  • Martial, Epigrammata, Liber 12,48,7.


  • Richard Neudecker: Die Pracht der Latrine. Zum Wandel öffentlicher Bedürfnisanstalten in der kaiserzeitlichen Stadt. Pfeil-Verlag, München 1994 (Studien zur antiken Stadt, Bd. 1) ISBN 3-923871-86-4, pp. 36f.
  • Gilbert Wiplinger: Der Gebrauch des Xylospongiums – eine neue Theorie zu den hygienischen Verhältnissen in römischen Latrinen. In: SPA . SANITAS PER AQUAM. Tagungsband des Internationalen Frontinus-Symposiums zur Technik – und Kulturgeschichte der antiken Thermen Aachen, 18. – 22. März 2009. Frontinus-Gesellschaft e.V. & Peeters, Leiden 2012. ISBN 978-90-429-2661-5. pp. 295–304.