Mapping the olfactory landscape of ancient Rome.
Cloaca Maxima, Rome

Julia Castner ’18 unleashed a real stinker on attendees of the annual Undergraduate Classics Conference at the University of Tennessee earlier this year.

More precisely, Castner unleashed her latest research—a study of the scent map of imperial Rome—in her presentation Experiencing the Cloaca Maxima: A Smellscape of Imperial Rome. In that paper, she looks at how ancient Romans experienced the scents and aromas of their city.

“I’ve done some research on the psychology of smell, which ties into the cultural implications of experiencing smell and how smell is culturally and socially impacted,” she says. “It’s very phenomenalized; for instance, throughout human history there is no single smell that has been universally considered unpleasant.”

An archaeology and fine arts double major, Castner created a cursory scent map of the ancient city by drawing on research from a wide variety of fields.

Castner thanks her professor and mentor, Astrid Lindenlauf, for encouraging her to look at her topic from a wide variety of perspectives. That multidisciplinary approach gives a more complete view of the Romans’ relationship to smell than from an archaeological perspective alone, Castner explains.

Professor Lindenlauf “encouraged us to dive deep into questions about the ancient world,” says Castner, “and gave frequent suggestions for reframing and recontextualizing the archaeological record.”

No one—not even Castner—can know exactly how imperial Rome would smell to a modern visitor, but her research allowed her to make a good guess: “We have examples of excavations uncovering finds from places such as mass graves and the amphorae at Monte Testaccio.”

So how does Castner describe the odors that ancient Romans encountered every day?

“Well … they were still really, really smelly.”

The Greatest Sewer

Built in the 6th century B.C.E., the Cloaca Maxima (trans: Greatest Sewer) was originally an open channel designed to carry off storm water from the Forum district to the Tiber. It was not enclosed until the 3rd century B.C.E., when waste from public baths and latrines was directed into the system.