Ancient Rome

The Fullers (fullones) in Ancient Rome

Fullers in Ancient Rome played a crucial role in textile maintenance, using natural methods to clean and thicken fabrics

fuller in ancient rome

Imagine walking through the bustling streets of ancient Rome, where the fullers, the unsung heroes of laundry, ply their trade. These industrious workers, though sometimes frowned upon for their unusual methods, played a crucial role in the city’s daily life. They didn’t just wash clothes; they were also instrumental in preparing fabrics for various essential items.

The profession of a fuller isn’t just a Roman tale. It traces its roots back to Mesopotamia, well before 1600 BCE. It’s even humorously mentioned in the Sumerian comedy “At the Cleaners.” From Egypt to Greece, this trade held significant importance, a fact also echoed in biblical scriptures. For instance, in the Bible, the Transfiguration of Jesus in Mark 9:3 highlights their work. Jesus’ robes become dazzlingly white, a feat not even the skilled fullers could achieve, despite their best efforts and unique methods.

Now, about those methods. The fullers’ use of urine, both human and animal, as a cleaning agent might raise eyebrows today. It was an effective natural bleaching agent, collected from public restrooms. The fullers, or sometimes their slaves, would stomp on the fabrics in vats of urine, a process reminiscent of how modern washing machines agitate clothes to remove stains and odors.

This profession, with its unique cleaning techniques, endured for centuries, even after the Roman Empire’s fall, persisting into the modern era until soap finally replaced urine as the preferred cleaning agent. Today’s professional launderers, though they use far different methods, are the successors of this ancient and venerable trade, one of the oldest in the world.

Roman Clothing & Laundry

Picture the streets of ancient Rome, where fashion was much more than mere attire; it was a statement of one’s social standing. The upper-class Romans, keenly aware of this, dressed meticulously to project their status. This attention to appearance extended even to their house-slaves and servants, who were also well-attired, reflecting the household’s prestige. Interestingly, this consciousness about one’s public image wasn’t exclusive to the elite; it permeated all social strata, highlighting the universal Roman appreciation for looking presentable.

Roman clothing, believed to have evolved from ancient Greek attire, was ingeniously designed. It allowed for creating various styles using a single garment, draped differently over the body. This adaptability was a hallmark of their fashion.

In Rome, just as in Greece, clothing didn’t conform to gender norms as we know them today. Children, irrespective of gender, donned simpler versions of adult clothing, typically a tunic. Let’s delve into the essential components of Roman attire:

  1. Underwear: Both men and women wore loincloths. Women also had a breastband, akin to the Greek strophion. This was a supportive cloth that tied at the back, providing support to the breasts.
  2. Tunics: The cornerstone of Roman attire, tunics were knee-length, sleeveless garments fastened at the shoulders with brooches or stitches and cinched at the waist with a belt. While most tunics were designed for ease of movement and were shorter, there were also variants that were floor-length and long-sleeved. A simple white tunic could be dyed to signify one’s social status or profession, much like the toga. Sports teams, and even their fans, often wore tunics dyed in uniform colors. There were also tunics with longer sleeves and diverse necklines, favored by male and female prostitutes, often dyed in eye-catching colors to draw more attention.
  3. Trousers: Contrary to the common tunic, trousers were not widely worn in Roman society. Their use was primarily limited to soldiers, particularly the cavalry, and gladiators. This specific garment was more about functionality than fashion, catering to the needs of those in physically demanding roles.
  4. Togas: Primarily associated with the upper class, the toga was a symbol of Roman citizenship and a garment of prestige, worn by both men and women, although it’s most commonly linked with men.

Lesley and Roy A. Adkins, scholars of Roman history, shed light on the toga’s complexities. It was an expensive, high-maintenance piece, crafted from fine natural white wool. Its semicircular design, measuring about 5.5 meters (18 feet) in width and 2.1 meters (7 feet) in depth, required intricate draping skills. Due to its cumbersome nature, several emperors had to issue decrees to ensure its use on public occasions. The toga also subtly communicated the wearer’s social status: the toga praetexta, adorned with a purple stripe, was exclusively worn by magistrates.

Other variations of the toga featured different colored stripes, each signifying a particular social rank. Upon reaching puberty, an upper-class girl would transition from wearing a tunic to a simple white toga, symbolizing her passage into womanhood. Married women, on the other hand, wore a tunic underneath a full-length dress known as a stola, a symbol of marital status. Women’s fashion also included cloaks, often made from luxurious materials like muslins and silks, and they sometimes accessorized with close-fitting bonnets and hairnets.

Men, not to be left behind in fashion, also wore cloaks and capes crafted from wool or leather. These garments, just like the women’s attire, required regular cleaning. However, the Romans didn’t practice laundry or bathing at home, mainly due to the living conditions in insulae, the typical Roman apartment buildings. These structures were often dark, poorly ventilated, and lacked running water. The city’s aqueducts primarily supplied water to public fountains, pools, businesses, and the famous Roman baths, but rarely to private homes.

Consequently, every free person in Rome relied on the services of fullers for laundry. These fullers did more than just clean; they dyed tunics, capes, and togas, pleated married women’s stolas, and finished or felted fabrics to make them into garments or waterproof them. This multifaceted role of the fullers underscores their importance in the daily life and culture of ancient Rome, a civilization where fashion and social status were inextricably linked.

The Process

In ancient Rome, the fullonicae (singular: fullonica), run by the fullones (singular: fuller), were bustling centers of a vital industry, providing essential laundry services. The process of cleaning clothes in these establishments was a meticulously structured operation, similar in basic steps to modern laundry but distinct in its methods and materials.

When a client brought their garments to a fullonica, they entrusted them to the fuller, who bore complete responsibility for these items. Any loss or damage incurred under the fuller’s care could lead to legal and financial repercussions. To avoid such mishaps, the clothing of each client was kept separate throughout the entire process.

Woolen garments received special attention due to the belief that they lost quality with each wash, diminishing in value over time. Despite this, Romans regularly frequented fullonicae, as the alternative—dealing with the dirt and odors of city life—was far less appealing. Fullers operated almost daily, pausing only for certain festivals.

The laundering process involved three main steps:

  1. Washing: Garments were placed in anchored vats, into which water and urine were added. The fuller would then step in and tread the clothes with bare feet, using the low walls between vats for balance. The duration of this step remains unclear.
  2. Rinsing: After washing, the clothes were wrung out, either by hand or using a corkscrew press, and beaten to dislodge any remaining dirt. They were then transferred to rinsing bowls filled with clean water from the city’s supply. If stains persisted, the washing process was repeated; otherwise, the clothes moved on to drying.
  3. Drying: Once more squeezed out, the garments were spread on racks in an open area. While drying, they were brushed to remove lint. White clothing was bleached over burning sulfur, while colored garments were treated with fullers’ earth to restore color, maintain fabric quality, and remove any residual stains.

After the cleaning and drying process, clothes were presumably tagged for pickup or delivery, as per the arrangements made with the client. In larger fullonicae, various workers simultaneously engaged in cleaning, rinsing, drying, dyeing, and felting. Even in smaller establishments, the labor was typically performed by slaves, while the owner managed the business and client relations.

The existence of separate vats for dyeing and areas for felting highlights the fullonica’s multifaceted role in Roman daily life. These establishments were not just simple laundries; they were integral to maintaining the societal standards of cleanliness and appearance, a testament to the ingenuity and practicality of Roman culture.

The Fullonica of Stephanus

The Fullonica of Stephanus in Pompeii stands as a remarkable testament to the ancient Roman laundry industry, offering us a glimpse into the daily life and business operations of the time. Discovered during excavations along the Via dell’Abbondanza, one of Pompeii’s main roads, this fullonica is part of City Block 6, a bustling hub that combined residential and commercial spaces.

The block featured a mix of private homes, including two-storey structures, opening onto the Via dell’Abbondanza and leading to gardens and a smaller street at the back. The presence of two unidentified shops at either end of the block suggests a vibrant commercial area, where residents likely owned and possibly operated or rented out these spaces. Adjacent to the fullonica was a thermopolium, akin to a modern fast-food restaurant, offering both a snack bar in the front and a sit-down dining area towards the back. It’s believed that this thermopolium was owned by a resident whose home was directly connected to it.

The Fullonica of Stephanus itself appears to have originally been a residence, later converted into a laundry facility. As Brian K. Harvey notes, the typical house layout was adapted to accommodate basins and vats in the atrium and peristyle for clothes cleaning. This transformation from a private house to a fullonica indicates the versatility of Roman architecture and the entrepreneurial spirit of its inhabitants.

Stephanus, the presumed owner, seems to have been a successful businessman, following the common practice of employing workers or slaves to handle the manual labor of cleaning clothes while he managed the enterprise. This is supported by the official Pompeii website, which aligns with Harvey’s conclusions about the fullonica being a converted home. The discovery of a skeleton, believed to be Stephanus, near the entrance with a hoard of coins, tragically marks his attempt to escape the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The Fullonica of Stephanus is a prime example of an industrial laundry in ancient Rome, similar to other sites found in Rome and Ostia. With ten other smaller fullonicae uncovered in Pompeii, Stephanus’ establishment likely stood out as one of the most popular and profitable, akin to a successful business in a modern urban strip mall. Its strategic location on the busy Via dell’Abbondanza would have been instrumental in its success, drawing a steady stream of clients needing laundry services. This fullonica not only highlights the importance of the laundry industry in ancient Rome but also provides a unique window into the urban landscape and commercial dynamics of Pompeii.

Social Status of Fullers

The fullers of ancient Rome, despite their essential role in maintaining the cleanliness and appearance of the populace’s clothing, faced a peculiar social paradox. Their occupation, critical to everyday life, was paradoxically marred by a certain stigma, primarily due to their association with urine, an indispensable component in their trade.

Brian K. Harvey highlights the significance of urine in the fulling process. As a natural bleaching agent, both animal and human urine were highly valued by fullers. It was collected from public urinals and even small jars placed around the city. This necessity for urine, and the fullers’ apparent eagerness to collect it, unfortunately contributed to their somewhat unfavorable reputation among city dwellers. This perception is underscored by the fact that Emperor Vespasian even levied a tax on urine, underlining its value and the scale of its use in fulling.

However, this societal disdain did not hinder the fullers’ economic success. Many led comfortable lives, with sufficient income not just for personal prosperity but also for contributing to public works and festivals. Their patron deity, Minerva, known for her association with weaving and crafts, was honored by the fullers during the festival of the Quinquatria. This celebration, held annually on March 19th (or March 19-23 when extended), was marked in their shops with substantial contributions to the festivities. The fullers’ economic power was further exemplified by their ability to form their own guild, which allowed them to set their prices.

The success of fullers is vividly illustrated by the example of the Fullonica of Stephanus in Pompeii. Its prominent location and size speak volumes about the prosperity achievable in this trade. The necessity for clean clothing across the Roman Empire, coupled with the general reluctance or inability of the populace to undertake this task themselves, ensured a steady demand for the fullers’ services. While the exact earnings of a fuller remain unknown, the evidence of their wealth and contributions to society suggests that they fared quite well financially, despite the social stigma attached to their profession. This contrast between economic success and social perception paints a complex picture of the fullers’ role in Roman society.

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Nikos Georgiou
Hailing from Athens, Greece, Nikos Georgiou brings a distinct Mediterranean perspective to his exploration of Greco-Roman history. A graduate of the University of Athens, his work incorporates a deep understanding of the region's cultural legacy and the enduring influence of classical antiquity.

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