Those intent on suicide have often used the solitude that only a lavatory can provide. One of the earliest examples of this is Seneca’s account of the death of a German prisoner-of-war. It also provides us with a fascinating insight into just how the Romans cleaned their bottoms.
There was lately in a training-school for the wild beast gladiators a German, who was making ready for the morning exhibition; he withdrew in order to relieve himself – the only thing which he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body. That was truly to insult death! Yes, indeed; it was not a very elegant or becoming way to die; but was it more foolish than to be over-nice about dying? What a brave fellow! He surely deserved to be allowed to choose his fate! How bravely he would have wielded a sword! With what courage he would have hurled himself into the depths of the sea, or down a precipice! Cut off from resources on every hand, he yet found a way to furnish himself with death, and with a weapon for death.
(Seneca – Moral Epistles c.62)
Roman latrines, as Seneca’s account shows, were equipped with a bucket of salt water in which sat a sponge on a stick. The sponge was supplied for communal use. The practice, according to some etymologists, gives rise to the expression “to get hold of the wrong end of the stick.”