In my previous post, I introduced my book on warfare in the ancient Near East and the Old Testament. Before we look at more serious topics, we will begin our survey of the book by looking at a very practical matter: going to the bathroom in battle. Unfortunately, the ancient kings did not often refer to the topic in their martial accounts. However, a few details have come down to us!

In the Old Testament, while on campaign, Israelite soldiers were to bury their excrement in a hole away from the camp (Deut. 23:12-14), foreshadowing modern sanitation concerns. Excrement has helped archaeologists in a variety of places determine the diet of the ancients. Studies of the fecal matter found in a toilet in the destruction of Jerusalem from 586 BC indicate a poor diet, most likely due to the siege.[1]

Occasionally kings referred to going to the bathroom as one of the spontaneous results of terror, emphasizing their own overwhelming power and the effect that it had on enemy kings. In Sennacherib’s eighth campaign, he claimed that the king of Elam and the king of Babylon fled before him and exhibited physical expressions of their terror.

(As for) him, Umman-menanu (Ḫumban-menanu), the king of the land Elam, along with the king of Babylon (and) the sheikhs of Chaldea who marched at his side, terror of doing battle with me overwhelmed them like alû-demons. They abandoned their tents and, in order to save their lives, they trampled the corpses of their troops as they pushed on. Their hearts throbbed like the pursued young of pigeons, they passed their urine hotly, (and) released their excrement inside their chariots. I ordered my chariots (and) horses to pursue them. Wherever they caught (them), they killed with the sword the runaways amongst them, who had fled for (their) lives.[2]

The question of when a soldier on guard duty could go to the bathroom is rarely addressed, but the protocol for the royal bodyguards of the Hittites included a detailed description of the process such a guard was required to go through if he wanted to go to the bathroom. Naturally, the king did not want his guards leaving their posts whenever they wanted!

And a bodyguard [does not (just) go] outside on his own volition. If he really has to pee, then he will run after the whole [bo]dyguard, and he will tell the b[od]yguard who stands before him, “I have to go down to the toilet,” then that one passes it on to another bodyguard, then that one passes it on to a man of third rank, then the man of third rank tells a man of second rank, then the man of second rank tells the commander-of-10 of the bodyguard. If the chief of the bod[yg]uard is also present, (i.e.) he is in the [cou]rt of the bodyguard, then the [co]mann[der-of-10 of the bodygua]rd conveys it to the chief of the bodyguard, (asking), “May he [g]o down to the toilet?” And the chief of the bodyguard will say, “He may go.” If, however, anyone’s bowels are troubling him, then one colleague tells another colleague, so that this, too, reaches the chief of the bodyguard (thus): “May he go pee?” Then the chief of the bodyguard will say, “He may go.” Whatever bodygua[rd] goes to pee (without asking), [th]ough, His Majesty will take note of, so that the pissing affair will reach the palace; he does not (just) go on his own volition.[3]

[1] Jane Cahill et al., “Scientists Examine Remains of Ancient Bathrooms,” Biblical Archaeology Review 17.3 (1991): 68.

[2] Lines vi.24-35 of Sennacherib 22 in A. Kirk Grayson and Jamie Novotny, The Royal Inscriptions of Sennacherib, King of Assyria (704-681 BC), Part 1, RINAP 3/1 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012), 184.

[3] §6-8 of SBLWAW 31.4 (CTH 262) in Jared L. Miller, Royal Hittite Instructions and Related Administrative Texts, ed. Mauro Giorgieri, SBLWAW 31 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 104–7.