Updated: Sep 9, 2019
Legend says that soap was first discovered on Sapo Hill in Rome. The hill was an ancient site of animal sacrifices and when it rained after a sacrifice, the animal fat and ash ran down the hill and into the River Tiber. When the women went to the river to wash their clothes, they noticed that if they did their washing in certain parts of the river the clothes were much cleaner. No record of Sapo Hill or Mount Sapo exists in Roman history nor does it appear anywhere in current Italian geographical names so the legend is just a fanciful story.
It is believed, however, that the ancient Babylonians were responsible for the invention of soap. While excavating ancient Babylon, clay cylinders containing a soap-like material were found. These cylinders dated from 2800 BC. There were inscriptions on the cylinders showing that a soap making method of boiling fats with ashes was used. This soap was used to wash cotton and wool in preparation for clothes making, not as a cleanser for the body.
Ancient Egyptians combined both animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to produce a soap like substance which they used medicinally, for treating sores and skin diseases, as well as for washing. This is according to the Ebers papyrus (Egypt, 1550 BC).
A Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher by the name of Pliny the Elder recorded in 600 BC that the Phonecians made soap from goat’s tallow and wood ashes.
In the First Century AD Romans used urine to make a soap like substance. As time went on they progressed to using goat’s tallow and beech tree ashes to make both hard and soft soap products. In the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, an entire soap factory was discovered. This suggests that the soap making industry was well established and the use of soap was quite common throughout the Roman Empire. Although the Roman public baths are well known, soap was generally not used for personal hygiene until the later years of the empire. In the earlier years soap was used by physicians to treat diseases.
The word soap was derived from the Celtic name “saipo”. The Celts used animal fats and plant ashes to make their soap.
The famous Greek physician Galen recommended the use of soap to prevent skin diseases in the Second Century AD.
The Arabs began producing soap using Sodium Hydroxide Na OH in the 7th century, and the same basic process is still used today. Arabic chemists were the first ones to combine vegetable oils like olive oil and fragrant oils like thyme oil with lye. They also scented their soaps and added colour. They made both liquid and hard soap as well as a special soap for shaving.
The Roman Empire greatly influenced bathing habits all over Europe and when the Empire fell in 467 AD bathing fell with it. The many plagues that beset Europeans during the middle ages are believed to have a correlation to the lack of cleanliness and poor living conditions of the time.