Money Does Not Stink: The Urine Tax of Ancient Rome
Modern day Vespaciens
As undignified as Titus may have believed his father’s tax to be, in the long run, Vespasian’s tolls actually benefited the Roman empire. Perhaps the best evidence of this is in his most famous monument. Some of the original Urine Tax went toward the construction of the Roman Coliseum, which was built during Vespasian's 10 year reign.
Vespasienne in Montreal, Quebec, Canada (1930) ( Wikimedia Commons )
The Coliseum notwithstanding, Vespasian's contribution to modern architecture has left an impact on history in other notable ways. Public pay toilets in some parts of the French-speaking world became known as Vespaciens. Although the concept of pay toilets is largely novel to most Americans, certainly those of a younger age, the concept of a fee to pee is widespread throughout Europe's major cities, especially Paris. Vespasian's name is still attached to public urinals in France (vespasiennes), Italy (vespasiani), and Romania (vespasiene) even though they have become something of a rarity in modern times. Interestingly, there was even a Vespacien built in Montreal in 1930. As in the past, in many of ancient Rome’s public restrooms, people can make a living out of urine. While Vespasian’s tax was very unpopular, especially among the urine collectors, textiles makers, and tanners, the revenue collected from the tax helped stabilize the empire and provide a public service.
Featured image: Reconstruction drawing of the communal latrines at Housesteads Roman fort (Vercovicium) on Hadrian's Wall. This site is now in the care of English Heritage (2010).
By Bryan Hill
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