Money Does Not Stink: The Urine Tax of Ancient Rome
The ancient Romans have passed many traditions on to modern day society, but they certainly had a different perspective on urine. It was seen as much more useful than today. They used it as a cleaning agent for washing their clothes, brushing their teeth as well as for tanning leather. Ancient laundries even used to collect urine in giant clay pots which were placed out in public for people to relieve themselves. Eventually, so much urine was used and collected that a tax was imposed by the Roman emperor. Pecunia non olet meaning, “money does not stink" was a famous phrase coined as a result of this tax levied by the emperors Nero and Vespasian in the 1st century AD.
Vespasian Aureus Fortuna (75-79 AD) ( Wikimedia Commons )
The Uses of Urine in Ancient Rome
While today we flush or urine away without giving it a second thought, in ancient times it was considered a valuable commodity. Urine contains a wide array of important minerals and chemicals such as phosphorus and potassium. The Romans believed that urine would make their teeth whiter and keep them from decaying so they used it as a mouthwash and mixed it with pumice to make toothpaste. In fact, urine was so effective that it was used in toothpastes and mouthwashes up until the 1700s.
As far as the Romans were concerned, the best and therefore the most expensive urine on the market came from the country of Portugal. It was supposedly the strongest urine in the world and thus, the choice for whitening teeth. Though most people today would decline the option of a urine-based toothpaste, it actually worked! This is because urine contains ammonia which is used in many household cleaners today. If you leave urine out in an open vat it turns stale and produces ammonia through interaction with the air. In Roman times, this was then used for laundry. Due to the ammonia content, urine was also important for the textiles industry, which was a booming trade during the Roman Empire. Often urine was used to bleach wool or linen and tan leather.
Fullonica (Dyer's Shop) of Veranius Hypsaeus, fresco from Pompeii ( Wikimedia Commons )
The "Vectigal Urinae" tax for Urine Collectors
In the first century AD, the Roman emperor Nero levied what was known as the “vectigal urinae”, which translates from Latin into “urine tax”. This tax was placed on the collection of urine at public urinals, since the lower classes of society had to relieve themselves in small pots which were then emptied into cesspools. Urine was also collected from the public toilets of the upper classes. The buyer of the urine paid the tax, then it was then collected from the cesspools and recycled as a valuable raw material for a number of chemical processes.
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Ancient Roman Public Toilets ( Wikimedia Commons )
Although the tax was eventually removed, it was reenacted around 70 AD with the succession of emperor Vespasian (ruler of Rome from 69-79 AD). When Vespasian became Emperor, the Roman Empire had just emerged from a civil war that almost brought about a complete collapse of their world. On top of that, the empire had not a single silver coin in its treasury. Known for his love of money and ruthless taxation (which eventually brought the Roman empire out of debt, leaving a surplus in the treasury for the following emperor), Vespasian began the task of repairing and restoring the empire. He began levying a series of taxes to raise funds, one of which was a charge for the collection of urine from public urinals in Rome's Cloaca Maxima (great sewer) system. The first public toilets in history were even introduced by Vespasian in 74 AD.
Etching showing the Cloaca Maxima (1757), Giovanni Battista Piranesi ( Wikimedia Commons )
Pecunia non olet: Money Does Not Stink
Soon after this urine tax was imposed, Roman wits started calling the local toilets “vespasians". The Urine Tax was considered a disgusting policy by Vespasian's son, and future emperor, Titus. Roman historians Dio Cassius and Suetonius wrote about Vespasian’s unpopular tax in their history books saying that when Titus complained about it, his father reportedly picked up a gold coin and remarked, "Pecunia non olet", or, "Money does not stink”. The meaning behind this act, of course, was to show that money is not tainted regardless of its origins. This is probably the most famous phrase ever spoken by Vespasian, and is still in use today most commonly to downplay the questionable, or outright illegal, sources of financial gain. Some people in Germany liked the story of the origins of the phrase so much that they even made a family board game of the same name.
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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