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Money Doesn’t 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 to clean their teeth, wash their clothes, and tan leather. They also used it to wash their clothes. Large clay pots used to be used in ancient laundries to collect urine, which were then left out in the open for passersby to use. The Roman emperor eventually levied a tax because there had been so much pee produced and collected. Due to this tax imposed by the emperors Nero and Vespasian in the first century AD, the famous expression “Pecunia non olet,” which translates to “Money does not stink,” was created.

Vespasian Aureus Fortuna (75-79 AD) ( Wikimedia Commons )

The Uses of Urine in Ancient Rome

In contrast to how we dispose of our urine today, when it was first discovered it was a valuable commodity in ancient times. Numerous vital minerals and substances, like potassium and phosphorus, can be found in large quantities in urine. The Romans used urine as a mouthwash and combined it with pummis to make toothpaste because they believed it would make their teeth brighter and prevent them from deteriorating. Urine was so effective, in fact, that it was still being used in toothpaste and mouthwash in the 1700s.

The best and most costly urine on the market in the eyes of the Romans was that which was produced in Portugal. It was the product of choice for teeth whitening because it was allegedly the strongest urine in the entire globe. A toothpaste made of pee may not appeal to most people today, but it was effective! This is so because modern household cleansers frequently contain ammonia, which is found in urine. When urine is exposed to the air in an open container, it becomes stale and reacts with the air to form ammonia. This was then employed for laundry in ancient Rome. Urine was crucial for the textile industry, which was expanding throughout the Roman Empire, because of its ammonia content. 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

The “vectigal urinae,” which is Latin for “urine tax,” was a charge imposed by the Roman emperor Nero in the first century AD. Since members of the lowest sections of society had to relieve themselves in little pots that were then dumped into cesspools, a fee was imposed on the collection of urine at public urinals. Additionally, urine was taken from the upper class’s public restrooms. The tax was paid by the purchaser of the urine, after which it was collected from cesspools and recycled as a priceless raw material for a variety of chemical operations.

Ancient Roman Public Toilets ( Wikimedia Commons )

Even though the tax was eventually eliminated, Vespasian’s ascension in 70 AD led to its reinstatement (ruler of Rome from 69-79 AD). The Roman Empire had just come out of a civil war that nearly caused the end of the world when Vespasian was crowned emperor. In addition, the empire’s treasury included not a single silver coin. Vespasian started the process of rebuilding and restoring the empire. He was well known for his love of money and brutal taxes, which eventually helped the Roman empire get out of debt and leave a surplus in the treasury for the succeeding emperor. To raise funds, he started enacting a number of levies, one of which was a fee for collecting urine from public restrooms in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima (big sewer) system. Vespasian even introduced the first public restrooms in history in 74 AD.

Etching showing the Cloaca Maxima (1757), Giovanni Battista Piranesi ( Wikimedia Commons )

Pecunia non olet: Money Does Not Stink

After this pee levy was implemented, Roman wits began referring to the local restrooms as “vespasians”. Titus, the future emperor and son of Vespasian, thought the Urine Tax was a disgusting policy. When Titus protested about Vespasian’s unpopular tax, according to Roman historians Dio Cassius and Suetonius, his father reportedly took up a gold coin and said, “Pecunia non olet,” or “Money does not stink”. This act was intended to demonstrate that money is not corrupted regardless of its origins. This is arguably Vespasian’s most well-known quote, and it’s still frequently used today to minimize dubious or outright unlawful sources of income. 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. His most well-known monument serves as the maybe greatest illustration of this. Vespasian’s 10-year rule saw the construction of the Roman Coliseum, which was funded in part by the initial Urine Tax.

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.

The Colosseum is Vespasian’s most famous and enduring legacy (Diliff / CC BY-SA 2.5)

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.