BECAUSE I DIED on the phone with you that day and I think you know it too.
Saying what you knew would obliterate my heart in the hopes that I would stay away. To sacrifice the one for the many, “This is best for everyone” you said. But is it or is it just best for him? Because you, me, and your child are casualties in this too–and what’s best for them might very well be me and you. Surely the three of us all suffer the loss of each other in this, but it’s what you needed to do.
You didn’t feel anything, you don’t love me you claimed through shaky tears–still holding me to your ear for 30 excruciating minutes longer than necessary if these words were true, as I begged for us to still be friends. But we both know that’s impossible, because were we ever really just friends? Your words made little sense then–in stark contrast to every lingering embrace we shared, those leg touches and face caresses, how you moaned against my lips after asking “What is this?” or the beautiful way you shuddered while meeting that wonderful crescendo of pleasure.
No, I was being foolish. There is no being friends after this. Which is why he asked you to throw me away and you knew it had to be done too. Especially after I confessed my love, thinking even then in my naivety that it was all just me–it had to be–how we both surprised each other with this possibility but I knew all along as I hid my growing feelings for you. Blaming myself for it, “I’m so sorry” I cried when I said it out loud finally. Could you forgive me for it, this shame I felt for never knowing I could love another woman–for ignoring the signs all of my life and thus putting us both willfully in danger. This was all my fault, I thought. I should have done more to protect us from spelling our own doom–as inevitable as this accidental crossing of the line felt, so consumed in the moment of a mutual truth, I didn’t stop to realize that you weren’t being honest either. Stupidly thinking you had his permission in this too.
How many times you questioned if you even deserved me, perhaps knowing you were capable all along of the ability to destroy me. That you might have to, for their sake but not ours. You were already saying goodbye to me, weren’t you? Afterwards, when we cried about it–what we had done and the people we would be hurting, how we had to bury this–the way you traced your fingers lovingly along my cheek just smiling and gazing into my eyes for what felt like an eternity. Perhaps to commit me in memory, the way I was then, not letting me look away when I tried–“Hey, sweetheart…” lifting my chin so that I would keep looking back at you. I would like to thank you for it now, having not seen your beautiful face for over a year. I can still feel and remember this moment, how happy we were in that shared intimacy together–to have that truth in closeness resting between us.
“We have to forget about each other.” You cried. And maybe this is what I deserve, for the mistake in thinking to love someone altruistically could ever be without sorrow. But I’m so sorry for all of it, for the anger he must have felt when you tried to make it all right after, for the suffering your child went through when I was ripped from their life and never knowing the real reason why, and for you too–because I suspect that now you’re hiding more than just the truth of us.
So maybe I deserve to be dead and forgotten, perhaps best for everyone–to never see or speak to each other ever again, like you said. “If you really want to help me,” you begged, “Do this for my kids.” Knowing I would, because I would do anything for them and for you. Even if that means lying down in my grave and letting you bury me without a headstone. Here Lies This Tragic Mistake. And hoping you all go on to live and be happy together, forgetting me and my presence there.
But a part of me still hopes that my love will continue to haunt you long after I’ve been gone. Because I will never forget you and I will always love you. To hold my memory in your heart knowing that someone out there–even if they are dead and gone and no more of your world–still thinks of you and cherishes everything that you are. All of the good and all of the bad, embracing you fully and holding you dear–to give you strength and self-love. To know that you do, in fact, deserve it anyway.
And I suppose this is why I love history, because though I am nothing now but a faint figment of dust, I will forever exist as something that happened once. That is where I will live now for eternity, as a piece from your past.
In the words of the eminently fictional Don Draper from Mad Men, “People do things.” We each live our own stories adjacent to one another, some of us more headful than others in our actions and choices. Sometimes, no matter the rationale or forethought, events and situations befall and unfold around us. If we truly are the hero of our own journey, there is a certain amount of agency we ascribe to ourselves–and yet, when tragedy does strike us, we can sometimes be left in bafflement over how we got here. Were we not careful? Did we not consider the risks? How could this have happened to us, aren’t we good people? Why would karma do us dirty like this?
Instead of spiraling into a shrieking cacophony of shame and blame because it happened to you, most people with their wits (and counseling degrees) will rightly point out that though tragic, life gives us lessons and there is something to be learned from our mistakes. If we are to consider these moments of drama a part of the woven story that makes us who we are–the art of our life–then perhaps we should consider ourselves a character in a Greek tragedy.
[A Greek Tragedy] is a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.
Scholars disagree precisely on the exact origins of Greek Tragedy (it doesn’t help that we’ve lost a lot of work), but the earliest study of the arts of poetry, tragedy, and comedy come from Aristotle’s writings on Poetics detailing the traditions from Athens which could be found around the 5th century B.C. Aristotle theorizes that the purpose of poetry comes from our innate urge as humans to learn life lessons through imitation and that through this imitation in learning we find great pleasure. Thus, it seems only reasonable that the art of poetry would be born to impart this desire. The Epic (Heroic) Poem is a literary device that far pre-dates Greece, but it’s influence on the development of Greek Tragedy is not lost on Aristotle. But he insists on the distinction where tragedy becomes not just an imitation in narrative like a poem, but in action that is “serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” and displayed through the agents of “pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”.
For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality…
He goes on to suggest that a successful tragedy is told in which a protagonist who is good suffers an event not out of misfortune, but from error or frailty in character which now brings the prospects of that main protagonist to unfavorable. And to expand on just what he means by a tragic hero being inherently good in order to feel the full weight of this pity–it is one who is morally expressed in virtue(s), consistent, has informed propriety (values with meaning rather than for the sake of it), and one who is realistic (no Superman or impossibly perfect persons). Just imagining someone of these qualities finding themselves dealing with the pain of tragedy because of an error in judgment should already be pulling at your heart strings. Who is the best person you know? Now imagine that person, trying their hardest to do good, ends up losing everything they care about. That’s pretty sad, isn’t it?
So again, what’s the point of tragedy? Especially in story telling? Well, Aristotle pointed out that part of the focus is learning through life imitating art–but there is also another component to this kind of drama known as Catharsis which ties the purpose all together. Catharsis in Greek Tragedy involves an ’emotional cleansing’ which occurs due to the empathy invoked by the pity and fear experienced upon witnessing the tragic unfolding of a good person experiencing catastrophe of their own doing. It’s a psychological phenomenon that goes beyond art–emotional release has its foundation in Freudian theory as well, an aid to relieving stress and unconscious tension. Not to mention a ‘good cry‘ releases endorphins meant to make you feel better and more calm afterwards, so there are benefits surely to experiencing tragedy as an audience member.
But since we’re entertaining the thought experiment, what if it feels like you’re hypothetically the tragic figure in your own tale and you’re struggling to reason out what happened to you and why? Oedipus, Medea, Antigone, and more famous characters all spelled about their own undoing in different ways but they weren’t ‘bad’ people though they made horrific mistakes (Well, Medea makes a hard case against her on this one…) These figures were known to harbor admirable traits–strengths and virtues, yet in this case, presenting as tragic flaws.
Now in looking over the above, these all sound like good things right? Well, that’s because they are. BUT do they always lead to ‘good’ things? Not necessarily and therein lies the tragedy–what if someone (or you!) exemplifies one or more of these qualities but in enacting the principle it leads you to pain and suffering? Were you wrong? Maybe. But are you bad? Hell no.
Listen, life is a god damn mess and hard to figure out, that’s why we have stories and art to tell us a little bit about how things can go horribly wrong–even to good people who are simply trying their best. But it might be helpful to try and figure out where the error in judgment came from on your end and decide how to continue walking ahead as the good person you are, not let the tragedy break you, but let it define you in how you move forward in resiliency and compassion. Holding true to your good nature and accepting your loss with grace and accountability.
Did too much patience lead to something walking away from you indefinitely due to inaction? Were you too honest and truthful about something that would have been better left unsaid, something that spelled your own doom once spoken out-loud? Did you give too earnestly, too much of yourself to someone who maybe took too much from you in the end? And maybe you did all of these things anyway because you were too trusting and brave with your vulnerability, only to get hurt badly in the end?
It certainly might seem like your fault when looking at it on the surface–an err in judgment sort of warrants a responsible actor after all–but instead consider it as a learning experience, your life being art. And try to think of how to tell your story in a way that can perhaps also help guide others to not commit the same folly. Your terrible loss and tragedy might just be the thing that saves someone else. Or even you, once you learn the lesson from this and keep on living.
If there’s one thing that you need not be Greek in your tragedy aside from pain and suffering though, is in how you choose to live the ending–you don’t really need to cook your own kids, hang yourself, or marry your own mother to learn anything from your mistakes. Leave that kind of high end drama to the playwrights.
We feel lucky enough to have it for a brief fleeting moment and then immediately regret it when we find ourselves flailing on the bathroom floor in a pool of our own tears, clutching our hearts and wearing headphones with crooning lovelorn songs from Andrea Botticelli in our ears. It’s god damn painful and no amount of Chunky Monkey ice cream is enough to numb the ache. Phone-calls to therapists who insist you should stop checking their social media page and bitter, passive aggressive tweets are part of the processing. Going to the gym, out with friends (and binge drinking), and plenty of questionable credit card purchases are all part of the healing. But you’re not the only person to suffer a love lost, to be destroyed by the one person you trusted above all to guard your heart. People have been getting crushed by heartbreakers since humanity invented the ability to string together words in poetry to complain and write about it. So how the hell did people in the past get over this shit before Spotify playlists were a thing?
The famous Latin poet Ovid might just have the answer. While romping around 1st century Rome under the reign of Emperor Augustus, Ovid made quite a name for himself with his poetry in love and heartache. One of his first works was a collection of lyrical tales about legendary heroines and their lost loves, including praise for Sappho. He wrote his own love poems for his muses and then further clarified his passions with The Art of Love. And, naturally, he began to write about the pain and healing needed afterwards when it all goes wrong in his work the Remedia Amoris or The Cure for Love. So with the help of Ovid (and me) here are some classic ways to overcome heartbreak:
"Come to my teaching, who've been deceived, you whose love has utterly betrayed you."
Don’t Suffer For It
Love, having read the name and title on this book,
said: ‘It’s war, you declare against me, I see, it’s war’.
‘Cupid, don’t condemn your poet for a crime, who has so often
raised the standard, you trusted him with, under your command.
Ovid, Part 1: Words with Cupid, and the Task
Ever feel as if you were being punished by the person you loved? As if the simple crime in having feelings is why you deserve their cruelty and to suffer the pain for it. Yeah, me too–people suck more than heartache sometimes. But remember–there is nothing wrong in loving someone. Love is a gift, always. It is not your fault and even if their words cut you deeply, left you with fresh wounds, someone unwilling to accept love has their own issues to sort out. As Ovid would say, “Let him rejoice in happiness, any eager man who loves and delights in love: let him sail with the wind…why should any lover hang from a high beam, a sad weight, with a knotted rope round his neck? Why should anyone stab himself with cold steel?” And further, “You, be content with these tears, with no guilt for death: it’s not fitting for your torch to plunge beneath greedy pyres.”
The take away? It’s their loss. Don’t lose yourself too. Love is good and it’s a blessing to have it.
Let your swift mind encompass what it is that you love, and withdraw your neck from the collar that hurts you. Halt its beginnings: it’s too late for the doctor to be called, when the illness has grown stronger through delay.
Ovid, Part II: Treat it Early: Fill Your Time with War or Law
Alright, so people in the Classical Era were probably not stalking each other on Instagram, but certainly there were plenty of ‘accidental’ run-ins at the market or pleading for reconciliation through open windows. This is essentially the leave it and don’t wallow too much phase. Ovid insists that the sooner someone tries to move on the better–that the longer one puts it off, the more danger there is in prolonging the pain. “When tears are over, and the sorrowful spirit’s done, then grief can be given expression in words. …so when you’re ready for my medical arts, first ban idleness, on my advice.” He suggests that coping in gambling, drinking, and languid sleeping won’t help either–the best bet is to dedicate yourself to learning or a craft. Bettering yourself is part of the cure.
Don’t dwell too much in the agony, start immediately by loving yourself.
Get in Touch with Nature
Any care will give way to those cares. …sow the seed for your harvest, in the earth you’ve ploughed, see the branches bowed with the weight of apples, so the tree hardly bears the weight it carries. See the flowing streams with happy murmurs: see the sheep grazing on the fertile grass.
Ovid, Part III: You Can Also Farm, Hunt, or Travel
Love and loss are a part of life. Reminding yourself of your place in it is crucial. You are a human being that can think, feel, and be. You are part of this process and journey permeating in this universe and you are alive for it. Surrounding yourself with the reminder of other living things as you–things that are simply being will remind you to appreciate your ability to do the same. Also, go somewhere new, take yourself out of your comfort zone and experience a different perspective. Get out of the place you are in now to find a new you. “You only need to journey far, though strong chains hold you back, and start to travel distant ways: you’ll cry, and your lost girl’s name will oppose it, and your feet will often stop you on the road: but the less you wish to go, the more you should go: endure it, and force unwilling feet to run.”
Life is also a gift and to be a part of this process, is itself, an art. Take yourself willingly on this journey, face it with bravery, and don’t allow fear to hold you back from making the changes to take new steps forward.
Don’t Bother with Tricks
No pains will be charmed away to ease the heart, conquering love won’t be put to flight by burning sulphur.
Ovid, Part IV: But Forget Witchcraft!
Back in the day, there was plenty of rituals and sacrifices to be made to gods and spirits. Love potions, charms, you name it. They didn’t work. Today we have workshops and internet experts declaring their services to help you ‘win back your ex!’. Manipulation tactics, no-contact rules, and player’s handbooks–none of this allows for healing if you’re holding out hope and trying to play games.
Don’t do it. It’s unproductive and doesn’t help you grow.
Nobody is Perfect
She prizes others, despises my love…let all this embitter your every feeling.
Ovid, Part V: Contemplate Her Defects
Remember, they hurt you. Rejected you. Threw away your gift and stomped on your heart like you were nothing. That’s not cool, right? So why keep pretending they were this wonderful person when they treated you poorly in the end and don’t appear to care about you anymore at all? Take your care for yourself instead. Ovid seems to take it to extremes on how to deflate the idealized version of your former lover, fresh with insults and other admonishments, but I think reminding yourself of what they did is enough (and far more healthy).
Don’t hold on to someone who has shown you that they don’t deserve you.
Date Someone New
So far I’ve answered Envy: tighten the reins, more resolutely, and ride your course out, poet.
Ovid, Part VI: Now About Sex
Listen, we all know the adage “the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.” Ovid suggests the same. In fact, he encourages many.
Do you and do everybody else too, I guess.
Don’t Let Them See You Bleed
Pretend to what is not, and that the passion’s over, so you’ll become, in truth, what you are studying to be.
Ovid, Part VIII: Be Cool With Her
Be Chill. There is nothing more unbecoming than someone ripping their heart out Indiana Jone’s Kali Ma style and shoving it in their ex-lover’s face so they know just how badly they hurt you. Listen, unless they are a psychopath or a narcissist–they likely know. And if they don’t? Go back up to the other parts where you need to remind yourself how cruel they are then and they don’t really deserve any more of your attention. “Don’t let her be too pleased with herself, nor have the power to despise you: be brave, so she gives way to your bravery.”
Take back your power and hold your head high.
Let love fail, and, vanishing, dissolve into thin air, and let it fade away in gentle stages. But it’s wrong to hate the girl you loved, in any way: that conclusion suits uncivilised natures.
Ovid, Part XI: Now, Keep Away From Her
In the process of healing, this person still has the power to hurt you. They are unsafe. More poisonous words could infect you, false hopes could set you right back to the beginning, or their indifference could result in its own unique kind of pain. Don’t hate them, don’t treat them poorly if your paths are to cross–you both shared something special with one another at one time. But be careful not to open yourself up to more pain on their behalf, especially if they still have enough influence over you to cause further harm.
Stay away until enough time has passed for full healing. Show them your scars, not your fresh wounds.
Be Healthy and Eat Well
So don’t drink at all, or drink so much your cares all vanish: if it’s anywhere between the two it’s bound to do you harm.
Ovid, Part XVI: The Doctor’s Last Advice
The best way to feel better is to feel good. Mind your diet, eat healthy foods and though Ovid doesn’t mention it, get your sad butt to the gym and make it a fab one instead. There are plenty of foods that increase dopamine and serotonin production which will surely make you feel happier. Also, limit drinking and avoid falling into the trap of numbing yourself.
Heal the heart by healing the body.
And another suggestion from me? Write blog posts. I’m sure Ovid would approve.
How many of us have woken up the next morning questioning ourselves–“Did I really just do that?” Those drunken speeches in jolly confessional that were regrettably recorded on video, the inebriated passion in the throes of another’s embrace, or phoning your ex while intoxicated to express exactly how you still feel about them. Sure, blame it on the alcohol–most people unwilling to accept personal accountability for their secret thoughts and desires will be the first to do so. It meant nothing, I didn’t mean it. But turns out, people have been using this excuse since the dawn of civilization and ancient historians have been calling us all out since the beginning. Drink up, losers, we’re going truth shopping.
…Then it is that all the secrets of the mind are revealed; one man is heard to disclose the provisions of his will, another lets fall some expression of fatal import, and so fails to keep to himself words which will be sure to come home to him with a cut throat. And how many a man has met his death in this fashion! Indeed, it has become quite a common proverb, that “in wine, there is truth.”
Not unsurprising, but we can find allusions to the value of drunk minds speaking sober truths all the way back to the 5th century BC. Herodotus, ever the perennial scholar of cultural practices to gawk at, details a custom observed by the Persians in his Histories. According to him, it was common among the Persians that if there were a judgement to be made about a serious decision, it should first be talked over while completely smashed on wine. Afterwards, the decision would then be reviewed the next morning while sober before anyone made any final approval on the matter. If it all still sounded like a good idea while kneading a hangover headache, the measure passed. The same went for the other way around–anyone with a decent thought in the light of day had to wait for everyone to reconsider it first while drunk, you know, just to make sure. [Herodotus, Histories Book 1, 133.] Anyone envisioning any sort of impracticality with this method should be reminded that these tipsy Persians held down an enormous empire for at least 200 years with much success–and would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for that meddling Alexander the Great.
The idea of the truth being found at the bottom of a glass of booze is so pervasive, that some form of In Vino Veritas exists across most cultures around the world in some lyrical thought. “After wine blurts truthful speech”, “What the sober hold in their heart is on the drinker’s tongue”, “A drunken mouth speaks from the bottom of the heart”, the implications here are endless.
So howmuch honesty really is in the events and words spoken when inhibitions are down, when a person has no reason to stop actions from tumbling out after a tonic of Gin and truth serum? Idioms are one thing, but is there any science or psychological backing to tell us that being an idiot in our drunken moments is exactly who and what we are deep down?
One recent psychological study measured the difference between how someone would rate themselves sober versus who they thought they were while drunk…compared to observers who really didn’t notice a change in personality at all between the two states, actually. Except, of course, in being a bit more openly social. Which is exactly the idea behind being more of your true self while intoxicated. [R.P. Winograd, D. Steinley, S.P. Lane, & K.J. Sher 2017]
And despite this, the correlation between using alcohol as ‘an excuse’ for sexual behavior and as a justification for the action itself can be easily measured too–and it turns out, according to this study, a lot of people intentionally use alcohol to lower sexual inhibitions AND to also use it as the blame both before and after the consideration. [T.V. Ven & J. Beck 2009]
So, no, getting drunk doesn’t make you a different person AND we also know people are intentionally pretending otherwise to justify behavior they would otherwise not want others to assume they were always capable of while sober. What we do know about alcohol’s effects on the brain, however, is that it results in a surge of dopamine and serotonin (feel good hormones) and it also effects the limbic system which is the seat of the brain that aids in behavioral responses to stimuli and is thought of as primal–the part that would result in lowered inhibitions and any ‘fears’ of expressing the true self. [Hackensack Meridian Health] Essentially, alcohol forces us to be in an Eckhart Tolle ‘here and now’ present where impulse control is minimal, everything is keenly felt in the moment, and with the courage to express it without thinking it through.
For once, the ancient wisdom on the matter may actually have some scientific credibility. So next time you’re facing down a person leaning heavy on the self-preservation that comes with denying their intentions last night because they ‘drank too much’ (or if you’re the one in self-denial) you can either point to the PhD’s or long dead scholars of history. In Vino Veritas.
I’m not bitter but the truth is. Or maybe that, too, is the wine.
“Eat the Rich!” is certainly a common refrain these days. Pandemics and economic recessions aside, the chasm between the haves and have-nots has only seemed to widen for decades. The anger of people tired of the way things keep going is starting to seem palatable, riots and protests a weekly occurrence, and with the recent tone deaf renovation of the White House’s Rose Garden on the taxpayers dime–the resemblance to the 18th century French Revolution is starting to feel a little uncanny. That comparison also brings up the inevitable article headlines shameless in their failure of quick fact checking–Let Them Eat Cake! and Marie Antoinette are once again dragged through the street and scorned in the name of reform. But it’s time to put this misattribution to the guillotine.
If you’ve heard the name Marie Antoinette, there’s a strong chance you might know her only as the queen who supposedly said ‘Let them eat cake’ in response to her citizens being unable to afford bread and who was later decapitated for it. Though the latter is an unfortunate reality, there is no record, witness, or biographical assertion that traces this phrase to her. In fact, the first time Marie Antoinette became associated with the phrase is in Alphonse Karr’s satirical magazine Les Guepes in 1843. 50 years after she was killed by revolutionaries. 
So how in the world did a queen who had written, “It is at the same time amazing and wonderful to be so well received two months after the riots and in spite of the high price of bread which unfortunately continues. It is certain that when people who are suffering treat us so well, we are even more obligated to work for their happiness.” instead get associated with a flagrant disregard for her people and unwillingness to humble herself to the plight of the common folk? 
“She is an amiable and honourable woman, rather young and unreflecting; but she has a core of honour and virtue which has often surprised me.”
Emperor Joseph II in 1777 upon visiting the queen. 
First, let’s trace the origin of the phrase. Let Them Eat Cake isn’t even the original words. The French version is explicitly, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. Brioche is eggy and delicious but not cake or gâteau. This sentence makes its first appearance on record in the autobiography of famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his Confessions, Rousseau recalls a time when he had stolen some wine and had been looking for some bread to go along with it, because what kind of insane person wouldn’t. Apparently, while dressing up a little too fancy for the bakery, he recalled these words–”At length I remembered the last resort of a great princess who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: ‘Then let them eat brioches.’”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau started writing in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was 9-years old and the 15th child of Empress Maria Theresa. To say she was an inconsequential princess at the time would be a hilarious understatement. No one would have thought those words could have been hers. There were likely candidates, however, ranging from various French elite to The Sun King Louis XIV’s wife. 
So why was the phrase given to Marie Antoinette almost 100-years later? A lot of that has to do with how Marie was perceived and later scapegoated as a harbinger of disenfranchisement to France during her reign.
When Marie Antoinette first arrived to the Palace of Versailles, she was a 14-year old Austrian princess who was to be married off to the grandson and heir of King Louis XV of France in an attempt to solidify an alliance between the two rival nations. At first, the people of France were taken by Marie–her innocence and beauty celebrated. 
“I cannot tell you, dear Mother, the transports of joy and affection they displayed. What happiness in our station to win the friendship of a whole people at so small a price! Nothing is so precious, and I shall never forget it.”
Marie Antoinette in a letter to her mother describing her first visit to Paris. 
But opinions soured over time. The Palace of Versailles was a viper’s nest of political intrigue and an unassuming teenager without any care for the obfuscated etiquette at court led Marie to unintentionally snub and offend many. Of the elite among the court were also those who were critical of the alliance between Austria/France, potential rivals for the throne, and other threatened influences like the King’s mistress Madame du Barry. These rumormongers were the first to leak stories and scandalous accusations against Marie to the smut-peddling pamphlet publications that were like today’s version of tabloids. One of the more disastrous claims was the lack of consummation in her marriage with Louis XIV–of which was true. It took the couple 7 years to finally get busy–but during that time, all of the blame was placed squarely on Marie Antoinette. 
Without motherhood and an heir of France to keep her position secure, Marie Antoinette spent most of her time in Versailles in a constant battle against neverending boredom. If she wasn’t sleeping with her husband, these gossipers reasoned, then she must be getting around somewhere else. Accusations of promiscuity were leveled against her, attendance of masked balls questioned, her close friendships with duchesses presumed sexual–even when she did give birth to Louis XIV’s first child in 1778, the pamphlets guessed it was the product of an illicit affair. The people of France started to think of their new King as a weak, infantile man–impotent and worthless. But as much derision as was foisted his way, came the misogynistic characterization of Marie Antoinette as a controlling, deceitful wife who could move her husband to her will. Who was ruling? Recall the tenuous at best relations between Austria and France, was an embedded Austrian spy running the show? With France becoming embroiled into disastrous wars at the behest of Austria, it certainly started to seem that way. 
“Sire, I speak to you in friendship; believe me, we never let ourselves be led around by our wives. I have one who is sweet as a lamb, because, foutre, I always showed her the fist when she wanted to play the mistress. It’s even more deadly if a king lets himself be governed by women. Women have caused throughout time the misfortunes of France…Remember the hideous reigns of the abominable Medicis; recall Henry IV always ready to do some stupidity for his mistresses…tell your wife that you took her to breed your children, not to mix in affairs of state and turn your kingdom upside down. Among your people, these people who adore you, you will find your security.”
Jacques-Rene Hebert 1790 in his newspaper Le Pere Duchesne. Like Rupert Murdoch of the day, 14% of his published headlines between 1791-1794 were spent disparaging Marie Antoinette and trying to rally the people against her. 
France at the time was no simpering fawn. Revolution has no single defining moment, and for the 18th century there’s decades of falling dominoes that will eventually lead to the end of the monarchy of which Marie Antoinette was precariously sitting, giggling at the card tables and ignoring the gossip as she gambled away with her friends. Why should she pay any mind to rumors that she knew were hilariously untrue? They drew her as a salacious bestial monster, half woman half tiger. They wrote of her and her friends throwing lesbian parties in the Petit Trianon, the epitome of depravity. And there was the Diamond Necklace Affair–something Marie herself had nothing to do with–in where Comtesse de La Motte attempted to get a necklace worth around $2 million by pretending it was requested by the queen. After forging letters and dressing up a prostitute as the Queen, La Motte’s plan failed and yet she still blamed Marie Antoinette. Considering the state of the economy in France at the time, people were pretty upset to hear that their queen supposedly had her eye on millions worth in jewelry rather than their inability to afford bread. Needless to say, the hatred for Marie Antoinette escalated. [2 & 3]
“Women! Women! Especially princesses, and worst of all queens.”
Madame La Motte 
When a series of revolutionary events ignited in quick succession–Storming of the Bastille in 1789 followed by the Women’s March on Versailles, the royal family attempting to flee to Austria in 1791, and the Storming of the Tuileries in 1792–the writing was already on the wall. It was too late to sway public opinion, the people wanted Marie’s head. She knew it too. There is the story of the march on Versailles where revolutionaries had sieged the palace and the Queen, humbled, came to them on the balcony. Prostrating herself on the railing after 10 minutes of silence, while the crowd leveled muskets, the revolutionaries were momentarily warmed by her act of courage. Cries of “Vive la Reine!” reached her ear but this sentiment was temporary and spoken in vain. Death would come to her soon. 
“Kill! Kill! We want to cut off her head, cut out her heart, and fry her liver. There she is, the filthy whore! We don’t want her body, what we want is to carry her head to Paris.”
– An unnamed participant in the Women’s March. 
Eventually captured by revolutionaries and kept in abusive confinement for weeks, Marie awaited the same fate her husband had met only nine months before. There was little hope for her on trial, despite insisting that every treasonous action she was accused of was in the interest of protecting her children and husband. When the libelous newspaper publisher Hebert testified against her, claiming that she had committed incest with her son, Marie’s response seems tired and even subdued. “If I have not responded it is because nature refuses to respond to such a charge made to a mother. I call upon every mother here.” But reason didn’t matter. 
Marie Antoinette was sentenced to face the guillotine on October 16th, 1793.
“More bloodthirsty than Jezabel, more conniving than Agrippina…her life was a calamity for France…her fall a triumph for liberty…the widow Capet…died under the guillotine. The globe is purified! Long live the Republic!”
So, an attempt to answer the question of how Marie Antoinette came to be associated with a phrase that there is no evidence of her ever having uttered seems more or less a tragic realization of how someone can be destroyed by the trial of public opinion. A constant victim of lies and malice, Marie’s crime was perhaps not paying enough heed to the words spoken of her. Perhaps if she had come to her own defense sooner, she would be remembered more today for her lavish acts of giving to numerous charities like founding Maison Philanthropique with Louis XVI or how she sold royal objects to support families struggling during the famine of 1787. Maybe she’d be remembered for the simple white dress she requested to be depicted in for modesty which later became a fashion symbol for revolutionary women. Or she could be thought of fondly for how many children she adopted and supported financially when their parents passed away. Or perhaps she would be given more due credit for helping to secure France’s aid in the American Revolutionary War which helped lead the colonists to victory against the British Crown. 
Instead, we have the life and memory of a queen who, persistent through time, continues to be lambasted by those who don’t know her at all. The image of a rich, unsympathetic queen who is out of touch with reality was created over 200 years ago by people meant to do her harm and was peddled by those who needed an idol to rally revolutionary fervor against. [2 & 3]
I suppose the continued pattern into modern day of Marie Antoinette being accused of saying something she didn’t is just the icing on the cake of her tragic story.
What happens when two colossal figures of history, famous for their power and influence, meet at a party for the first time?
At the age of 60-years-old, Cicero had lived quite a full life in Roman politics by the time 46 AD sluggishly rolled around. In fact, the famous orator shared a lived experience similar to that of the Roman Republic up to this point. Both had become disillusioned by frequent civil unrest, battered by enemies foreign and at home, and had both struggled with financial hardships. And like the newly minted dictator of Rome Julius Caesar, Cicero had also just dumped his long-term partner in favor of a wealthy teenager. He needed the money, I suppose.
“During the long flow of success he met grave setbacks from time to time–exile, the collapse of his party, his daughter’s death and his own tragic and bitter end. But of all these disasters the only one he faced as a man was his own death…However, weighing his virtues against his faults, he was a great and memorable man. One would need a Cicero to sing his praises.” Livy
Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The life and times of Rome’s greatest politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print. Pg. 318
But unlike Cicero, Julius Caesar’s paramour wasn’t just any rich young woman.  She was the sovereign ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt–Pharaoh, Queen, and Goddess Isis–and now at the age of 22-years-old, Cleopatra was the last thing standing between her people and absolute Roman rule (her sniveling little brother nothing more than a bedazzled ornament with no real power). She did all she could to secure her life and kingdom a place of assured ‘independence’, going so far as to give birth to Julius Caesar’s only son Caesarion just to cement the deal. Or not, as some sources believed, presuming the child could be another’s as Julius was thought to have been infertile. Either way, Caesar was sure the child was his (and so did Mark Antony and Octavian when it mattered later). So when Julius brought his new mistress and baby back to Rome, the elite were in quite a stir–who was this foreign woman who had captured the heart of Caesar?
And perhaps none were more curious than Cicero, a man who until this point had been the one known to enrapture a room.
“Her own beauty, so we are told, was not of that incomparable kind which instantly captivates the beholder. But the charm of her presence was irresistible: and there was an attractiveness in her person and talk, together with a peculiar force of character which pervaded her every word and action, and laid all who associated with her under its spell. It was a delight merely to hear the sound of her voice.” – Plutarch
Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The life and times of Rome’s greatest politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print. Pg. 225
Cleopatra certainly had an image to uphold and upon her arrival in Rome, unleashed an arsenal of exotic creatures and treasures: Egyptian fabrics, mosaics, gold beakers, cinnamon, leopards, fragrances, most things the people of Rome had never seen before. And yet, despite this, she still kept a seemingly low profile. Caesar lived with his wife Calpurnia near the Forums while his sovereign mistress resided in a villa on the Janiculum Hill–deliberately taking no part in Caesar’s Triumph procession of his ‘conquest’ of Egypt (instead allowing her rival and sister Arsinoe to be paraded around as a prisoner). And Cleopatra, for all her wit and influence, was still a fish out of water. Changing temporary address from the beauty and extravagance of Alexandria to that of a backwater Rome and finding herself a woman in a culture where that idea inspired little confidence or respect compared to her own, she was perhaps rightly disenchanted by the whole ordeal. She also had to deal with the fact that everyone knew who she was (or thought they did) where she knew no one at all. Rome was a city of gossips and few secrets, afterall, and none were more eager to talk than Cicero.
As his recent marriage showed, Cicero was a bit desperate to change his fortune. And with the gilded benefits of a new young wife, he was also seeking to add friendships with the elite and famous to the retinue of his network like he was some kind of Classical Instagram influencer. Among them would have surely been the exotic Queen of Egypt who took Rome by storm and with her sparked fashion movements, political reforms, and cultural intrigue. So it’s no surprise that Cicero would have attempted to ingratiate himself with the woman everyone in Rome was talking about. The only problem was, Cleopatra would have been less than admissible to any overtures from a man who talked so much shit about her father before her and her current beau Caesar, she’d have wrinkled her nose at the smell of such fakery and desperation wafting off of Cicero.
“I detest the Queen.” – Cicero
Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A life. New York: Back Bay Books. Pg. 130
Perhaps he thought it would be cute to ask her for the favor of giving him a book from the glorious library of Alexandria. To which Cleopatra, perhaps like any woman at a party trying to get away from the incessant chatter of a dude she wants to stop talking to, appeased him with a ‘sure’ and tried to move on with her life–you know, like trying to keep the last vestiges of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt intact. The girl was kinda busy.
But if no follow through from Cleopatra on the book situation was enough to spur the cynical pettiness Cicero was most famous for, it was surely the perceived snub of the Classical equivalent of neglecting to call the next day that killed her in Cicero’s eyes forever. Also perhaps with the intent of rubbing salt in the wound, Cleopatra sent an emissary to Cicero’s home (and without that stupid book) and called upon not Cicero, but his best friend instead–who was a fairly smart and interesting person himself. Cleopatra basically went all Mean Girls ‘and none for Gretchen Wieners, bye!’ on Cicero and made a show of it. This was surely meant to scald Cicero and it got the job done, how dare this insolent foreign queen not recognize the brilliance of the greatest orator in Rome?! Cleopatra was dead to Cicero from then on. Something tells me she didn’t really care.
As insurmountable as his hate was for Cleopatra from this point on, Cicero didn’t have the gumption to talk any shit about her until she had already left Rome. Like any gossipy bitch, he waited until her back was turned before the vitriol was poured. It also must be noted that this is when most people would be eager to hear it, as the Queen found herself fleeing home to Alexandria after a bunch of Caesar’s friends got together for a good ol’ stabbing and left her baby daddy bleeding to death in Pompey’s Theater. She was probably never going to come back after that, either.
“The arrogance of the Queen herself when she was living on the estate across the Tiber makes my blood boil to recall.” – Cicero
Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A life. New York: Back Bay Books. Pg. 121
With the death of Caesar, the frenzied revenge of rioting and murder led by Mark Antony, and the general mystery around Cleopatra’s purpose in Rome altogether–she was still the talk of the town, even while back home in Alexandria. This could also largely be due in part to the fact that Cleopatra was visibly pregnant when she left. If Caesarian being the son of Julius Caesar secured any legitimacy of a claim, Cleopatra giving birth to a child that had been conceived in Rome was surely to be an even bigger problem in what was soon to erupt into a civil war over the rightful heir to Caesar’s power. It would seem a lot of people were worried about the potential for a new son to be born. Unfortunately, poor Cleopatra seemed to have experienced a miscarriage which prompted Cicero to remark in a letter to his friend Atticus: “I hope it’s true about the Queen and that Caesar of hers” about the possibility of her loss. What a dick.
I suppose parting as enemies, there was never much hope for reconciliation. Cleopatra was back to square one politically and had to forge a new pathway and position, which happened to be one practiced repeatedly, hey-o, with Mark Antony. And Cicero continued to rail against the dissolution of the Roman Republic crumbling around him–making his opinions known far and wide despite whoever he angered. So it should come as little surprise that Cicero ended up a named enemy of the Second Triumvirate by Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus and a retinue of killers were dispatched to Cicero’s place of residence to shut him up forever. 
But for those who know their history, Cleopatra’s fate wasn’t about to fare much better. So I guess losers do go to parties after all.
Modern estimates have Cleopatra remembered as the 22nd richest person in history with a net worth of $95.8 billion (putting her just behind Jeff Bezos today). This is, of course, impossible to calculate with complete accuracy.
As the story goes, after his death, Cicero’s head was given to Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia who was said to have pulled out his tongue and repeatedly stabbed it with a hairpin as the last act of revenge against his critical speeches.
Fact Check it, yo!
Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print.
Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A Life. New York: Back Bay Books.
Reinhold, M. (1981). The Declaration of War against Cleopatra. The Classical Journal,77(2), 97-103. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/3296915
Jones, P. J. (2006). Cleopatra: A Sourcebook. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
The beginning is the most important part of the work – Plato, The Republic 
How do you sum up over 4,000 years of recorded human history in one short blog post? The answer is, you can’t.
If you think about it this way, you and I are a mere 2,375 years removed from the moment in time when Alexander drew his first breath. For people living in the 4th century BC, they were even more further removed from the past than that. Someone from that time period might be looking at the Pyramids of Giza, which were built around 2500 c. BC, as old crumbling relics of history no different than a local Roman might view The Colosseum today. It’s just always been there for as long as anyone can remember. The history of the world by the time of the Iron Age was vast, complex, and in some cases, already lost. The game board in which history had played out over centuries had already seen its share of blood and decay–but perhaps what we can do is look at the score card of the pieces already positioned, the ones primed for Alexander’s taking. Most of these players should already be well known to you.
Let’s start first with the world of the Greeks, of which Alexander’s home, Macedonia, is a part of. But perhaps not without some contention, which we’ll get into.
Battle of Marathon, Georges Rochegrosse (1859)
Most of the famous history of Ancient Greece had already come to pass. The legends of famous warriors and the tales of the Trojan War are of a time long ago. A hundred years prior, the Greek city states found themselves facing invasion from the Persians led by Darius the Great and then followed by Xerxes I. Many well-known stories came from these events. Athenians and their allies defended Greece in the Battle of Marathon in the first invasion. Spartan King Leonidas I and his army died failing to defend Thermopylae in the second. The wars eventually culminated in a resounding strategic victory for the Greek city-states lead by Themistocles in the Battle of Salamis and then the decimation of the Persian army in Platae by the Greek allied forces. During these wars, Macedon was a vassal kingdom of Persia, having pledged allegiance early on in Darius’ invasions when a general commiserated with the then king of Macedon Amyntas I. Prior to the invasions, according to Herodotus, there was already some sense of xenophobia when it came to recognizing the Macedonians as Greek–one of their athletes was unable to participate in the Olympic Games for this very reason. It wasn’t until the lineage of the Macedonian Kings was traced back to Argos, and thus the demi-god Heracles, were they accepted as one of their own and the athlete could compete in the Olympics.  Following Persia’s defeat in the Greco-Persian wars, however, Macedon became an independent kingdom once more.
Prior to the Persians being expelled from Greece, the Delian League had been established by Athens which formed an alliance between city-states in opposition to Persia and their continued incursions on Greek territory. This ended up giving Athens a considerable amount of power when they started collecting tributes and using the funds for their own purposes which prompted outcry from their rival Sparta. Soon the Greek world fell back into war but this time they fought against each other in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta sought assistance from the Persians, bringing them back into the foray. Though some parts of Macedonia were tributaries to the Delian League, the kingdom of Macedon ultimately sided with Sparta and waged war against Athens. After 27 years–a plague in Athens that killed Pericles and a disastrously embarrassing defeat in Sicily by Alcibiades–the war was officially over in 404 BC with the Spartans emerging victorious. 
Plague in Athens, Michiel Sweerts (c.1652-c.1654)
The Spartans, however, ruled with an iron and tyrannical fist. Their control was short lived when the Corinthian War broke out in 395 BC and those meddling Persians once again gave their assistance–this time to Athens and its allies. The Spartans were finally crushed by the end of 362 BC during the Theban-Spartan war. Again, the tides of power had shifted to another and the city-state of Thebes became top dog in Greece.  Constant years of war and destruction, shifts of hegemony, and broken alliances left the Greek world a smoldering landscape ripe for the taking. The slumbering lion of Macedon was about to emerge with Phillip II leading its charge…
You might be wondering about another spunky, imperial up-start lying in wait across the Ionian Sea. The Romans at this time were still playing as a Republic and were busy conquering their neighbors and expanding their military power. They had yet to even see the start of the famous Punic Wars, beginning in 264 BC, which pitted them against Hannibal and his Alps conquering elephants. That reminds me though, Carthage must be destroyed. 
Taking a journey now to the Anatolian peninsula (or modern day Turkey), we quickly see the far reach of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The Greeks weren’t the only people these conquerors had been antagonizing–by this time in the mid-4th century BC, the Persian Empire had taken control over the entirety of Western Asia. This included Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Sinai Peninsula (though Egypt having recently rebelled, became temporarily free from Persia’s grasp), the Caucasus, and, of course, the Iranian Plateau. Many Kingdoms and Empires had fallen to the Persians–from the Medians (who toppled the Assyrians), to the Phrygians, and the Babylonians. The Achaemenid empire was the largest the world had ever yet seen and set the stage for other expansive empires like the eventual Roman one centuries later. In fact, what many credit as successes for the Roman Empire at the height of its power, were modeled after the Achaemenid Empire’s practices. With many different cultural backgrounds and religious faiths in its borders, the empire incorporated all of them with the freedom to continue practicing but unified under an official language with an intertwining system of road ways and an ancient postal service. It became the template for a successful massive empire and by this time, despite any losses in war or recent rebellions, was still incredibly strong and centralized. Prior to the birth of Alexander, the current king of the Achaemenid Empire was Artaxerxes II–who was involved with a number of the conflicts with the Greeks noted above, in particular, the Theban-Spartan war in which he ultimately sided with Thebes. 
Queen Tomyris and the Head of Cyrus the Great, Mattia Preti (1680’s) This legendary founder of the Achaemenid Empire is said to have met his end to the equally legendary Scythian queen Tomyris.
Moving past the borders of the Achaemenid Empire lay powers unfamiliar to some in the western world. The Indus valley had already seen thousands of years worth of human history, Siddhartha Buddha had already walked the earth, and, hell, they were so advanced at this time, they had already invented plastic surgery centuries earlier.  In this region, there were 16 kingdoms and republics that were known as the Mahājanapadas and the Vedic orthodoxy was falling out of fashion with the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. But there wasn’t exactly a sense of unity between them, as the kingdoms frequently warred with each other for dominance. One of these kingdoms, the Magadha, were perhaps the most imperial out of the bunch, conquering swaths of territory and forming a dynastic rule. It was within this kingdom that Siddhartha Buddha was said to have lived and gained enlightenment. The Magadha were a fiercely devout people with a penchant for using early examples of tanks in the form of mace-wielding chariots to get their way and, as usual, marked the end of a dynasty with a bloody affair. For our purposes now, we see the Shaishunaga Dynasty at the seat of power having emerged victorious among the Magadha with King Mahanandin as their leader.  However, a certain bastard son named Mahapadma Nanda was ready to make his violent claim…
If we look a bit further, the Chinese were too busy partaking in the epic Warring States period to pay too much attention to the potential of a dashing Macedonian conquering around next door..
With the stage set and the match lit, what is about to befall all of this territory and history other than something spectacular and shocking? A Macedonian King will soon sweep across the land like a raging fire but, first, we start with his maker.
Alexander the Great fighting Darius III mosaic found in the ruins of Pompeii, House of the Faun (100 BC)
Imagine that everyone knows your name.
It doesn’t feel that intimidating, right? If you’re sitting in a bar called Cheers or you are perhaps from a small town, everyone knowing your name isn’t that unusual or profound. But now try to think about what it might be like for the whole world to know your name. Suddenly, we can envision the weight a name like Queen Elizabeth II or Brad Pitt carries, but now try to consider an entire world collectively remembering one for more than a few decades. Not just the names of a handful of villains in the past century with weird facial hair, or a line of presidents or monarchs centuries before. This name has been permeating in the collective memory of the planet’s inhabitants for thousands of years. Think beyond religious figures, before emperors. Keep going back further, this is a name that has never been forgotten. The world has hoisted this name on its shoulders since it was first spoken, it is perhaps the most famous one ever given. All of us have heard it.
Maybe now we can imagine a little bit of what it might be like to leave behind a legacy like Alexander the Great.
“…after reading some part of the history of Alexander, he sat a great while very thoughtful, and at last burst out into tears. His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. ‘Do you think,’ said he, ‘I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?‘” – Plutarch describing Julius Caesar learning about Alexander the Great. 
There is perhaps no figure in history that has left a mark quite like Alexander did. The scar of his exploits some 2,000+ years ago can still be found today. Visible in Greece and Egypt, stretching through the Middle East, and reaching its tendril as far as India. As if a god had stabbed a dagger into the Earth and tore it across the world.
Alexander was not the first great warrior in history. The likes of Narmer, Leonidas, and Sun Tzu all having fought their way on the planet before him. He was also not the first to forge an empire, many like the Zhou Dynasty or the Achaemenid Empire were already dying of old age by the time Alexander was born. He was also not the first conqueror or the first man to be named ‘the Great’, even Cyrus who lived hundreds of years before could not claim this honor for himself either. Alexander cannot even be called the first to be immortalized into legend, kings like Gilgamesh or Achilles living on in fable long before.
So, then, what exactly makes Alexander so Great?
That’s the question I’ll be exploring in this series. Who was Alexander and why is he perhaps the most famous figure in world history? Are his achievements worthy of our admiration, does he deserve the pedestal centuries worth of other successors have bestowed on him? Is his legacy mourned as a tragic figure having died so young like the ancient world’s James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, or Kurt Cobain? Is there truth at all to the much derided theory that Great Men shape human history?
To find these answers, we should start from the beginning…
Stay tuned for Part 1, where we’ll look at the state of the world in the 4th century BC, the Kingdom of Macedon in context, and life before Alexander became king.
What a beautiful palace you have, would be a shame if there were witches
Right now, most of us are stuck indoors waiting for the world to calm down. Or maybe we are frantically running amok buying out all the toilet paper for some reason. Either way, it’s likely that we’re all feeling a little bit of panic right now over whether or not we (or someone we love) will catch viral plague. Or perhaps we’re even worried over the thought of not being able to properly wipe our bums. The world has experienced many bouts of mass hysteria in its numerous cycles around the sun. Choosing just one to write about while I sit at home waiting to play Animal Crossing and trying not to think about if Idris Elba is okay is no small feat. I figure, why not go with one that is least likely to repeat itself as an epidemic event on a global scale in present day? Unless you think we are at risk for regicide conspiracies, cult black masses, conniving leagues of witches, and a whole lot of poison–then maybe close your browser and find something else to distract yourself with because the notoriety of the famous French witch La Voisin might be even more panic inducing for you.
It’s that time of year, folks. Some of us dread tax season, while others have already excitedly processed our W-2 forms and gotten our refund checks already snugly cushioned in our savings account where they will soon be pilfered and turned into euros for next month (Rome and Athens here I come!). No matter how you feel about it, what all of us likely have in common is combing through any possible tax refunds available–and sometimes we stumble across some truly confounding tax laws in the process. Around the world, you can find a “Fat Tax” on junk food or a “Cow Flatulence Tax” on…well. But one of my favorite ones, of course, brings us back to a time when things were so much more delightfully weird thanks to the ever bizarre behaviors of the people living in the Roman Empire.
When they weren’t busy guzzling putrid fish sauce, the practice of collecting pee from urinals in Rome was so popular that some Roman Emperors saw a golden opportunity to cash in. Among them was Vespasian who ruled the empire in the 1st century AD and would otherwise be most famous for starting the construction of The Colosseum, but will now forever be immortalized instead as the guy who taxed the piss out of Rome. 
Shootin’ the shit at Roman latrines. Oh come on, this joke is solid!
The Urine Tax (Vectigal urinae) specifically targeted public collection of urine that was done in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima or great sewer system. The Cloaca Maxima was one of the earliest examples of a sewage system built in the world proving that the Romans certainly knew how to ‘keep their shit together’, which perhaps is a credit to how long the Roman Empire managed to last for as many centuries as it did. These collectors or cleaners would take what urine was left behind in public latrines (the how is a process I’m less inclined to know for the sake of my own innocence) and would sell it to a buyer which is where the taxation came into play. The individual looking to purchase the urine for who knows what purpose is the one who would be charged the additional tax. You’re probably asking yourself, why in the great stabbed Caesar would anyone need a batch of random pee? Well, you’re in for a treat, I guess.
Turns out the use of urine was an industry in and of itself back then and urine was quite the lofty ingredient for all kinds of chemical processes. Urine was primarily included in the uses of tanning, wool production, or even as a whitening product (seems counter-intuitive, I know) with the ammonia helping clean togas.  Even more extensive were its supposed medical uses…
Sigh, this beer tastes like piss doesn’t it?
According to Pliny the Elder, essentially the father of encyclopedias and good friend of Emperor Vespasian, urine could be used to cure all sorts of ailments like sores, gout, dog bites, skin irritations, burns, rectum diseases, chaps on the body, head ulcers and scalp diseases, and whatever else could likely be submerged in the yellow elixir.  Before we completely write off the old crazy man and thank Mount Vesuvius for taking him and his pee-cures off this planet forever, every single one of us has heard that if you’re stung by a jellyfish the best way to deal with the pain is let it all out on the sting spot like a Coldplay song (It was all yellllowwww) despite doctors telling us not to do this–so apparently urine’s reputation as a cure-all has persisted through history with or without Pliny’s personal contribution. Hey, it’s still better than what the Ancient Egyptians used for contraception.
The loathsome character of a few, such as dung and urine, may originally have been due…to the conviction that life-essence was in them in a concentrated form. …it is just possible that the use in medicine was partly due to the obvious value of manure as a fertilizer. –H.S. Jones, Ancient Roman Folk Medicine 
So why is Emperor Vespasian so strongly associated with this Urine Tax since it seems not unusual to a people that see nothing wrong with slathering pee all over their heads, especially since it was unsurprisingly the madman Nero who started the tax in the first place? That would be thanks to a common phrase that goes, “Money Does Not Stink” which is attributed to Vespasian and can still be found referenced in popular works like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example. According to Suetonius, as the story goes, Vespasian’s son and future Roman Emperor Titus lamented to his father on how disgusting it was to consider a taxation on waste from public toilets. Vespasian’s response was to hold a coin under his son’s nose and ask if the smell of it offends him as well. Titus admitted that it did not, to which Vespasian replied, “Yet it comes from urine.” Born then was the Latin Pecunia non olet or “money does not stink” which essentially means to say, despite where it came from or how it was accumulated, wealth retains its value. 
Thanks to Emperor Vespasian’s continued efforts toward the taxation of urine from Roman latrines, his name is still used today to denote public urinals which can still be found all over Italy (Bagni Vespasiani!) and France. I suppose his son Titus got the last laugh in this regard–perhaps if Vespasian had listened to Titus, his eternal legacy would have been his name on all built amphitheaters instead.
 Ancient Roman Folk Medicine Author(s): W. H. S. JONES Source: Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 12, No. 4 (October, 1957), pp. 459-472 Published by: Oxford University Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24619369