Pissing off the Romans: Vespasian’s Urine Tax

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You can’t spell Vespasian without ‘P’

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. [1]

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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. [2] Even more extensive were its supposed medical uses…

 

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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. [3] 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 [4]

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. [1]

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.

 

Fact Check It, Yo!

[1] Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum–Divus Vespasianus, c. 110 C.E., P. XXIII, Translated by J.C. Rolfe, The Loeb Classical Library, Obtained via Fordham University: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/suetonius-vespasian.asp

[2] Witty, M. (2016), ANCIENT ROMAN URINE CHEMISTRY. Acta Archaeologica, 87: 179-191. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0390.2016.12170.x

[3] Pliny the Elder, Natural History; 28.19, chap. 18 – Remedies Derived from the Urine: http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=PerseusLatinTexts&getid=1&query=Plin.%20Nat.%2028.18

[4] 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

That Asshole Commodus

Accurate.

As most of the popcorn munching smelly theater seat dwellers know by now, Gladiator was a pretty manly and kick-ass flick that was every bit deserving of that Best Picture golden boy as Saving Private Ryan was….OH WAIT. Anyway, it would seem that most movie-goers find themselves quite familiar with Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of an eccentric Dumbledore murdering, “bosom breast children LOVE ME PLEASE”, Russell Crowe neck stabbing weeny who desperately DESPERATELY wanted to get laid by his sister. All of this behavior was cultivated under the moniker which was favorably earned by friendly slaughter, “Roman Emperor” and the every man name Commodus, which was probably earned by a little pantsless attire. When in Rome.

And while this was an enjoyable prestigious role that almost won Phoenix the Oscar, it is still a highly fictionalized version of one of the most hated men in the Roman Empire. Because, maidens and clergy, there really did exist a Roman Emperor of same name who certainly was, in fact, an asshole of epic proportions.

“Champion of Secutores; only left-handed fighter to conquer twelve times one thousand men.”
Translation: Over-compensating for something.

The man who would, during his reign, believe he was the totally plausible, completely for real, reincarnation of the mythological Greek figure Hercules, grew up with all the makings of a successful Roman Emperor. He was one of the still breathing sons of the “Philosophical King” and my personal Guru, Marcus Aurelius, who is known both historically and academically as the last of the Five Great Roman Emperors. Basically, it all went down hill after Commodus, leading the senator and famous historical source Cassius Dio to remark that, after the ascension, Rome went “from a Kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”. And Edward Gibbon, famous for his historical narration and publication of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, marks Commodus’s reign as the beginning of the decline. So, basically, I guess, when you leave a sprawling imperial empire on the shoulders of an ego-maniacal jock-strap like Commodus, everything falls to the poop latrines. To bear the brunt of responsibility over fiddler and diddler Nero and Equastrian Caligula basically skyrockets Commodus’ douche points from the get go, but don’t worry. He earned a lot more over the course of his 12 years and 9 months reign of chaos.

Near the end of Marcus’ legendary reign which included besting the Parthians and Germanic tribes while finding time to scribble out one of the great achievements of Stoic philosophy and authoritative duty, The Meditations, Aurelius brought his son Commodus up to the position of Co-Emperor. Marcus probably did this in the hopes of passing along many years of governing wisdom and to ensure a painless transition and proper foothold into running the Empire like a just and thoughtful King as his son had always been raised to be. And as Commodus’ learning throughout the years was at the hands of, whom Marcus regarded as, the top intellectual minds of the time, it would seem that he had every right to believe his son would serve himself and Rome proud. Unfortunately, after Marcus’ death, this didn’t appear to be the case. Leaving his earthly body behind after an illness during a military campaign (scholars suspect the plague, not “fathercide” as the film Gladiator suggests), Commodus became the sole ruler of Rome at the ripe old age of 18 and the first thing he did was reduce the purity of Roman currency. And while the amateur economists in the audience are already pulling their hair out at this harebrained (hah!) move, let me spell out what happened:

Roman currency, at that time, traded in gold, silver, brass, and copper coinage. So when reducing the value (which was more heavily attributed to the Denarius, a small silver coin) the weight of these coins was lessened, but attained the same monetary value while be essentially worth far less that what it deserved. So how do you make up for this short-sight in trade? Inflation, baby. And as the elite class would mostly be trading in gold coinage, the classes who got hit the hardest were the middle and poor, naturally. General impoverishment all around! Thanks, Commodus. To be fair, he was following in the steps of Nero who already previously reduced the value of coinage, but as a bleeding economy was a continuous battle for Rome throughout its decline, making the same mistake twice is just damn annoying.

This immediately earned the attention and displeasure of the Senate and his father’s old advisors, but whomever disagreed was put out of their misery. In fact, during his reign, Commodus experienced a great many plots conspired by rivals and even his sister Lucilla which probably led him to grow so paranoid that he begun killing anyone who even so much as gathered up a dissatisfactory cough in his presence. His ‘biggest fan’, Cassius Dio, chronicles the general absurdity of the drama below:

Commodus was guilty of many unseemly deeds, and killed a great many people. Many plots were formed by various people against Commodus, and he killed a great many, both men and women, some openly and some by means of poison, secretly, making away, in fact, with practically all those who had attained eminence during his father’s reign and his own. I should render my narrative very tedious were I to give a detailed report of all the persons put to death by Commodus, of all those whom he made away with as the result of false accusations or unjustified suspicions or because of their conspicuous wealth, distinguished family, unusual learning, or some other point of excellence.

And though Cassius Dio had reason to hate Commodus as he taxed the senators heavily, much of his contention had to do with the fact that the state economy was in shambles and yet Commodus’ main concern was spending all of his funds on wild beasts and gladiators, for, as I forgot to mention until now, Commodus was a massive Jughead who loved to show off his skill in the Colosseum. This would be fine, you know, if he was participating with any ounce of sportsmanship, but all of his combats were met with shoddy victories as all of his opponents submitted because he was Emperor and not truly a gladiator. He boasted skill in combat and was a supposed master of marksmanship, but had his unknowing gladiatorial rivals executed before they even knew they were competing in skill with the Emperor. As was the case with Julius Alexander, in a fit of badassery, he killed a lion with a javelin while on horseback. So then Commodus killed him with an order while riding on his megalomania chariot of douchebaggery. Because Commodus was the best gladiator that ever was, so great in fact,  he charged the city of Rome 1 million sesterces for every appearance he made in the Colosseum, whether there was an audience or not. And if the populace weren’t too busy laughing at him, or feeling a deep sense of shame that their fabled ruler would show up naked or insist on sleeping in the gladiatorial barracks, they would mostly stay away all together unless they wanted to chance getting shot at by Commodus himself while he reenacted Hercules and the Stymphalian birds. And again, what should have been a challenging expedition of showmanship (At 1 million sesterces you gotta be kidding me) turned out to be nothing more then, by Herodian’s account;

A terrace encircling the arena had been constructed for Commodus, enabling him to avoid risking his life by fighting the animals at close quarters; rather, by hurling his javelins down from a safe place, he offered a display of skill rather than of courage.

And with all that “display of skill”, Commodus went through Ark-fulls of exotic beasts, leading Cassius Dio to blithely insinuate that the one reference he could make on Commodus’ career as a whole was that he happened to dispatch five hippopotami together with two elephants on two successive days as well as killing rhinoceroses and a camelopard by himself. And that’s sort of it. And, naturally, those beasts didn’t come cheap, and Rome continued to pay for the Ego of Commodus. In an attempt to scrape up funds, he brought false charges on male and female citizens offering them a “pass” from death at a large price in the guise of a voluntary offering. IS HE NOT MERCIFUL?!

When he wasn’t busy making an ass out of himself to the general public by clubbing amputees for fun in the Colosseum, he was erecting golden statues of himself in the attire of Hercules, you know, just in case people didn’t get that he was a super cool gladiator and a reincarnation of the guy. But that certainly wasn’t enough, and assuming the Romans felt the same way about his awesomeness as he did, he renamed all of the Months after himself and even rechristened Rome ‘Commodiana’.

And much to the chagrin of the Senate, he continued to make threats and shake around bloody Ostrich heads at them in case they forgot that he was a looney tune. He even went so far as to troll them with this message upon every address, complete with all of his fake title additions earned and given by himself;

The Emperor Caesar Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix Sarmaticus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus, Pacifier of the Whole Earth, Invincible, the Roman Hercules, Pontifex Maximus, Holder of the Tribunician Authority for the eighteenth time, Imperator for the eighth time, Consul for the seventh time, Father of his Country, to consuls, praetors, tribunes, and the fortunate Commodian (the renamed title of Rome, remember) Senate, Greeting.

He forgot, of course, to add most hated man in Rome. But in his final act of douchery, he left lying around for anyone to see, a “death list” in which he had scribbled down the names of his current mistress Marcia, bedsteward Eclectus, and praetorian prefect “Quintus” along with a handful of his father’s old senators. The two former obviously stumbled upon it because that dick wrote it out before bedtime, and they shared it with each other and were able to hatch a last minute attempt to rid Rome of what Cassius Dio called “a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime.”

And so, in the most fitting end in the history of everything, Emperor Commodus was strangled in his bath by an athlete named Narcissus. It can’t get any more perfect then that.

Fact Check it, yo!

Secondary:
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1. Chapter 4: The Cruelty, Follies, and Murder of Commodus.1776.

Lars Brownworth. Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization.2009.

Primary:
Cassius Dio, Roman History. Epitome of Book LXXIII

Herodian. History of the Roman Empire. Book 1.