While the notion of pay-toilets may seem rather off-putting and a little unfair – after all, why should someone be charged money to conduct a necessary bodily function? – it seems that the ancient Romans were all too familiar with this concept…
In the first century AD, the Roman emperor Nero levied what was known as the vectigal urinae, or simply put, “urine tax”. The tax was placed on the collection of urine, since the lower classes of society had to urinate into small pots that were then emptied into cesspools. Liquid could then be collected from these cesspools, as well as from the public toilets of the upper classes, and recycled for a number of chemical processes: animal skins could be soaked in urine to remove the hair fibers before tanning, and Roman launderers could use urine as a source of ammonia to bleach and clean wool garments.
Although the tax was eventually removed, it was reenacted around 70 AD with the succession of emperor Vespasian. Known for his love of money and ruthless taxation – which, to his credit, eventually brought the Roman empire out of debt and left a surplus in the treasury for the next emperor – Vespasian re-applied the tax to urine collection, and extended it to the use of public toilets.
The Roman historians Dio Cassius and Suetonius wrote about Vespasian’s unpopular tax in their own history books, reporting that when Vespasian’s son Titus expressed his disgust over such a tax, the emperor simply showed his son several gold coins and asked: “See, my son, if these have any smell.” When Titus agreed that they had no odor, Vespasian replied: “…and yet, they come from urine!”
As undignified as Titus may have believed his father’s urine tax to be, in the long run Vespasian’s taxes actually benefited the Roman empire – perhaps the most evident example of this is in his most famous monument: the Roman Colosseum.
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Tomorrow: The magic amulets of Stonehenge