Anya Subich

Vespasian and universal bleach

Where does the expression “Money doesn't stink” come from?

While urine-diverting toilets are hitting the headlines as a wonder of innovative technology, collecting urine from public lavatories was a common thing in ancient Rome. Demand for the product was so high that Emperor Vespasian imposed an infamous Urine Tax.


Roman coin, depicting emperor Vespasian, A.D. 69-79 - During his rule Vespasian was trying to rebuild shattered empire, maintaining his famously dry sense of humor throughout. He founded a dynasty, led afterward by his sons, which endured 27 years. image by David Vagi/ngccoin David Vagi

Urine was a must-have detergent for any ancient housewife. Containing ammonia, it is actually perfectly suitable for bleaching linen and cleaning. Not only the ancient women whitened their husbands’ togas with the wonderful liquid, they also bleached their teeth and hair. It appears that red and blonde were the most popular hair colours in ancient Rome. To obtain this last one, women rubbed in pigeon excrements mixed with ashes and then washed a head in a pot of urine. Smelly - but prettily. Leave alone women’s quirks, urine was widely used for tanning leather, making toothpaste and bleaching fabriques.

At a certain point - namely around 70 AD, when Roman economics was doing very poorly, emperor Vespasian came up with an odious thought to establish a so-called “Urine tax”. You see, up until then ordinary citizens used to pee into simple pots that were emptied into cesspools. After the new tax was introduced, public latrines were equipped with urine collectors, from which this precious product could be sold as a source of ammonia.


Vespasiano - Old-fashioned Vespasiano, or public urinal, is still in use in the tiny town Morcone, province of Benevento. image by Barbara Goldfield Barbara Goldfield

Vespassian’s son Titus was highly displeased by nature of the tax, which he considered to be disgusting. His father then passed him a gold coin and asked whether he felt offended by its smell. When Titus said "No," Vespassian replied, "Yet it comes from urine". Hence the expression “Pecunia non olet - money does not smell”.