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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a public urinal

portrait of the roman senate

We tweeted about toilets a lot today. Purely by coincidence, of course. But you know how it is—once you’ve done one, it’s hard not to do another. Though one of the things we’ve tweeted probably needs a little bit more explaining:

So, first things first: Titus Flavius Vespasian became Roman Emperor in AD69 after a brief period of turbulence—known as The Year of the Four Emperors—that was sparked by the Emperor Nero’s suicide the previous summer. Unfortunately, Nero’s successor, Galba, was assassinated after just seven months on the throne. (There we go talking about toilets again.) Then Galba’s successor, Otho, committed suicide after just ninety days in power, and in turn his successor, Vitellius, was overthrown and executed just eight months after that. Happily, Vespasian’s rule restored some much-needed stability to the Empire after a year of unrest, and he remained in power for the next decade—until he died trying to stand up during a fatal bout of diarrhoea in AD79. But we digress. That’s more than enough potty talk for now.

One of the high points of Vespasian’s rule was the construction of The Colosseum, which he commissioned in AD70, and which was completed one year after his death by his son and successor, Titus. One of the low points of his rule, however, was his introduction of the vectigal urinae, or “urine tax”. And we thought paying 30p to use the toilets at King’s Cross Station was bad.

In Vespasian’s defence, the urine tax was actually the brainchild of Nero, who first introduced it sometime around AD60. But long after it had been repealed, it was Vespasian’s decision to reintroduce it. So why was he so keen to tax pee?

Well, chemically speaking, because the urea it contains can be used to produce ammonia, urine is actually quite a useful commodity—and the Romans knew it. They used urine to bleach fabric (including their gleaming white togas), to soak animal hides (making it easier to remove the hairs before tanning), and they even mixed it with powdered pumice to make toothpaste to whiten their teeth.

So with all this potentially lucrative activity going on unchecked, Vespasian sought to levy his vectigal urinae onto anyone whose business involved collecting urine from the sewers and communal cesspools dotted around Rome—not exactly the most pleasant of job descriptions, but the fact that it was even worth taxing in the first place shows just how profitable a living it could be.

If you’re still a bit put off by the prospect of siphoning off other people’s urine and boiling your clothes in it, don’t worry—you’re in good company. When Titus, Vespasian’s son, first heard about the urine tax he was so disgusted by it that he complained in person to his father. In response, Vespasian simply held a gold coin up in front of his face, and asked him if he was just as revolted by it. Confused, Titus answered “non olet”, or “it does not smell”, to which Vespasian knowingly replied, “and yet, it comes from urine!” Recorded by the Roman historian Suetonius, this particular anecdote gave rise to an old Latin saying, pecunia non olet—or “cash doesn’t stink”—which is sometimes still used in English today to imply that money remains unaffected by how it’s earned.

But back to toilets—it was Vespasian’s advocacy of the urine tax that ultimately led to his name being attached to public toilets across the Roman Empire, and it’s through that that French public urinals eventually came to be known as vespasiennes. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “pay toilet”.

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