Vespasian’s Legacy

January 27, 2014 / Art & Archaeology
Morcone, Campania

Not a lot is known about the Emperor Vespasian’s life and brief rule, except that he was a highly competent general who built the gigantic Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Roman Colosseum.

Colosseum, Rome
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

His famous aphorism “Pecunia non olet” (Money does not smell) refers to the terse response he gave to his son Titus, who was complaining about the unpleasant nature of the Urine Tax his father had imposed on the product of the city’s urinals. (The first public toilets ever, by the way, were introduced by Vespasian in 74 A.D).

Up until then, Romans had simply urinated into pots that were emptied into cesspools.  With the introduction of public urinals, the liquid waste could be collected and sold as a source of ammonia, which was used for tanning leather and by launderers to clean the patricians’ white woolen togas.

Today the Latin phrase is used to mean that the value of money is not tainted by its origins and even though public urinals have become a rarity, to this day they are still known in Italy as Vespasiani (Vespasians).

The following are photos of an old-fashioned Vespasiano, or public urinal, still in use in the tiny town Morcone, province of Benevento.


Barbara Goldfield

by Barbara Goldfield

Owner of “Savour The Sannio”,, a travel consultancy for central and southern Italy.

14 Responses to “Vespasian’s Legacy”

  1. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Well, I have to say that’s absolutely fascinating. I knew nothing about the term. Great note! ‘Now wash your hands’!

    • Barbara Goldfield

      Morcone has the most fantastic ‘presepe vivente’ (live Christmas crib) I’ve ever seen. Come Christmas keep your eyes open for another note!

  2. Angela Finch

    I will add that bit of fascinating information to my vast general knowledge.

  3. Ginny Siggia

    I guess this wouldn’t work for women, but it is a great idea anyway. It would be interesting to see know if public health was improved by this model. I think I’ve similar models, but where? France, Spain? Sensible. The public toilets (as opposed to urinals) in Paris were amazing. They were watertight, and before use they were bathed by a flood of hot soapy water, so the user was greeted by a sparkling, steamy cubicle. Memory isn’t clear about cost except that it was entirely reasonable.

  4. Very interesting piece of history. Thank you Barbara for sharing these insights. I always enjoy the articles in the Italian Notebook. John B.

  5. Your story was completely fascinating. I thought to myself, Is there nothing the Italians haven’t invented?
    Maybe I should see if there is a book out there called, Things Italians forgot.
    If one exists, it is probably a very small book. Which sits upon a shelf of an Italian bookseller no doubt. Who else… Lol
    Why people came to America beats me, everything was thought of in Italy… I’m coming back home.

  6. Thank you for sharing. Benevento will be on my list for my 5th trip to Italy,next year. Perhaps we shall meet. I have relatives in Salerno that I haven’t met yet.

  7. The eruption of Vesuvius occurred during Vespasian’s reign and he quickly responded to the disaster with emergency relief.

    During his regime, writers flourished and new forms of poetry and styles of literary expression developed. Among the contemporaries of this period, whose literary works have survived are Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, Plutarch, Martial[…]”

    Vespasian died a peaceful death at age 69 at his summer home in Campania. His last comment was,

    Oh dear, I must be turning into a god.
    An Emperor ought to die standing

    He then died, after trying to arise.

    The Senator and historian Tacitus, who would carefully judge the character of the Emperors for posterity, said of Vespasian,

    He unlike all his predecessors, was the only emperor who was changed
    for the better by his office.

    Excerpt From: Mott L. L. Groom. “A Walk With the Emperors.” iBooks.

  8. Sandra Spector

    I just loved!!! this one. So fascinating too. My husband’s a CPA & this fits right in. I guess we should all be happy our governments don’t tax us for “peeing”!

  9. Linda Boccia

    I remember those public urinals when I was a student in Roma. Terrible stench, now there are the ones that completely wash the floor after use….and inserting one euro.

  10. This reminds me of the Tony-Award Musical “UrineTown” where the privatisation of Public Toilets caused many unable to pay the fee to be arrested and sent to UrineTown. I founded the World Toilet Organization and our founding day 19 Nov is now adopted by the UN General Assembly as United Nation World Toilet Day. Perhaps, Italians can organize celebrations at the site on that day. You can start planning now.


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