Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Pecunia non olet

"Money doesn't stink" is Vespasian's famous dictum - almost his motto.

Vespasianus01 pushkin edit.png
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 (vectigal urinae) 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).

Here's what he may have had in his hand when he said that:
Vespasian Aureus Fortuna (75-79 AD)

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. Their French equivalents are Vespasiennes.

What a legacy ... remembrance after two thousand years, for taxing urine. It was actually a highly practical thing to do in those times, and after the profligate reign of Nero and the "Year of Four Emperors" ran the imperial treasury (fiscus) down to nothing, practicality was in order.

A pisser of an idea, that! And a concept that's been remembered in certain irreverent circles:


There's even a card game about it:

Reconstruction drawing of the communal latrines at Housesteads Roman fort (Vercovicium) on Hadrian's Wall. This site is now in the care of English Heritage (2010).

Using a Roman public restroom (forica) involved sitting cheek to cheek with your neighbor, discussing the political events of the week, planning dinner parties, scheming for invitations to said dinner parties.  You sat on the long marble bench with key-hole shaped cutouts, a small trough in the floor in front of you running with clean water, the trench directly under you flushing, often with grey water from a nearby bath complex, the waste of the latrine out to the main sewer.  Depending on the quality of the facility, a slave may be on hand ready to offer you a sea sponge, freshly cleaned in vinegar, attached to the end of a stick.  
Sponge On A Stick
No wasteful use of trees to make toilet paper here, the sea sponge gets cleaned off after use to be offered to the next “customer.”  

Public latrines in Italy date back to the 2nd century BC. Whether intentionally or not, they became places to socialize. Long bench-like seats with keyhole-shaped openings cut in rows offered little privacy. Some latrines were free, for others small charges were made. They had to be maintained, and slaves had to be fed. If some public benefactor had not immortalized himself by endowing a latrine - far cheaper than a therma, or public bath-house - you might be asked to pay the usual small fee for a public convenience: a quadrans, or farthing.

Quadrans of Claudius

A quadrans was 1/64 of a denarius, or 1/16 HS (sestertius). You might think of a sestertius, the unit of Roman accounts in Vespasian's time, as being roughly a dollar in purchasing power, so a quadrans would have been a bit more than a US nickel.

Which brings us back to the days when public pay toilets were common, in the twentieth century, and were coin operated:
Image result for coin toilet five cents

Nothing new under the sun ... very few of these are left now.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Barford the Detectorist

The heritage preservationist community has been staggered by news that archfoe of metal detecting Paul Barford has purchased a metal detector:


While Mr. Barford says that he doesn't actually intend to use his new toy, other than experimenting with it and as a prop, those gadgets (developed from WWII mine sweeping detectors) have proven to be highly addictive.

Who knows, next thing we hear may be that he will be taken in flagrante delicto, out looting archaeological sites with it, or prospecting for hoards of ancient coins.

Meanwhile, glancing out the window, I think I see swarms of pigs flying by ...