He Built the World’s First Pay Toilets — and the Colosseum

The Emperor Vespasian built the Colosseum, which more correctly is referred to as the Flavian Amphitheater.  Obviously, this is one of the greatest buildings in the world, an arena on a grand scale, and the precursor to arenas all around the world today.

The mighty Colosseum
The mighty Colosseum

Vespasian also is responsible for some rather less-grandiose structures: he built the world’s first pay toilets in Rome in approximately 74 C.E.  Really.

Vespasian was an interesting man, a common-born minor bureaucrat and soldier who would slowly and strategically work his way to seize power when the despised Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudians, was forced to commit suicide in 68 C.E.  What followed was civil war in 68-69 C.E., the “year of four emperors”.  Vespasian was the fourth of those emperors, and he survived to found the Flavian dynasty, being succeeded by his sons Titus and Domitian.

Upon taking the imperial throne, Vespasian faced an empire reeling from the financial drain of the war, and he also faced the costs of some major public building projects to placate the public and show his power as emperor.  Vespasian found a brilliant way to make money, something that the people of Rome needed every day: toilets.

The earliest pay toilets were built in Rome, by Vespasian, in approximately 74 C.E.  Like going to the Roman baths, using the toilets was a very public and social affair, as you could chat with neighbors, hear some juicy gossip, and perhaps run into an old friend.  When you were done, you could use a sponge on a stick, rinsed in clear water, in lieu of toilet paper, all for a small fee.


Communal toilets in Ostia Antica
Communal toilets in Ostia Antica

But the thrifty Vespasian found more ways to make money off this project: urine (due to the ammonia content) was used in laundry and in tanning hides.  The “urine vendors” were required to pay a tax to the emperor. All in all, this was a very successful business model.

Vespasian did incur some ridicule for his pay toilet enterprise.  Ever a practical man, however, his alleged retort to his detractors was, “Money does not smell.”

A coin with Vespasian's face -- and he earned it!
A coin with Vespasian’s face — apt for a man so thrifty with money

The Colosseum still stands, thousands of years after Vespasian’s rule.  But there is also another part of Vespasian’s legacy that lives on: in Italian, a urinal is still called a vespasiano.

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