Today I’m going to write about the origin of the Latin saying “Pecunia non olet” (money does not stink). I think it has an interesting history that is worth – knowing. The phrase is ascribed to the Roman emperor Vespasian, the first of the Flavian dinasty. He succedeed to Nero, whose crazy purchases made the Roman state get in debt.. After Nero was overthrown by the Senate, he committed suicide (68 AC) and a civil war broke out. Four emperors fought against each other: Galba, Othon, Vitellius and Vespasian. The last one eventually became emperor a year later than Nero’s suicide (69 AC).
When Vespasian seized the power, he found the empire’s treasury flat broken because of Nero’s foolish administration. For instance, Nero made Greece free from taxes. Therefore he decided to raise taxes, and among them there was one really interesting: vectigal urinae. This was a tax on the distribution of urine from public urinals in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima (great sewer) system. The urine collected from public urinals was sold as an ingredient for several chemical processes. It was used in tanning, and also by launderers as a source of ammonia to clean and whiten woolen togas. The buyers of the urine paid the tax.
The Roman historian Suetonius reports that when Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the tax, his father held up a gold coin and asked whether he felt offended by its smell. When Titus said “No”, Vespasian replied, “Yet it comes from urine”.
The phrase Pecunia non olet is still used today to say that the value of money is not tainted by its origins. Vespasian’s name still attaches to public urinals in France (vespasiennes), Italy (vespasiani), and Romania (vespasiene).