Monday, March 05, 2007



The founder of an American dynasty, George Herbert Walker Bush, once said, "Read my lips: no new taxes." Unlike Bush XLI, the Roman emperor Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty, was always on the lookout for new sources of state revenue. He found one source in an unexpected place, according to Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 23.3 (tr. J.C. Rolfe):
When Titus found fault with him for contriving a tax upon public conveniences, he held a piece of money from the first payment to his son's nose, asking whether its odour was offensive to him. When Titus said "No," he replied, "Yet it comes from urine."

Reprehendenti filio Tito, quod etiam urinae vectigal commentus esset, pecuniam ex prima pensione admovit ad nares, sciscitans num odore offenderetur; et illo negante: Atqui, inquit, e lotio est.
Cf. Juvenal 14.204-205 ("lucri bonus est odor ex re / qualibet" = the smell of profit is good from whatever source). The proverbial phrase "Pecunia non olet" (money doesn't stink) is sometimes attributed to Vespasian, but I can't find it in any ancient source.

Vespasian's name lives on in the French word vespasienne meaning public urinal. According to Le Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé s.v., the word comes
Du nom de l'empereur romain Vespasien (9-79), qui avait eu l'idée, non de créer des urinoirs publics à Rome, mais d'établir un impôt sur la collecte d'urine; ces édicules furent créés par Rambuteau, préfet de la Seine [1833-1848] qui fit lancer l'expr. « colonnes vespasiennes » pour supplanter celui des « colonnes Rambuteau » (cf. J. PILISI ds Fr. mod. t. 20, pp. 111-114).
John Burroughs, An October Abroad, III (A Glimpse of France), writes amusingly about vespasiennes:
The American no sooner sets foot on the soil of France than he perceives he has entered a nation of drinkers as he has left a nation of eaters. Men do not live by bread here, but by wine. Drink, drink, drink everywhere,--along all the boulevards, and streets, and quays, and byways; in the restaurants and under awnings, and seated on the open sidewalk; social and convivial wine-bibbing,--not hastily and in large quantities, but leisurely and reposingly, and with much conversation and enjoyment.

Drink, drink, drink, and, with equal frequency and nearly as much openness, the reverse or diuretic side of the fact. (How our self-consciousness would writhe! We should all turn to stone!) Indeed, the ceaseless deglutition of mankind in this part of the world is equaled only by the answering and enormous activity of the human male kidneys. This latter was too astonishing and too public a fact to go unmentioned. At Dieppe, by the reeking tubs standing about, I suspected some local distemper; but when I got to Paris, and saw how fully and openly the wants of the male citizen in this respect were recognized by the sanitary and municipal regulations, and that the urinals were thicker than the lamp-posts, I concluded it must be a national trait; and at once abandoned the theory that had begun to take possession of my mind, namely, that diabetes was no doubt the cause of the decadence of France. Yet I suspect it is no more a peculiarity of French manners than of European manners generally, and in its light I relished immensely the history of a well-known statue which stands in a public square in one of the German cities. The statue commemorates the unblushing audacity of a peasant going to market with a goose under each arm, who ignored even the presence of the king, and it is at certain times dressed up and made the centre of holiday festivities. It is a public fountain, and its living streams of water make it one of the most appropriate and suggestive monuments in Europe. I would only suggest that they canonize the Little Man, and that the Parisians recognize a tutelar deity in the goddess Urea, who should have an appropriate monument somewhere in the Place de la Concorde!
The ancients recognized the goddess Cloacina (patroness of sewers) and the god Crepitus (or Fart, on whom see here and here), but not the goddess Urea, so far as I know. Nor should we number Uranus among these deities, despite this joke about the planet named after him:
Q: What is the similarity between the Star Ship Enterprise and toilet paper?
A: They both revolve around Uranus (your anus) and wipe out Klingons (cling ons).
These cling ons are also known as dingleberries or fartleberries.

Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 24 (tr. J.C. Rolfe, corr. Bill Thayer):
Taken on a sudden with such an attack of diarrhoea that he all but swooned, he said, "An emperor ought to die standing," and while he was struggling to get on his feet, he died in the arms of those who tried to help him, on the ninth day before the Kalends of July, at the age of sixty-nine years, seven months and seven days.

alvo repente usque ad defectionem soluta, imperatorem ait stantem mori oportere; dumque consurgit ac nititur, inter manus sublevantium extinctus est VIIII. Kal. Iul. annum agens aetatis sexagensimum ac nonum, superque mensem ac diem septimum.
It seems possible from Suetonius' account that Vespasian died on the toilet, like that other famous king, Elvis Presley. If so, it was a fitting end for the emperor who was to give his name to the vespasienne.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?