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Romans brushed their teeth with urine

The multifaceted use of urine in ancient Rome offers a glimpse into a society that was innovative and practical.

Romans brushed their teeth with urine
Ancient Roman latrines / latrinae, Ostia Antica. Copyright: Fubar Obfusco Public domain

In the grand tapestry of ancient Roman life, replete with its architectural marvels, complex road systems, and sophisticated society, there lies a rather unexpected thread of pragmatism: the use of human urine in daily routines.

The multifaceted roles urine played in the Roman Empire, and its applications from sanitation to industry, and even in taxation, show us a different perspective of the legendary empire.

Urine in Roman Sanitation and Hygiene

One of the most notable uses of urine in ancient Rome was in personal hygiene. Romans discovered that urine, particularly because of its ammonia content, was an effective agent for cleaning and whitening clothes. Fullonicae, or ancient Roman laundries, utilized urine as a cleaning fluid. Clothes were soaked in vats of urine, which acted as a natural detergent to remove stains and brighten fabrics. Workers, known as fullers, would then trample the garments in these vats to thoroughly clean them, a process akin to a stomping wine press, but for clothes.

The practice was so ingrained in Roman society that public urinals and private homes alike collected urine, which was then sold to fullonicae.

Reconstruction drawing showing the communal latrines in use, Housesteads Roman Fort (Vercovicium) Copyright: Carole Raddato cc-by-sa-2.0

In the 1st century AD, Emperor Nero introduced the "vectigal urinae" or urine tax, targeting the collection of urine from Rome's public restrooms. This practice was essential for both lower and upper classes, with the collected urine being a crucial component in various industrial processes. The tax was initially abolished but was reinstated by Emperor Vespasian around 70 AD, amid efforts to financially recover from a civil war and an empty treasury. Vespasian, known for his fiscal strategies that eventually alleviated the empire's debts, reinstated the urine tax as part of a broader taxation scheme to replenish Rome's finances. This initiative included the innovative introduction of public toilets in the Cloaca Maxima system by 74 AD, marking a significant advancement in urban sanitation.

Emperor Vespasian imposed a tax on the collection of urine, giving rise to the phrase "Pecunia non olet" or "Money does not stink," highlighting the value placed on this seemingly mundane byproduct.

Medical and Dental Uses

The Romans also recognized urine's medicinal properties. It was used as an ingredient in several remedies for ailments ranging from sores and burns to ear infections. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and naturalist, documented urine's efficacy in treating wounds and as a mouth rinse for gum and teeth health. Despite modern sensibilities, the antibacterial properties of urine, particularly in its fresh state, lent some credence to these practices.

Dispelling a common myth, however, Romans did not directly clean their teeth with urine but rather used it as a mouthwash of sorts, due to its ammonia content, which likely helped in whitening and cleaning the teeth, albeit in a manner far removed from contemporary dental hygiene standards.

Industrial Applications

Beyond personal hygiene, urine played a pivotal role in the Roman economy, particularly in industries such as tanning and dyeing. Tanners used urine to soften and clean animal hides, preparing them for the tanning process. The enzymes in urine helped in breaking down the hides, making them more pliable for subsequent treatment. In the textile industry, urine was employed in the dyeing process. Woolen fabrics were treated with urine before dyeing, as the ammonia helped prepare the fibers to accept dyes more readily, ensuring the colors were vibrant and long-lasting.

Agricultural Uses

In agriculture, urine served as a potent fertilizer. The high nitrogen content was beneficial for soil enrichment, promoting crop growth. Roman farmers collected urine to sprinkle over fields, an early example of recycling waste into a valuable agricultural resource.

Urine served a multitude of cleaning purposes in ancient Rome, from washing garments and floors to maintaining street cleanliness. The city was equipped with numerous public urinals, allowing citizens not only to relieve themselves but also to aid in the sanitation of public spaces.

The widespread use of urine in ancient Rome underscores a pragmatic approach to resource management, highlighting a society that sought practical solutions to everyday problems. The commodification of urine, evidenced by the urine tax, illustrates its economic significance and the Romans' adeptness at capitalizing on every possible resource.

The multifaceted use of urine in ancient Rome offers a glimpse into a society that was innovative and practical, albeit in ways that might seem unconventional today. From enhancing personal hygiene and medical treatments to contributing to the economy and agricultural practices, urine's role in Roman society is a testament to their resourcefulness and adaptability. This exploration of urine's applications not only provides insight into the daily lives of Romans but also reflects the broader ethos of an empire that, in its quest for efficiency and progress, turned the ordinary into the extraordinary.

This article uses the following tags:

Roman Empire Anecdotes, roman empire, Nero, urine, vespasian

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