The legacies of the emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79) are many and diverse. He built the largest amphitheatre in the world; he also gave his name (albeit involuntarily) to the public urinal.
How such an object came to be named after a Roman emperor is an interesting story and it starts off with a tale told by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69-130) in his book De Vita Caesarum (Lives of the Caesars).
Vespasian introduced a tax on the collection of urine, a valuable commodity in that it contains ammonia, which was used to clean clothes. When Vespasian's eldest son and heir, Titus, questioned whether this was an honourable way of making money his father is said to have held a coin up to his son's nose, asking if it smelt of anything! Titus had to conclude that 'pecunia non olet' ('money has no smell'). The phrase is still used to argue that the value of money is not tainted by its origins. On account of this story, a public urinal (orinatoio) came to be known in Italy as a vespasiano.
Vespasian was deified after his death and his son and successor Titus (r. 79-81) commissioned a temple to be raised to him in the Forum. Titus died two years later and he, too, was deified. The temple was completed by his brother the emperor Domitian (r. 81-96) and dedicated to both Vespasian and Titus. All that remains of are three Corinthian columns.
The custom of turning emperors into gods began with Augustus. A few months short of his seventieth year Vespasian fell ill. As his illness worsened, and feeling the approach of death, the emperor is supposed to have called out 'Vae, puto deus fio ('Dear me, I think I'm becoming a god').
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private and
small-group walking tours
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