69-79AD Vespasian: Roman Emperor of Toilets, and Humour

From: http://heritage-key.com/rome/vespasian-roman-emperor-toilets-and-humour

by Bija Knowles on Thu, 07/09/2009 - 11:15

A Little-known Fact

A little-known fact about the emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus is that he shares his name with a common word for public latrines in Italian. Not only were the antique communal latrines, such as those at Ostia Antica – see photo – referred to as 'vespasiani', but modern-day urinals in Italy, including the portable plastic versions often seen outside stadiums, also go by that name.

This is quite an unflattering namesake for an emperor who was, on the whole, perceived as being mild, generous and fair. It makes Vespasian possibly the only historical figure to have lent his name to the humble WC (it is a popular fallacy that nineteenth century British plumber Thomas Crapper invented the toilet – the WC had been in use long before his days). In Vespasian's case, there is actually a logical connection – the Flavian emperor was the first to impose taxes on the urine that was gathered from public latrines. This strange custom was practised by textile manufacturers, who used the urine (for its ammoniac content) to process fibres.

Vespasian: 2,000 Years Old

However, this was certainly not the focus of the current exhibition at the Capitoline Museums in Rome – Divus Vespasianus: Campidoglio and Egypt in the Flavian Era. Commemorating 2,000 years since the birth of Vespasian, it explores the cults and temples of the Capitoline hill during the short-lived Flavian dynasty, which began with Vespasian in 69 AD and was continued with his sons Titus (who reigned from 79-81 AD) and Domitian (81-96 AD).

As part of the exhibition, the museum has restored the lex de imperio Vespasiani (or lex Regia) – a unique bronze plaque that lists the imperial powers of Vespasian. Written between December 69 AD and January 70AD, the plaque (which begins mid-sentence, suggesting it is the second of a pair) puts into writing the emperor's powers of all aspects of Roman life: political, religious and bureaucratic. It is thought to constitute a legal document and was possibly an attempt to restore some gravitas and authority to the emperor's reputation after the disastrous rule of Nero.

The Rise to Power

According to literature accompanying the exhibition, the Flavians had a strong affiliation to the Capitoline Hill as it played an instrumental role in the family's bid for power. The year 69 AD was a year of political turbulence in Rome – with no fewer than four emperors in quick succession. Nero committed suicide in June the previous year and was succeeded by Galba and then Otho. Both were ousted after a few months in the job. Vitellius succeeded Otho, but the Roman army stationed in Judaea and around the Danube supported one of their commanders, Vespasian, as ruler: mutiny was imminent.

Several legions made their way to Rome with the intention of overthrowing Vitellius, but meanwhile in Rome, Vespasian's brother, Flavius Sabinus, had also attacked Vitellius's forces. However, Sabinus and his men were forced to retreat and took refuge by barricading themselves on the Capitoline Hill. Unfortunately, Vitellius set the hill on fire and some of the temples on the hill were destroyed, while Sabinus was captured and executed. Vitellius's victory was short-lived because his armies were soon defeated by Vespasian's supporters and Vitellius was executed in the forum. This marked the beginning of the Flavian dynasty – a dynasty of military commanders, seen as more representative of the people than the aristocratic Julio-Claudians which ended so badly with Nero.

Vespasian and the Egyptian Cults

The Capitoline Hill was the site of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which was badly burned during Vitellius's attack on Sabinus. Vespasian ordered it to be rebuilt exactly as it was only with a higher ceiling and this demonstrated the emperor's close association with the sacred pagan temple and its supreme god. However, alongside Rome's pantheon of pagan gods, foreign religious cults and icons were also gaining popularity and acceptance. Vespasian had been in Egypt throughout the revolts against Vitellius in Rome and at the moment when he was eventually officially declared emperor. While there, he is said to have had a religious experience at a temple dedicated to the Hellenistic-Egyptian god Serapis. It is perhaps for that reason that Egyptian cults grew in popularity in Rome during the Flavian dynasty.

So sharing the sacred hill-top with Rome's temple to Jupiter was a temple dedicated to the cult of Isis. Despite Suetonius in his 'Life of Domitian' describing the Egyptian religion as a 'fickle superstition', the cult of Isis was increasing in popularity. The temple played an important role during Vitellius's siege of the Capitoline: Vespasian's son Domitian, nephew of Sabinus, is thought to have escaped and survived the attack in 69 AD by hiding at the temple of Isis and then disguising himself as a priest of Isis. Several Egyptian objects were found on the Capitoline in the area where the temple would have been include several statues of Egyptian gods in basalt.

In fact the cult of Isis wasn't limited to the Capitoline – there were sites at several other locations throughout Rome where statues and monuments have been found. These include a relief of Isis Pelagia (protector of sailors), found near the Portus Tiberinus and a bas relief depicting Serapis on a throne with Isis or Demeter, found at the via dell Conciliazione – both of which can be seen at the Musei Capitolini's exhibition.

Vespasian's Rule

Vespasian was the first emperor to raise tax on urine used in the textiles manufacturing process - urinals are still known as vespasiani in Italy today. Photo by B Knowles.
When Vespasian became emperor, he turned his attentions almost immediately to the Jewish insurrection in Jerusalem. He succeeded in sacking the city completely, killing more than a million Jews and taking treasures from the sacred temples of the city. Money raised from selling many Jews into slavery during this military campaign was then brought back to Rome and used to build the Colosseum between 71 and 80AD. The Arch of Titus is another monument that still stands in the Roman Forum today, which pays tribute to the military conquests of the Flavians. Bas reliefs decorating the façade of the arch show Roman soldiers carrying away the most treasured of Jewish religious objects, such as the menorah and trumpets from the Holy Temple in a scene of imperial plundering that seems less triumphal and more barbaric to modern eyes.

Vespasian was thought of as being a down-to-earth, surly man – his nickname 'mulio', or donkey-driver, suggested his unsophisticated demeanour, although it also nods to his family's equestrian business. He was thought of as being a mild and patient man who showed clemency to his adversaries (although his military campaign in Judaea was renowned for being ruthless). He was described in very favourable terms by historians and writers of that period, although there are suggestions that he paid many of these people well and provided them with pensions in return for their support. In 79 AD he contracted an intestinal disease – on his deathbed his last words are thought to have been 'Damn it! I think I am turning into a god!' The god Vespasian's sense of humour was intact until the end.

Photos by Musei Capitolini (Pelagian Isis); Ken Delaney (Arch of Titus ) and B Knowles (Ostia Antica).

About The AuthorBija KnowlesBija Knowles
Bija Knowles is a freelance journalist based outside Rome, Italy. She graduated in Italian and English Literature from the University of Birmingham, UK, and her main areas of interest are art, travel and history in Italy.

Last three pieces by this author: Letters from the Legions: a Personal View of World History, Vampires of Volterra: The Etruscan Roots of The Twilight Saga , Moving Capitals: Iran's Plans to Ditch Tehran Echoed in Ancient World


An exhibition celebrating the 2,000th birthday of Vespasian brings together artworks from the cult of Isis, with which he was associated. Photo by Musei Capitolini.

Vespasian's triumph in Judaea is depicted on the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, showing Roman soldiers looting Jerusalem's Holy Temple. Photo by Ken Delaney.