Pecunia non olet
Vespasian imposed a Urine Tax (Latin: vectigal urinae) on the distribution of urine from public urinals in Rome's Cloaca Maxima (great sewer) system. (The Roman lower classes urinated into pots which were emptied into cesspools.) 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 woollen 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 (sciscitans num odore offenderetur). When Titus said "No", Vespasian replied, "Yet it comes from urine" (Atqui ex lotio est).
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) and Italy (vespasiani).
In his description of money and the circulation of commodities generally, Karl Marx refers to this phrase when he observes "since every commodity disappears when it becomes money it is impossible to tell from the money itself how it got into the hands of its possessor, or what article has been changed into it. 'Non olet', from whatever source it may come." "Vespasian's axiom" is also referred to in passing in the Balzac short story Sarrasine in connection with the mysterious origins of the wealth of a Parisian family. The proverb receives some attention in Roland Barthes's detailed analysis of the Balzac story in his critical study S/Z. It is possible that F. Scott Fitzgerald alludes to Vespasian's jest in The Great Gatsby with the phrase "non-olfactory money".
In That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis, the Warden of Bracton College is given the nickname "Non-Olet" for having written "a monumental report on National Sanitation. The subject had, if anything, rather recommended him to the Progressive Element. They regarded it as a slap in the face for the dilettanti and Die-hards, who replied by christening their new Warden Non-Olet."
In the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel All The King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren (1946), protagonist Jack Burden muses that perhaps Vespasian had been right. At the time, Jack is beset with doubts about the source of his inheritance.
In The Surgeon's Mate by Patrick O'Brian, when Admiral Saumarez is speaking of "glory to be picked up in the Baltic [...] and in any case, who cares about filthy lucre?", one of the assembled captains murmurs "Non olet".
- Warren, Robert Penn (1946). All The King's Men. New York: Bantam. p. 359. ISBN 0-553-20454-8.
- Suetonius, Vespasian 23. English, Latin. Cf. Dio Cassius, Roman History, bk. 65, ch. 14.5 English, Greek/French (66, 14)
- Marx, Karl (1990) "Capital Volume 1", Penguin Books, London, p. 205
- Barthes, Roland (trans. Richard Miller) (1974) S/Z New York: Hill and Wang—Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 39–40; see lexia number 26
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1925) The Great Gatsby Scribner, New York. p. 73
- That Hideous Strength, p. 32 (paperback p. 34)
- Lissner, Ivar. Power and Folly: the story of the Caesars
- Suetonius. De Vita Caesarum--Divus Vespasianus
- Laporte, Dominique. History of Shit