Titus Flavius Vespasianus became Roman emperor in AD 69 following the death of Nero and the brief reigns of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. Remembered for his conquest of Judea and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by his son Titus, Vespasian set about to restore the damage and destruction the city and its empire had undergone during the “year of the four emperors”. He reformed the army and the administration, allowed people to take possession of and build on abandoned vacant sites, restored damaged temples and build new ones, and erected many statues. In AD 70 he started the construction of the Colosseum, one of the most impressive arenas in the world, more correctly referred to as the Flavian Amphitheater. He used the spoils of the Judean War to fund his various projects, which included building facilities such as public toilets.
These toilets have gone down in history as Vespasian toilets. They consisted of a row of stone or marble seats situated over a channel of running water from aqueducts or nearby water sources. Users would sit on the benches, and the flowing water would carry the waste away, effectively flushing the toilets. To provide privacy, the benches were sometimes partitioned by low walls or dividers. Workers kept the toilets clean by flushing them with water also obtained from the aqueducts. Brushes or small sponges were sometimes provided for self-cleaning, and workers would be hired to clean these items.
There were marked differences between these public toilets and those in the houses of the wealthy at Pompeii, Ostia, or Ephesus. These often had elegant single-seat toilets decorated with mosaics on the floors, paintings or marble plaques on the walls and ceilings, and poems and even epigrams, some of which would refer to people who had great difficulty defecating. Sometimes these toilets in private houses even had furniture and seats with armrests.
The public latrines built throughout the city of Rome were often positioned near public baths, markets, and other high-traffic areas so that that people from all walks of life could avail themselves of them. Users were required to pay a small fee, usually a quadrans (a low-value bronze coin) in order to raise funds for the imperial treasury. This gave rise to the expression “money has no smell,” attributed to Vespasian when his son Titus complained about the vulgar nature of such a tax.
The construction of Vespasian toilets greatly improved public health in ancient Rome. Before their introduction, open defecation was a common practice, and waste and sewage collecting in streets and public spaces produced foul odors and spread cholera and dysentery. To this day, the concept of flushing waste away with water remains a fundamental aspect of contemporary sanitation.
The emperor’s decision to tax the public toilets was an unpopular one, but it provided an easy source of revenue for the government’s many expenses. The concept of pay toilets endured for centuries after the fall of Rome. Various European cities continued to charge for restroom access until the 20th century. The remains of these Roman public latrines can still be seen today in archaeological sites. Though no longer common in most parts of the world, their legacy constitutes an important point in the history of public health. The emperor himself died after a reign of ten years from a diarrheal illness, refusing to lie down on his deathbed because, as he said, “an emperor ought to die standing.”