6 Practical Ways Romans Used Human Urine and Feces in Daily Life

Chloe Effron, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

You’re probably familiar with the cliché “everything but the squeal” to refer to the efficient, waste-not-want-not form of meat processing. But you may not know that the ancient Romans were also economical about their use of waste products—specifically, their own waste. Human urine and feces were used in daily life in at least six different (and sometimes dubious) ways. 

1. WHITENING TEETH

When left out too long, urine decomposes into ammonia, which is a great cleaning product that takes out stains easily. Roman authors like Catullus attest to people using both human and animal urine as a mouth rinse that helped whiten their teeth.

2. GROWING JUICY FRUIT

Urine also contains nitrogen and phosphorous, which are both useful for growing plants. The Roman author Columella wrote that old human urine was particularly useful for growing pomegranates, making them juicier and tastier.

3. MAKING THEIR TOGAS BRIGHT AND COLORFUL

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The ammonia in urine was also used to clean togas in a place called a fullery. The first stage of cleaning involved men jumping up and down on the togas in large vats with urine inside, like living washing machine agitators, while the second stage often included dirt or ash. Both helped dissolve grease that accumulated on the togas and made them bright again.

4. CURING DISEASED ANIMALS

From the Roman author Columella again come some suggestions for using human urine, this time for veterinary purposes: Sheep with bile issues were given human urine to drink, while those with lung issues were given urine through the nose. Sick bees could also be given human urine, and bird flu was cured by putting tepid urine on their beaks.

5. TANNING

The Romans frequently employed urine, dog feces, and sometimes human feces in tanning—no, not for sunning themselves outside, but for making leather. A good long soak in urine would help remove hair from the pelt, and then feces were ground into it, sometimes for hours at a time. The enzymes made by the bacteria in the feces softened the hide, making it more supple.

6.  FERTILIZING FIELDS 

Also known as “night soil,” fertilizer made from human feces can help plants grow—but it can also help spread disease. The Romans did use human feces and urine in their gardens, as the organic portion of the poo and the nitrates, phosphorous, and potassium of the urine nourished plants. There seems to have been a healthy trade in feces in Roman times, as the stercorarii—"poop collectors"—were documented to have collected and sold it. 

Although human waste was used in a wide variety of ways in ancient Rome, it’s not clear exactly how it was gathered. Latrines—both public and private—were undoubtedly useful for amassing a combination of urine and feces, but would not have worked for tanners, who needed unadulterated urine. It is clear that the collection of waste wasn’t free. The emperor Vespasian levied a tax on urine around 70 CE. Reportedly, when his son Titus expressed disgust at the tax, Vespasian retorted, "pecunia non olet"—"money doesn’t stink." His tax was so famous that his name is still used today as a general term for public urinals (vespasiennes in French and vespasiani in Italian). 

So the next time you think to appreciate modern bathroom hygiene, be sure to give thanks to the minor Roman deity Cloacina.  Because if you anger this goddess of the sewer system, she is sure to send you running for a plumber.

No Joe: The Time Coffee Was Banned in Prussia

iStock.com/NickS
iStock.com/NickS

In the late 18th century, Prussia's King Frederick the Great (officially Frederick II) blacklisted coffee and encouraged his royal subjects to drink something far more wholesome—beer. According to William Harrison Ukers's classic 1922 book All About Coffee, Frederick issued this decree on September 13, 1777:

"It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. Everybody is using coffee. If possible, this must be prevented. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors, and his officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer; and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended upon to endure hardship or to beat his enemies in case of the occurrence of another war."

Though the authenticity of the above quotation cannot be confirmed, it certainly jibes with King Freddie's other opinions on the matter, according to Robert Liberles, a scholar of German-Jewish history. In a 1779 letter, Frederick wrote, "It is despicable to see how extensive the consumption of coffee is … if this is limited a bit, people will have to get used to beer again … His Royal Majesty was raised eating beer-soup, so these people can also be brought up nurtured with beer-soup. This is much healthier than coffee."

So Old Fritz, as he was called, loved beer. But why was he so opposed to coffee?

For one, Frederick was terrified that excessive imports could ruin his kingdom's economy, and he much preferred to restrict commerce than engage in trade. Since coffee, unlike beer, was brought in from across the border, Frederick regularly griped that "at least 700,000 thaler leave the country annually just for coffee"—money, he believed, that could be funneled into well-taxed Prussian businesses instead.

In other words, into Fritz's own pockets.

To redirect the people's spending patterns, Frederick ordered a number of steep restrictions, demanding that coffee roasters obtain a license from the government. This sounds like a reasonable regulation until you learn that Frederick summarily rejected nearly all of the applications, granting exceptions only to people who were already cozy with his court.

If that sounds elitist, it was. Frederick was adamant about keeping coffee out of the hands and mouths of poor people, writing, "this foreign product [has] extended into the lowest classes of human society and caused great contraband activities." To stop them, he hired approximately 400 disabled soldiers to work as coffee spies, or "sniffers," to roam city streets "following the smell of roasting coffee whenever detected, in order to seek out those who might be found without roasting permits," Ukers writes.

But none of these tactics worked. Rather, they just increased coffee smuggling and exacerbated the "contraband activities" that Frederick claimed he was trying to prevent in the first place. So shortly after the king died in 1786, many of these restrictions were lifted, proving yet again that it's always a mistake to get between someone and their java.

12 Old-Timey Turkey Terms to Bring Back This Thanksgiving

iStock.com/westernphotographs
iStock.com/westernphotographs

Want to spice up conversation this Thanksgiving? Use these terms while you’re talking turkey.

1. RUM COBBLE-COLTER

According to A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of Gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c., with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c., first published in the late 1600s, a cobble-colter is a turkey. A rum cobble-colter, on the other hand, is "a fat large cock-turkey."

2. I GUESS IT’S ALL TURKEY

This American phrase is “a quaint saying indicating that all is equally good.”

3. AND 4. BUBBLY-JOCK AND BOBBLE-COCK

Bubbly-jock is Scottish slang for a male turkey, from the noise the bird makes. The term can also be used to describe “a stupid, boasting person.” Both usages might apply at your Thanksgiving dinner. Slang for a turkey in northern England, meanwhile, is bobble-cock, according to The Slang Dictionary: Or, The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and "Fast Expressions” of High and Low Society, published in 1864.

5. TURKEY MERCHANTS

According to 1884’s The Slang Dictionary: Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal, this was a term for “dealers in plundered or contraband silk.” Previously, it referred to something more obvious: “a driver of turkeys and geese to market.”

6. ALDERMAN

A “well-stuffedturkey. An alderman in chains is a turkey with sausages; according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788, the sausages “are supposed to represent the gold chain worn by those magistrates.”

7. COLD TURKEY RAP

According to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of the Underworld: British and American, this 1928 term means "an accusation, a charge, against a person caught in the act." Perhaps you'll get a cold turkey rap for stealing seconds—or thirds—of your favorite dish this holiday.

8. BLOCK ISLAND TURKEY

An American slang term for salted cod, originating in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

9. TURKEY PUDDLE

Eighteenth-century slang for coffee.

10. SNOTERGOB

According to A Dictionary of the Scottish Language, snotergob is “the red part of a turkey’s head.”

11. RED AS A TURKEY COCK

This phrase dates back to 1630, according to Dictionary of Proverbs. It could refer to any kind of flushing of the face (including, perhaps, when your dad and your uncle are getting too worked up debating politics).

12. TO HAVE A TURKEY ON ONE’S BACK

According to the 1905 book A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, this is what you say when someone has imbibed a bit too much: It means “to be drunk.”

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