The Roman poet Catullus (circa 84 – circa 54 BC) once directed an insult at a man named Egnatius, whose smile the poet disliked. It illustrates an odd fact about Romans’ day-to-day lives: they cleaned their mouths with pee. As the poet put it in his put down: “There’s nothing more foolish than foolishly smiling. Now you’re Spanish – in the country of Spain what each man pisses, he’s used to brushing his teeth and red gums with, every morning, so the fact that your teeth are so polished just shows you’re more full of piss“.
The insult about an abnormal practice was that Egnatius smiled too much, which was bad because smiles were presumably worthless. The diss was not that he washed his mouth with urine: that part was perfectly normal in Ancient Rome. Urine’s active ingredient is ammonia, which the body secretes in the form of urea. Today, we use ammonia in many things, from explosives to cleaning products to agricultural fertilizers. Not only will ammonia remove stubborn stains from your bathtub and oven, it will also give your dishes and glasses an impressive twinkle.
Nowadays, we extract ammonia with chemical processes that do not rely on pee. Ancient Romans did not have modern science, but they still understood the benefits of ammonia. So they got it from the most readily available source back then: urine. Not only did ancient Romans use it to clean their mouths, they also put it to a variety of other uses. The laundry trade, for example, relied heavily on stale urine. In giant public laundries known as fullonica, dirty clothes were placed in vats, where they were soaked in stale pee. Then workers – usually slaves – stomped on them until the stains came out.
Other industries, such as tanneries and agriculture, used not only urine, but urine mixed with feces. Urine was so important in ancient Romans’ daily lives and their economy, that pee collection was a big business. As a result, public chamber pots or big vats where anybody could stop and take a piss, were commonplace. In addition to dental hygiene, industrial, and commercial uses, Romans also used pee for medicinal purposes. Pliny the Elder, for example, praised stale urine’s effectiveness in the treatment of diaper rashes. He also wrote that fresh urine could treat “sores, burns, infections of the anus, chaps and scorpion stings“.
10. Pee Played a Significant Role in the Roman Economy
The use of pee as medicine might seem gross to modern sensibilities. However, in light of urine’s sterile properties – or more precisely the sterile properties of the ammonia contained in urine – such medicinal applications might not have been totally useless. In light of all the uses Romans had for urine, pee collection and resale was an important sector of the economy. And as happens with any economic activity that generates revenue, the urine industry did not escape the attention of the government’s tax collectors – in that, the ancient world was not much different from the modern one.
Ancient Roman tradesmen who specialized in pee collection received special licenses for the privilege, and were taxed accordingly. That was when the government did not tax the pissers directly. One of Emperor Vespasian’s revenue schemes involved a tax on public urinals, which was widely ridiculed. When his son argued that revenue from bodily excreta was beneath imperial dignity, Vespasian held a coin beneath his nose, and asked whether he could smell any urine. He concluded the lesson with the remark: “money does not smell“, a phrase that became a Latin proverb.
Ancient Romans liked to see themselves as the serious and stolid types, so they put on a stiff upper lip and avoided excessive displays of emotion. That, however, created a problem when it came to funerals. On the one hand, the more people attended a funeral, and the showier the funerary procession was, the more respected the deceased was. On the other hand, excessive displays of grief by the deceased’s relatives – especially for upper class Romans – were seen as gauche and undignified. To solve the conundrum, they used professional mourners.
For a fee, special women wailed and put on the ostentatious displays of grief that custom barred well-born Roman women from demonstrating in public. The professional mourners wept to impress the crowds, and to seriously sell their sadness, threw dust and dirt on themselves, tore out their hair, ripped their clothes, and scratched their faces until they drew blood. Eventually, those ostentatious displays became too much. So laws were passed to prohibit the hiring of professional mourners because their antics “invoked strong emotions and were incompatible with the idea of the quiet life of the citizen“.
Marcus Junius Brutus (85 -42 BC) is perhaps best known as the addressee of Julius Caesar’s final words and lines, “Et tu, Brute?” from Shakespeare’s play. He was the Roman dictator’s friend, the son of his longtime mistress, and the most famous of his assassins. Incongruously, Brutus’ father had been betrayed and murdered by Pompey the Great, so early in his political career, Brutus was an opponent of Pompey and the conservative optimates faction that supported him. Eventually, however, Brutus fought under Pompey’s command against Caesar.
After his father’s death, Brutus was raised by his uncle Cato the Younger, a conservative reactionary who became an avowed enemy of Caesar. Brutus initially supported Caesar, but eventually thought he wanted to become a king – a position that Romans of his era greatly feared and loathed – and turned against him. When Caesar invaded Italy in 49 BC, Brutus went against him in the resultant civil war, joined the ranks of his enemies, and even became an ally of Pompey despite the fact that Pompey had killed his father.
Cesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, after which Marcus Junius Brutus surrendered, and was pardoned and restored to favor. Brutus’ resentment against the dictator and his mother’s lover remained, however. When a faction of Roman Senators formed to do Caesar in, Brutus eagerly accepted their invitation to join their secret group, which styled itself “The Liberators”. Brutus was a great symbolic catch, because he was a descendant of Lucius Licinius Brutus, the Roman Republic’s founder who had chased out Rome’s last king.
On the Ides of March in 44 BC, Brutus stabbed Caesar in his assassination that day. The assassins were pardoned by the Senate, but a riot soon thereafter forced Brutus and his coconspirators to flee Rome. The next year, Mark Antony and Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavian, got that amnesty revoked, and had the Senate declare Caesar’s assassins murderers. Civil war erupted again, and ended with the assassins’ defeat at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, after which Brutus committed suicide rather than fall into Octavian’s clutches.
People have dyed their hair for thousands of years, but until the arrival of modern science, they often flew blind when it came to which ingredients they selected for their hair dye. As a result, to dye one’s hair was often a fraught affair, whose risks ranged from the cosmetic hair damage or destruction at the low end, to catastrophic damage to health at the high end. For ancient Romans, the safer end included temporary dyes such as henna, and odd dyes such as a paste made of pigeon dung and earthworms to lighten the hair, or the ashes of donkey testicles to fight hair loss.
The more dangerous end of the spectrum could include substances such as lead and sulfur. Both ancient Greek and Roman women used lead and sulfur in their concoctions when they wanted a permanent hair dye. Their hair probably looked great as a result, but the health consequences could be extreme. For example, we now know such exposure to lead could lead to maladies that include headaches, weight loss, miscarriages, birth defects, seizures, and death, among many other bad side effects.
5. Lead Exposure Was Through the Roof in Ancient Rome
Nowadays, we try to keep as far away from lead as possible. We don’t allow it in children’s toys, and have reduced its use in paint. Ancient Romans, however, did not know what we know about lead. The use of lead in hair dyes was just one illustration of a widespread Roman tendency to use it in ways that modern science has revealed to be dangerous. There is a theory that Romans – particularly elite Romans who could afford it – used lead pipes to carry water into their homes, which led to widespread lead poisoning. It might also shed light on what made so many Roman rulers were so bizarre.
Modern research indicates that lead levels from Roman pipes might not have been that dangerous, however. Nonetheless, Romans where exposed to lead in a variety of other ways that ensured they ingested it at exceptionally high levels. For example, they used cooking pots made of lead. They drank water and wine from lead jugs, poured into lead cups. They used amphorae to transport and store chief staples such as wine, olive oil, and their favorite sauce – a rotten fish concoction called garum – that were sealed with lead. As a result, lead particles made it into just about every sip of wine, or bite of their staple meal – bread dipped into olive oil or garnished with garum. They also used lead in jewelry, to help keep precious stones in place.
The Roman statesman, scholar, lawyer, and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC), who served as consul in 63 BC, is widely deemed to have been Ancient Rome’s greatest orator. Throughout his career, Cicero tried in vain to uphold republican principles as the Roman Republic tore itself apart in civil wars in its final years. He had much greater impact and success with the influence he exerted upon Western thought for centuries. The rediscovery of his writings more than a millennium after his death helped spark the Renaissance.
Cicero was born into a wealthy equestrian family in Arpinum, and was sent to study law in Rome as a youth. His brilliant defense of a Sextus Roscius in 79 BC against trumped up charges of parricide established his reputation as a lawyer, and began his rise in Rome. He became a supporter of Pompey the Great, and as a member of the conservative and pro-aristocratic optimates faction, and was elected consul in 63 BC. That year, he suppressed what came to be known as the Catiline Conspiracy to overthrow the government, and arrested and ordered the summary execution of its ringleaders.
In 60 BC, Cicero declined an invitation to join Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus in what became known as the First Triumvirate. He deemed the arrangement to be unconstitutional, and did all he could to undo it by driving wedges between the Triumvirs. Crassus was killed in battle in 53 BC, and when Pompey and Caesar fell out and the latter marched on Italy in 49 BC, Cicero sat out the resultant civil war. To fill the time, he wrote books and treatises, and indulged in other scholarly pursuits.
When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, Cicero promoted the cause of Gaius Octavian, Caesar’s teenaged adopted son and heir. He sought to use the teenager as a cat’s paw in his conflict against Caesar’s chief lieutenant Mark Antony, whom Cicero loathed and against whom he penned and orated scathing critiques known as The Philippics. Cicero thought he could control and manipulate Octavian, and quipped that he would “praise, raise, and erase” him. He greatly underestimated the youth, who as the future Emperor Augustus would end the Roman Republic and replace it with the Roman Empire.
2. A Political Defeat, But an Intellectual Triumph
Cicero’s underestimation of Octavian came back to bite him, hard. Caesar’s young heir shrewdly reconciled with Mark Antony and cut a deal that divided Rome between themselves. They then proceeded to clean house and eliminate all enemies and potential opponents of the regime in a bloody purge that outdid Sulla’s. Cicero, as an avowed enemy of Mark Antony, was on the new regime’s list of the proscribed. He fled Rome, but was captured and killed on December 7th, 43 BC. A vindictive Antony then had Cicero’s severed head and hands displayed in the rostra, or speaker’s platform in Rome’s Forum, after Antony’s equally vindictive wife Fulvia pierced the orator’s tongue with knitting needles.
Cicero was defeated politically, and the Roman Republic he had worked so hard to defend was no more. However, he triumphed intellectually. Cicero’s impact extended beyond his own days, as he left behind a trove of writings on philosophy, politics, rhetoric and oratory. Their rediscovery in the thirteenth century and the keen interest they aroused in scholars, amongst whom Petrarch was most notable, helped jump-start the Renaissance. Cicero thus influenced European literature and ideas more than any single prose writer before or since. His impact on the Latin language was such that until the nineteenth century, all European prose could be viewed as a return to or a reaction against Cicero’s style.
1. Unsurprisingly, Given the Patriarchy’s Great Power in Ancient Rome, to Kill One’s Father Was Amongst the Most Heinous Crimes in Roman Eyes
In light of the extraordinary powers that Roman fathers exercised over their family, it is no surprise that, from time to time, some kids snapped and did in the patriarchs. Since Ancient Rome was as pure a distillation of patriarchy as ever existed, that patriarchy took a particularly dim view of the murder of patriarchs. The Romans were particularly horrified and revolted by patricide, or the murder of one’s father. So they expressed their abhorrence with a particularly inventive punishment: poena cullei, or the “Punishment of the Sack”.
In accordance with Roman law, those convicted of patricide were first severely beaten with blood colored rods, while their heads were covered in a bag made of a wolf’s hide. Then the patricide was sewn into the poena cullei, a sack made of ox hide, together with an assortment of live animals that included a snake, a rooster, a monkey, and a dog. The sack was beaten to rile up the animals and get them to bite and tear at the patricide. It was then put on a cart driven by black oxen, to a river or the sea, where the sack and its occupants were thrown into the water.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading