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.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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