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The forum in ancient Pompeii offered two options for the hapless citizen who was caught short and sought to relieve themselves. For seated comfort with a communal ambiance and the capability of processing solids, the public restrooms at the North Western end were an excellent choice. Equipped with running water for waste disposal and the washing of hands this toilet block really was the height of urbanity.
For men seeking an upright and no-frills tinkle there was another option which could help a citizen with their civic responsibilities by helping local industry. Across the Forum from the toilets was the Hall of the Wool Merchants, a large complex devoted to Eumachia with large proud doors opening out onto the central business district. It was the equivalent of New York’s Trump Tower or Rockefeller Center. The Hall of the Wool Merchants however, had a large vat of urine in its porch that passers-by could fill up, a practice that is not observed in either of the New York landmarks.
The Hall of the Wool Merchants is otherwise referred to as The Building of the Eumachia is located at the Forum. It was the seat of the Corporation of the Fullones. This consisted of the cloth-makers, launderers, and dye-makers.
Across Pompeii many merchants and industrialists actively sought out others’ urine. Pots were hung outside places of work expressly for this purpose. Particularly well known is the example that was outside the fullery (fullonica in Insula 9 (IX,13,5)). There were also public urinals, forica, where tanners, fullers, metalworkers and more could collect urine. They would however have had to pay the urine tax as stipulated by Vespasian.
Workers of precious metals, fullers (the dry cleaners of the ancient world), tanners (the tanners of the ancient world), dye-makers and fruit-growers all sought and used human urine, with the exception of that of heavy drinkers which was useless. Most piss (let’s call a spade a spade, we’re all adults here, maybe…) was used for the caustic properties of its ammonia content; it was particularly useful for removing the natural sheeps’ grease from wool. Fruit growers’ use of the urine was exceptional, they were the only ones who did not use it fresh. They allowed it to go stale before spreading it on the ground beneath fruit trees to sweeten their produce.
Fullers would toil in this glorious, abundant liquid up to their elbows, scrubbing clean the soiled clothes of the wealthy. Little surprise then that they were seen to be a dishonest and disreputable lot.
Pompeii – The Living City, Alex Butterworth & Ray Laurence, Phoenix, 2005
The Hall of the Wool Merchants
Virginia Universtity’s Video Introduction to the Building of Eumachia
Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery, Judith Harris, IB Tauris, 2007
The Wool Trade of Ancient Pompeii, Walter O. Moeller, Leiden, 1976
Roman Building: Materials and Techniques, Jean Pierre Adam & Anthony Mathews, Indiana University Press, 1994
The ancient economy in the area around Mt Vesuvius
This article was posted by Ronan McDonnell on
Friday, August 27th, 2010 at
It is archived in Architecture, Culture, History, Wild Places and tagged commerce, excrement, fullers, fullery, industry, piss, pompeii, stepahanus, trade, urine, vesuvius.
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