Pecunia non olet

Bernardo Bellettot (1720-1780). The Colloseum, 1743.Galleria Nazionale Parma.

The year of the four emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasianus), 69 AD, was one of the most remarkable years in Roman history. Nero had left the Empire in financial ruins and the generals fought a devastating civil war. The victor Vespasianus (9-79 AD) inherited a public deficit of 40 billion sestertii (the average monthly salary was about 1 000 sestertii). Before becoming emperor he was a successful military commander, amongst others in Britannia. His reign is best known for the institutional and economic reforms he introduced. He issued the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani, a new constitutionalization within the Roman Empire.

The empire and Rome were bankrupt, the megalomania of Nero, mismanagement of former Julio-Claudian emperors and the corruption of the elite had to be paid for. Vespasianus was the right person at the right time. changed the income- and tax policy, he reformed the tax system and he was a real genius to find new tax objects. Two words characterize one of the most successful financial reforms ever: ‘non olet’. Vespasianus had introduced a tax for using the public latrine and he rejected any objection with these words ‘Pecunia non olet’.  Public toilets in Paris are still called the Vespasiennes. When he died in 79 AD, the Empire had a balanced budget and his successors, his son Titius inherited the spirit of a newborn Empire.