Clothes make the man, we are told, and this has probably been a constant throughout all of human history. The various textures and colors render an otherwise innocuous covering into a symbol of status or wealth.
Even in the modern world we are pushed to get our clothes from certain designers, to express ourselves by means of adopting a certain fashion. The utility of one garment over another is of rather ancillary importance; what matters is what the clothes themselves say, utility be damned.
There is a certain irony to human existence when it comes to status symbols, for the same clothes which speak to our trendiness or fashion sense all come from the same humble origins. The imputation of status is thus nothing short of amusing, for the same threads weave in and out.
In the ancient Roman world cloth production was a full-time preoccupation, and while families might have been able to produce rudimentary garments on a limited basis, textile manufacturing was a crucial part of the infrastructure of any urban center. But as with any good produced, there were varying levels of quality and costliness, catering to the different strati of society. Most people wanted clean and sturdy clothes, but those with the means also wanted to be fashionable, to wear garments that spoke to their wealth, authority, social standing, connections, etc.
One particularly effective means of doing this was the use of dyes. However, cloth does not dye easily but had to be laboriously prepared. For woolen cloth, often the dye was applied before shearing (as part of the preparation for final dyeing) since dyeing time was time-sensitive. The process involved required so much skill that dyers often specialized according to a particular color. This specialization might also have been broken out into those who dyed cloth for the first time (infectorium) and those who refreshed a previously dyed color (offectorium).[1. Walter O. Moeller, The Wool Trade of Ancient Pompei]
If a piece of cloth was to be of higher quality, after the weaving and combing a process of finishing called ‘fulling’ was performed. Fulling seems to have been sectioned out into that of cleaning and that of finishing, meaning that some fullers essentially performed the ancient equivalent of dry cleaning.
The cleaning process in the fulling was used to remove dirt and particles accumulated during weaving. As such, the cleaning agent had to be able to remove the impurities without damaging the cloth or removing the color, unless bleaching was intended.
As fulling was used to create high-quality items, including those considered luxury items, it is therefore with incredible irony that one of the most effective fulling agents was urine. Further, urine also acted as a mordant, which helped any dyes employed to adhere to the fabric. The term ‘mordant’ comes from the Latin verb ‘mordere’ which means ‘to bite,’ in the sense of a dog biting something and not letting go. While other agents such as fuller’s earth could perform a similar function (fuller’s earth was more useful for giving luster[2. ibid.]), urine was nevertheless a popular and widely used agent in fulling.
The process of fulling was not a quick one, and most cloths were soaked and trod upon in the fuller bath for at least 24 hours.[3. ibid.] The implications of this is obvious: there were some people whose job was to tread on cloths up to their ankles in urine. The Romans may have even gave a name to this dance step: fullonius saltus.[4. ibid.]
Since textile production was big business, it therefore followed that the urine trade became big business. Nor was all urine created equal; human urine was easily enough obtained, but camel’s urine was the big show, useful for oh so many things, as Pliny the Elder relates:
Camel’s urine it is said, is very useful to fullers, and is good for the cure of running sores. Barbarous nations, we are told, are in the habit of keeping it till it is five years old, and then taking it as a purgative, in doses of one semisextarius.[5. Pliny the Elder, Book 28, Chapter 26]
As in any business, the business owners probably wanted to save money on operating expenses. Since obtaining large amounts of any kind of urine could be expensive, fullers thought up a rather remarkable solution: let the public supply the urine for free! In what might be termed early evidence of public restrooms, fullers often had terra-cotta jars (amphorae) outside of their establishments, with signs directing those passing by to take advantage of their facilities.[6. Craig Taylor, The Disposal of Human Waste: A Comparison between Ancient Rome and Medieval London, p.56] Naturally, there were accidents that were bound to occur, and probably Romans teens who found nothing funnier than to break open urine pots in the middle of the night. The smell of such occurrences was most likely quite familiar to most Romans:
Thais smells worse than an old jar of a covetous fuller just broken in the middle of the street; worse than a goat after an amorous encounter; than the belch of a lion; than a hide torn from a dog on the banks of the Tiber; than chick rotting in an abortive egg; than a jar fetid with spoilt pickle.[7. Martial, Epigrams, 6.93]
Naturally, if something was big business, the government had to get in on some of it. The emperor Vespasian instituted a urine tax (the vectigal urinae) on fullers to generate revenue from this public accommodation. His son Titus was offended at collecting revenue by such means, but Vespasian, with his sarcastic wit, waved away such self-importance, for pecunia non olet (money does not stink):
When Titus found fault with him for contriving a tax upon public conveniences, he held a piece of money from the first payment to his son’s nose, asking whether its odour was offensive to him. When Titus said “No,” he replied, “Yet it comes from urine.”[8. Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 23]
The ironic mixture of human waste and politics was not lost upon Roman satirists, and Macrobius deplores the way in which public officials behave no better than those they are supposed to rule, using official work as a pretext to use the facilities:
They sit at the gaming tables perfumed in a manner to which they have given much forethought, and surrounded by courtesans. When it is the tenth hour, they summon a slave to take them to the “comitium”, to find out what happening in the forum: what the tribunes have decreed, what they have prohibited. Then they make for the “comitium”, for fear of involment in personal responsibility for matters they have not thought about. On the way, there is not an alleyway at which they do not stop to add to the contents of the urine vessels: their bladders being ever full because of quantity of wine they drink. They come with labored air into the “comitium”. They order the trial to begin, the parties concerned state their case, the judge requires witness and goes out to urinate.[9. Macrobius, The Saturnalia, Book 3]
The even greater irony of this situation is that urine following inebriation made for a poor mordant, and thus Macrobius seems to be implying that public officials tend to ruin everything. Paradoxically, such over-indulgence would make the luxury they posses (as far as their clothing is concerned) impossible to produce.
In the end, perhaps we could finally rework the axiom:
Clothes may make the man, but urine makes the clothes that make the man.