Most Unusual Startup Idea in Ancient Rome

I sit down with an expert in Ancient Roman History to pitch what might have been a great startup idea 2,000 years ago

How’s that for a pitch? Build a business around selling urine.

Urine was a valuable commodity in 20 AD.

The Romans used it for teeth whitening, improving their pomegranate crops, and curing diseased animals. Urine was also a cleaning agent.

Ok, so maybe people used it, you say. That doesn’t make it valuable. It’s the ultimate renewable resource — since we all produce it every day.

Yes, but let’s follow the money. Or, at least, the taxation of the money. The Romans valued it enough to impose a specific tax on urine. People were making money selling it.

Could an enterprising Roman have started a business in selling liquid waste?

I sat down with Shane Bjornlie, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College. Dr. Bjornlie is an expert in Roman History.

Though we don’t have a lot of business records from Ancient Rome, I thought it might be interesting to talk with an expert on how practical it might be to start this business in the year 20 AD.

Dr. Bjornlie’s deep understanding of the political, cultural, and economic aspects of 1st Century Roman life provides a glimpse of how one might have gone about starting a business selling urine. We’ll reserve judgment about whether or not we’d greenlight this startup until after talking with Dr. Bjornlie.

But let’s go back a couple of thousand years and see if this pitch might have some promise.

Let’s start with the premise of a urine business. How valuable was urine to Romans in their daily lives?

Dr. Bjornlie: We have to first all keep in mind that there’s a certain fiction to the idea of the Roman sewer system. There’s a moment in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian when the characters say “what have the Romans done for us?” and one of them pipes up and says “well, remember the sewer system, we can’t forget how bad it was before we got the sewer system.”

It’s not [always] the case that Roman households, whether it’s an elite household called a domus or even the tenements where most Roman lived, called insulae, had indoor plumbing.

In researching this piece, I thought I read that a domus would likely have a latrine.

Dr. Bjornlie: They would have cesspits. There would be toilets. But there’s a difference between a place where one squats, and actual plumbing that removes the material from the premises of the house. And, ironically, the more affluent homes that would have latrines oftentimes located the latrines in the food preparation area.

None of these places had running water that would cycle freshwater in and flush waste out. That’s not the case. Even in elite households, the most traditional means of gathering freshwater was through a cistern.

We see this when you think about the quintessential Roman household and how you have atria that are exposed to light: we tend to associate classical households with all of that wonderful airy space. But those atria are actually catchments for water: they would channel water off the roof into an impluvium, a patio basin often equipped with a cistern so the runoff water would be trapped underneath. And that’s household water.

Getting back to urine and bodily waste in general, it’s something that had to removed from the household on a daily basis. There were public urinals, at least in Rome and some of the other larger cities, and some of these urinals may have been connected to some kind of a sewage system. But more often than not, what you had was a cesspit.

Would that be true in the one in the image I used as the cover for this piece?

Dr. Bjornlie: That one is from a place called Housesteads. It’s a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall. That’s just a cesspit. It’s pretty remarkable, the first time you stand in front of Roman latrines and look at them: they’re rather well made.

But the Roman notion of hygiene is very different from our own: most latrines came equipped with sponges on sticks — the Roman equivalent of reusable toilet paper.

And those were communal, right?

Dr. Bjornlie: Yes. It caused a lot of disease transmission. There’s a reason why the mortality rate [was extremely high]. They had no conception of bacteria.

At any rate, they did know that bodily waste needed to be removed from the household.

Typically, your neighborhood would have someone to take care of that […] You might call them entrepreneurs: they would make the rounds every morning, collecting the material from chamber pots, and both solid and liquid waste would be sold or used directly for industrial purposes.

Romans were very fond of intramural gardens (gardens within the city bounds) and human solid waste was seen as a fertilizer […] Often, the person collecting the human waste would be a servant of the local fuller, the Roman equivalent of your local dry cleaner. They would collect urea and distill it down to its components.

I read that they would leave it out in the sun for a certain amount of time and urea would decay into ammonia

Dr. Bjornlie: Right. This becomes a base of a kind of detergent, and this detergent would be used for tanning and softening leathers. It would also be used as a detergent for wool or other kinds of textiles. This was your local neighborhood laundromat.

Maybe the business opportunity we’re talking about was the fuller.

Dr. Bjornlie: It definitely was. And it was a pretty traditional business, present in every Roman neighborhood, but not [a job with status in the community]. Now, Romans had a pretty peculiar notion of what was an appropriate way to make money. If you were a Roman of senatorial or equestrian status, working as a fuller or was not an idea you would entertain.

A wealthy Roman, for example, would not support or fund a branch of what we might think of as a laundromat. This was considered a sordid source of income, because you’re getting your hands dirty.

I read that the business opportunities of those of the higher classes would be of a much different scale. They might be buying and selling land but not getting involved with something like this

Dr. Bjornlie: So, urine was not an investment opportunity for Romans of rank. You would not invest in this sort of business. That being said, Romans of senatorial rank are actually debarred by law from engaging in any type of commerce. Not only were Romans of senatorial rank debarred from engaging in any type of commerce, they were [also] debarred from owning ships above a certain tonnage. […] The only respectable means of providing for your family and the only respectable means of investment was land.

In fact, your rank in Roman society was determined by precisely how much land you owned. In the earlier Republican period, Roman senators were expected to own at least 800,000 sesterces worth of land. To put that in perspective, when the Roman state first starts paying Roman soldiers a salary, the annual salary was about 400 sesterces a year.

By the end of the 1st Century AD, that property qualification has gone up to 1,000,000 sesterces. That’s the only respectable means of maintaining family wealth. And it’s the only respectable thing to invest family wealth in. This has to do with the cherished Roman notion of self-sufficiency.

The fear was that if senators were not self-sufficient, then it could lead to corrupt practices with the resources of the state. The group of people just below the senatorial elite is called the equestrian order. Their property qualification is at about 400,000 sesterces worth of land. Interestingly, because they didn’t have access to the same kinds of political offices as the senatorial elite, they were allowed to engage in all sorts of commercial and financial activities.

So we find them engaged in activities as investors. We find them engaged in banking. Sometimes they are hired by the state as ‘publicani’, as tax farmers who would go out and collect taxes from the provinces for the state. They would bid against each other for the right to collect taxes: this led to all sorts of corrupt practices. So members of the equestrian order engaged in all kinds of investments, businesses. But would a member of the equestrian order invest in a string of so-called Roman laundromats? Probably not. This is still an occupation that has a sordid association.

How many rungs below the equestrian order in the social hierarchy would you say was the type of individual who would be operating the laundromat? How far are they apart?

Pretty far down. You’re talking about someone who is just a little bit more respectable than the local brothel owner. To keep that in perspective, owning a brothel was not illegal. It was legal, but […] your status suffered by doing so.

In fact, prostitution was taxed along with urine. And so prostitutes were entered on a tax roster every year and either they or their owners (most prostitutes were slave women or slave men) would pay these taxes. Interestingly, in one of the city insulae (or city blocks) that’s adjacent to the Forum of Pompei, we have archeological remains for a brothel right next door to a fuller: the owners of these two enterprises shared property walls. And this is a residential neighborhood. There are people who live in domiciles, cheek to jaw with your neighborhood pimp and your neighborhood fuller. One of them engaged in the sex trade and the other engaged in the reuse of urine.

As far as Roman citizens go then, fullers and brothel owners are the lowest rungs?

Dr. Bjornlie: Exactly.

How much social mobility would someone have that’s at the lowest rung of society? Maybe they’ll never attain equestrian level but how high could one climb?

Dr. Bjornlie: Surprisingly, the gap is not as far as you might imagine. Social mobility in the Roman world was astonishingly fluid. But it had certain mechanisms that had to be observed to activate that fluidity.

A good example of this would be the Roman slave. All slaves had the potential to be manumitted (liberated) by their owners. Upon manumission, a Roman slave became a legal Roman citizen. We know that a lot of elite slave owners took a great deal of interest in slaves that had particular skills and particular occupations. There was a lot of interest in slaves with medical expertise, for example, or expertise in handcrafts like metallurgy. Especially lucrative fields.

Using an analogy to today, it’s kind of like someone who starts out in life lower in socioeconomic status, but has a unique skill like being a brilliant coder, they potentially rise up the hierarchy?

Dr. Bjornlie: I’d say it’s a little different. Because to elevate in Roman society, you’d actually have to set those skills aside. It’s those skills that make you attractive to a Roman slave owner, at least initially, because you can provide things for the Roman household with those skills that are attractive to the Roman slave owner. Upon manumission, you not only become a Roman citizen, you also become a legal client of your former owner. Your reputation and your respectability are attached to the reputation and respectability of your former owner. This gives you an entre into higher society. But this was potentially a source of anxiety for a lot of Romans.

Freedman or former slaves because of their former servitude could engage in all sorts of activities that a more respectable Roman might be reluctant to do. They had at their disposal a wider portfolio of means to acquire wealth. By contrast, becoming a member of the equestrian order is simply a matter of owning enough land.

So it’s not blood nobility or anything like that?

Dr. Bjornlie: No. The idea of a lineage-based nobility does creep into existence with the Romans, but it’s constantly being challenged by the fluidity of social mobility.

For example, freedmen (former slaves) were debarred from holding political office. The children of freedmen were not. Former slaves could (and there are good examples of this) gain enormous wealth, buy lots of property, and their children would become members of the office-holding — political elite. And their grandchildren worked their way into the senatorial order.

That kind of social mobility is really quite astonishing when we compare Roman society to other ancient societies, especially in the Mediterranian. Roman society was very porous at the bottom. There was an enormous amount of social mobility. But there were specific triggers that had to activate that mobility.

Part of it was the patronage system. You had to be connected with somebody with some sense of respectability. So your former owner as a slave was a part of that.

Did being a former slave actually give you a better chance at climbing the social ladder than being in the lower two rungs that we were discussing earlier; our brother owner and fuller?

Dr. Bjornlie: Absolutely.

I’m not hearing you talk about much social mobility in those classes. What would social fluidity look like for the fullers and brothel owners?

Dr. Bjornlie: The way that would have to happen is [through] investment in land. Your rank in Roman society was determined, even below the equestrian order, by the amount of property that you owned.

This is also the origin of the original census. The original census was a tallying that was done roughly every 5 years to tabulate your family assets in terms of land and assign you to a class.

So a class wasn’t just the way people perceived you, it was an actual membership?

Dr. Bjornlie: Yeah, and it was assessed literally in the acreage that you could claim to own. And your class determined your voting privileges and it also determined your obligation to the state in terms of military service. Your role within the legion would be determined by your class. Your position in the voting order was determined by your class.

People who were propertyless, people the Romans called the ‘proletarii’ (hence our word proletariat), these were the people who voted last. This means that their vote, when it was cast, if it was cast, counted for very little. They were also the people who were obligated to do the least for the state in terms of military engagement.

In order to actualize real mobility as a Roman citizen, you would have to invest in land. You could imagine someone who is urban-based, who has a business collecting urine and selling it to a fuller or a tanner, could invest [his] modest profits in a plot of land.

So the mobility wouldn’t come from the business per se. Could our urine selling business owner get lucky by buying real estate in a hot area and get wealthy?

Dr. Bjornlie: Property value was not as radical as it is today. The value of your property in the Roman period would be based quite literally on what could be produced on it.

We’re talking about farmland. The assessors would look at what the fields and land could produce in grain yield. Assess pasturage for pigs. Hillsides for vines and olives. They would base the value of the property on what could be derived from it.

Aesthetic considerations, school districts, all this other stuff doesn’t come into play for Roman assessment. At its base is what could be produced on it.

This would be the basis of social mobility. Whatever business you might have as a Roman citizen, you would take your profits and invest in dribs and drabs in the acquisition of more land. That eventually could bring you to a higher social status.

What is the significance of urine being singled out specifically for taxation?

Dr. Bjornlie: Urine was just a basic commodity. The original ‘vectigal urinae’ was initiated by Nero. After Nero’s death, he was condemned with a ‘damnatio memoriae,’ which nullified his laws. So that tax fell into abeyance. It was then reinitiated by the person who eventually came to succeed him, the Emperor Vespasian. He came to power in 69AD.

Romans are often of two minds about things. There’s an aristocratic notion that you want to distance yourself from anything sordid. On the other hand, there’s a very practical nature about Roman life. Things that we try to hide away or flush, as it were, Romans tended to be very practical about.

The interesting thing about the tax, as far as I know, it was only levied in the city of Rome itself. We have to keep in mind that, by the time Vespasian comes to power, we’re not just talking about the city of Rome. Rome is an empire of provinces that span from the Atlantic Coast to the Tigris.

This particular tax was, I believe, reserved for the city of Rome. Taxes are only good when they are enforceable. In a city like Rome where you have public latrines, the removal of urine can be measured and the use of urine by people like fullers can actually be assessed. It wasn’t a tax felt by the 60 million-odd people who would have lived across the Roman Empire.

Mainly because it wouldn’t have been enforceable.

Dr. Bjornlie: Yeah. It was just a matter of convenience.

How hated was it in Rome? Was it just a nuisance or did it cause outrage?

Dr. Bjornlie: No. Keep in mind, it was not a tax on urination. It’s a tax on the use of urea as a resource. It’s only going to impact people like fullers who have a unique use for that commodity. They’re already laboring under a social disability because of their occupation. So it’s hard to develop any kind of public outrage.

So nobody really cares what they think.

Dr. Bjornlie: Exactly. The same way that nobody really cared if your local pimp got taxed. So it was a non-starter in terms of generating any kind of resentment.

For the fuller who is able to save, was there a banking system that could be used to protect the savings?

Dr. Bjornlie: Physical money would be kept at temples, usually. And, in fact, the state treasury was at the temple of Saturn in the Forum. Usually, temples were used as treasuries for obvious reasons: when your local bank is a place that also houses the gods, you’re doubly reluctant to stage a robbery. Roman society was incredibly liquid with cash and the temples were places where cash could be stored.

That being said, the Roman government never minted money for the purpose of making exchange more liquid. So it wasn’t for the purpose of the convenience of day to day life for Roman citizens. The government was never really involved in banking. Usually, by banking, in the Roman world, we mean underwriting activities related to commerce. But for our fuller, again, the most reliable means of saving money would be an investment in land.

Let’s say that you and I are fullers in adjoining neighborhoods and we get into a business dispute of some type, how did these kinds of disputes get resolved?

Dr. Bjornlie: […] Every Roman citizen had access to the law — in theory. The challenge of the Roman legal system is that it’s based on status. Now, as a fuller, if you’re in a dispute with a neighbor, you can go to the local magistrate and bring up charges against your neighbor. Your magistrate could physically drag your neighbor into court to have your case heard.

But the local magistrate also has the authority to determine if your case is hearable. In other words, if your local neighbor happens to be an equestrian with 800,000 sesterces’ worth of land and you’re the fuller…


Dr. Bjornlie: … Your local magistrate can say “please, go away, the case is done.” Or you could bribe your magistrate to have a case heard: that’s also part of the legal culture of the Roman world.

But even then, even if you get a case heard, because bringing charges against someone is a form of slander in Roman eyes, you are obligated to prove your point, or you could be branded a calumniator: — someone who has impugned the reputation and integrity of another citizen.

If you don’t prove the case, whatever penalty could have been inflicted upon the defendant could be inflicted on you […] For the upper classes, penalties are often pecuniary: you pay a fine. For the lower classes, it’s usually corporal in nature. The punishment is exacted on your body.

Roman citizenship valued the integrity of the body. One of the only ways that your body could be touched by the state is through a legal sentence. You do bear (some) risk in bringing a case against another Roman. Now that’s the legal recourse. There are also extra-legal recourses.

A lot of professions would band together in what we would consider to be guilds, or what Romans called collegia. Guilds could collectively represent the rights of their individual members.

Kind of like the Bar Association for attorneys today?

Dr. Bjornlie: Exactly. So I would need to look into whether there was a specific collegium associated with the fullers. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was. And usually, when you do have something like a collegium, you also have a patron of higher status. Your standing in any trial would be based on the public respectability of the patron. This is one of the social mechanisms that Romans used. You can never overemphasize the roles of patrons in Roman society. It’s what kept the elite, the elite. But it also offers certain protections for the non-elite, who could depend upon patrons for arbitration.

Thank you, Dr. Bjornlie.

Wrapping this up

It’s fascinating to think about what life and business might have been like two thousand years ago. The legacy of Roman life surrounds us to this day. Many say that we in the West are essentially Romans.

Like the majority of entrepreneurial pitches today, selling urine sounds like an unambiguous ‘pass’. I think Dr. Bjornlie had me convinced after the second question.

Commoditized product, low margins, few rights, and not the most pleasant work environment.

Maybe we can consider something in real estate next time?


©2020 by Brent Rupnow, CEPA, CFP, CLU, ChFC