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You won’t believe what people of Roman Empire used urine for – they laughed at this themselves

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Posted July 19, 2019

We as humans are kind of weird. We don’t like contact with our own body fluids, despite them being rather sterile. For example, our own pee makes us feel icky if it comes in contact with hands, for example. People of Roman Empire, however were very different in this regard. In fact, they used human and animal urine in their everyday lives.

Public latrines like this one were places with high social significance, but people of Roman Epire had much weirder habits than this. Image credit: Carole Raddato via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

For example, in Roman Empire it was normal to use human and animal urine as a mouthwash of sorts. Sounds gross, right? Definitely, but back in the day people noticed that urine helps maintaining healthy and strong teeth. In fact, it even makes teeth whiter. It is because of ammonia, which forms as bacteria break down urea. Ammonia is used in many commercial cleaning products as well as many pharmaceutical products. Urine also contains various salts and crystals are good at removing dirt from one’s teeth. Today’s scientists say that it was probably rather effective and that is why people from Roman Empire used this method daily.

However, don’t have illusions – Ancient Romans were not particularly clean. Although public bath culture was vivid throughout the time of Roman Empire, people didn’t wash themselves every day. This is why even urine as mouthwash was probably not used by everyone. In fact, some people believed it to be ridiculous even back then. When they saw someone with particularly white teeth, they always said – “Hey, his mouth must be full with urine”. And it was probably right to think so.

Urine was used in other areas as well. For example, Ancient Romans used urine to wash some clothing. Older urine was better for this. Clothes were soaked in it and then mixed by workers who trampled that mess with their feet. Urine was even used to dye leather. In this industry even feces were used – it was believed that feces can make leather a little bit softer. And, of course, urine was also used as a fertilizer. This is nothing new – modern chemical fertilizers also have some of the same substances as human urine.

Finally, urine was also used in medicine – it was used as a disinfectant for wounds, burns and scorpion bites. And although all of this sounds gross to you, we stopped using urine not so long ago. Europeans used human urine for a variety of things up until 19th century.

Life in Roman Empire was not perfect according to today’s standards. For example, those public latrines with shared Xylospongiums (sponges on sticks) are quite gross. But our civilization had to pass through that to get us where we are now. Maybe someday in the future a lot details of our lives will look disgusting to our successors.

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