Pecunia non olet `money doesn’t stink’ is a well-known expression, attributed to Emperor Vespasian (AD 69–79). After decennia of turmoil, the reign of this man must have come as a relief. It says enough that Vespasian was one of the few emperors not to suffer a violent death.
At the end of his biography of Vespasian, Suetonius (69- after 122 AD) sums up some anecdotes about this man. Suetonius stresses the wit of this emperor, but the anecdotes are also revealing the endemic corruption and the constant shortage of cash of the Roman Empire at that period.
Entertaining as such anecdotes are, modern historians doubt their historicity. True or not, they illustrate Vespasian’s character. He even kept his wit when death was approaching: `O dear, I think I am becoming a god!’, referring to the practice of giving a divine status to deceased emperors. He was right: `Divus Vespasianus’ is the heading of his biography.
The Latin is not that easy and the anecdotes require explanation, as for modern readers the point is not immediately obvious.
Suetonius, Divus Vespasianus ,23 (The first few sentences have been left out as they contain Greek quotes)
Maxime tamen dicacitatem adfectabat in deformibus lucris, ut invidiam aliqua cavillatione dilueret transferretque ad sales. Quendam e caris ministris dispensationem cuidam quasi fratri petentem cum distulisset, ipsum candidatum ad se vocavit; exactaque pecunia, quantam is cum suffragatore suo pepigerat, sine mora ordinavit; interpellanti mox ministro: Alium tibi, ait, quaere fratrem; hic, quem tuum putas, meus est. Mulionem in itinere quodam suspicatus ad calciandas mulas desiluisse, ut adeunti litigatori spatium moramque praeberet, interrogavit quanti calciasset, et pactus est lucri partem. Reprehendenti filio Tito, quod etiam urinae vectigal commentus esset, pecuniam ex prima pensione admovit ad nares, sciscitans num odore offenderetur; et illo negante: Atqui, inquit, e lotio est. Nuntiantis legatos decretam ei publice non mediocris summae statuam colosseam, iussit vel continuo ponere, cavam manum ostentans et paratam basim dicens. Ac ne in metu quidem ac periculo mortis extremo abstinuit iocis. Nam cum inter cetera prodigia Mausoleum derepente patuisset et stella crinita in caelo apparuisset, alterum ad Iuniam Calvinam e gente Augusti pertinere dicebat, alterum ad Parthorum regem qui capillatus esset; prima quoque morbi accessione: Vae, inquit, puto, deus fio.
dicacitatem adfectabat in deformibus lucris: He used to resort to his wit (dicacitas) in relation to his foul profits (lucrum)
affecto (-are): to strive after, aim, resort (the imperfect here describes a habit)
cavillatio –onis (f.): a jest, irony
diluo dilui dilutum: to wash away
transferretque ad sales: and turned it onto jokes (sal (m.): salt, but also joke, jest)
(Cum distulisset) quendam… dispensationem cuidam quasi fratri petentem: (when he had put off ) a certain person… asking for the office of treasurer (dispensatio. A dispensator is a treasurer) for someone pretending to be that it was his brother. (Such a job could be very profitable and the pretended brother was of course paying the servant money once he got that job. However Vespasian was shrewder than his servant.)
exactaque pecunia: the money being extorted
suffragator –oris (m.): helper, supporter
pango (-ere) pepigi pactum: to agree
ordinavit (eum dispensatorem)
interpello (-are): to interrupt, disturb by speaking (interpellanti ministro: abl. abs.)
quaero quaesivi quaesitum: to ask
mulionem...suspicatus ad calciandas mulas desiluisse: he suspected that a muledriver had dismounted to shoe the mules (calcio (-are)= calceo (-are): to shoe (Mules had no iron horseshoes with nails, but a kind of leather shoes.)
litigator –oris (m.): litigant, person involved in a lawsuit (In theory an emperor was the highest judge and hence the muledriver gave (praebeo praebui praebuitum) the man time and opportunity (spatium moramque) for approaching Vespasian. In practice complains were handled by the staff of an emperor, but now there was an opportunity for direct access.)
quanti: genitive of price `for how much money’, cf. below non mediocris summae
paciscor pactus sum: to agree, stipulate
reprehendenti (eum) filio Tito: abl. abs. `when his son Titus was rebuking him’
urinae: namely for urinating in public toilets
vectigal –alis (n.): (indirect) tax
comminiscor commentus est: to devise, invent
ex prima pensione: from the first payment (of that tax)
naris naris (f.): nostrils
sciscitor scisciscatus sum: to ask
odor odoris (m.): smell
atqui: and nevertheless
Nuntiantis legatos decretam ei publice non mediocris summae statuam colosseam, iussit = iussit legatos nuntiantis (= nuntiantes) ei statuam colosseam publice decretam (esse) non mediocris summae
publice: i.e. to be paid by state resources
vel: even. Indeed (not to be confused with the disjunctive vel)
cavam manum: the cavity of his hands
basis basis (m.): fundament (the point is that Vespasian rather wanted the money than an expensive statue.)
pateo patui: to be/stand open (Normally the doors of the Mausoleum were closed. It was a bad sign when they were open.)
stella crinita: `hairy star’, meteor
Iunia Calvina: the last survivor of the family of Augustus (Calvinus comes from calvus `bald’)
capillatus: with long hair (which was normal for the Parthians)
prima quoque morbi accessione: at the first (signs of the) appearance of death
Translation by J.C. Rolfe (1913)
But he particularly resorted to witticisms about his unseemly means of gain, seeking to diminish their odium by some jocose saying and to turn them into a jest. 2 Having put off one of his favourite attendants, who asked for a stewardship for a pretended brother, he summoned the candidate himself, and after compelling him to pay him as much money as he had agreed to give his advocate, appointed him to the position without delay. On his attendant's taking up the matter again, he said: "Find yourself another brother; the man that you thought was yours is mine." On a journey, suspecting that his muleteer had got down to shoe the mules merely to make delay and give time for a man with a lawsuit to approach the emperor, he asked how much he was paid for shoeing the mules and insisted on a share of the money. 3 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." On the report of a deputation that a colossal statue of great cost had been voted him at public expense, he demanded to have it set up at once, and holding out his open hand, said that the base was ready. 4 He did not cease his jokes even when in apprehension of death and in extreme danger; for when among other portents the Mausoleum
opened on a sudden and a comet appeared in the heavens, he declared that the former applied to Junia Calvina of the family of Augustus, and the latter to the king of the Parthians, who wore his hair long; and as death drew near, he said: "Woe's me. Methinks I'm turning into a god."