Roman Arm Purse

‘Pecunia non olet‘, meaning ‘money does not smell’, was used by the Roman emperor, Vespasian, as an explanation to his son, Titus, that no matter where money comes from, it has the same value. He imposed the urine tax on owners of public toilets, because the empire had no coins left (Centre Céramique, 2017).

Purses in the Roman period were made of textile, leather, or in this case, bronze. The owners of public toilets used the Roman arm purses to store and carry the coins they received for the use of the toilets. They had to wear the purse around their arm, because the lid could be closed by the pressure of the arm. This made carrying money safe, and helped prevent theft (Centre Céramique, 2017).

3D model of the Roman Arm Purse

The object belongs to the following themes:



Place of Origin
Mook, North Limburg,
The Netherlands

Time Period of Use (ca.)
1 – 300 CE


Dimensions (cm)
Height: 10

3D Model

Canon EOS 80D

Processing software
Agisoft Metashape Professional Edition

Mónika Imola Kara & Esther ten Haaf

Money does not smell

Have you ever thought about the story behind coins? How they might have been stored? What they might have been used for, and by who? Although we nowadays barely use coins anymore, in the ancient Roman times they were the source of everything citizens back then needed for their everyday lives (Google Arts & Culture, n.d.-a). But what do these coins have to do with urine tax, and what do we know about the purses they were held in? We do not know a lot of specific features about the Roman arm purse, but we can assume what the object was used for by researching the history of Maastricht and related objects, such as coins from the ancient Roman period.

Pecunia non olet

In the year 69 AD, Vespasian took the throne (Preskar, 2022). He found out that the Roman Empire had no coins left, because his predecessor, Emperor Nero, had depleted the empire’s treasury. Therefore Vespasian imposed tax on everything he could, including urine, which was valuable at the time because of its ammonia, since it was efficient against grease and dirt (Preskar, 2022; Handwerk, 2016). Historians are not certain how the urine tax system worked: whether it was imposed on the owners of the public toilets, or if the collectors of the urine had to pay for it, one thing was for sure; Vespasian could refill the treasury with coins (Silver, 2021). Vespasian’s son and heir, Titus, was disgusted by the fact that the money came from the urine tax. Vespasian told him that all money has the same value, regardless where it comes from. The famous saying ‘Pecunia non olet’ meaning ‘Money does not smell’ comes from this incident (Centre Céramique, 2017) and public toilets in France and Italy are still called ‘vespasiennes’ and ‘vespasiano’ nowadays (Preskar, 2022).

The Roman Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD) (image consulted from

Along the Maas

In 53 BC, Julius Caesar conquered the area of Limburg, and a Roman path along the Maas was built: Via Belgica (Wikipedia, 2023a). Because of this path, traces of Roman influences in Maastricht are still visible in religion, architecture, and in the objects that were found in the area, such as the Roman arm purse (Maastricht Marketing, n.d.). Maastricht, meaning ‘crossing at the Meuse’, and also known as ‘Mosa Trajectum’, ‘Trajectum ad Mosam’ or ‘Traiectum Superius’ (Wikipedia, 2022), and Heerlen, also called ‘Coriovallum’, were founded by the Romans on this path (Lebens, 2001). Via Belgica was first built to link new areas in the north with other areas of the Roman Empire. The main part of the path was easy to travel until it reached the Maas River: it was only possible for the Romans to cross the river in summer, as it would run dry (Maastricht Marketing, n.d.). The Romans decided to build a bridge so they could cross the river during winter as well. A lively settlement quickly arose surrounding it, as this place proved to be the perfect location for a port, trade, and taverns (Maastricht Marketing, n.d.).

Via Belgica passed through other rich grounds where large amounts of grain were grown for civil and military markets, also a Roman invention (Time Travel Rome, 2021). Limburg became the granary of the Roman Empire, and along the path Roman ‘villae’ emerged: large farms that met the huge demand for agricultural products. Apart from growing and exchanging grain, farmers raised pigs and cattle which they also sold at the markets (Via Belgica, n.d.). In exchange, farmers received glass bottles, bronze tableware, coat pins and red glazed pottery from the Romans. Cities like Maastricht on the path of Via Belgica became the centres of the government, religion, commerce and art. Roman luxury made its appearance in farming households, and Maastricht became the centre of the trades under Pax Romana, and functioned as an important religious and cultural centre: its history became rich in Roman influences (Lebens, 2001). The objects that were found in this area, including the Roman arm purse, were created by this Roman prosperity and are part of its rich heritage.

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The Roman path Via Belgica (image consulted from
Maquette of Roman castellum in Maastricht (image consulted from
Roman culture in Maastricht (image consulted from
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With purses against theft

Purses came in many different shapes and materials, from leather to textile, or, in this case, bronze (Centre Céramique, 2017). This Roman arm purse was found in Mook, North Limburg. It is 10 centimeters high, and was made between the 1st and 3rd century AD. Coins could be stored and carried in the boat-shaped box (Centre Céramique, 2017). The purse was sealed with a lid, and it was held in place by the arm closing it. This allowed a safe way of carrying money (Centre Céramique, 2017). The importance of the Roman arm purse has changed throughout time. Nowadays the significance of the Roman arm purse lies in its uniqueness, history, and age. During the ancient Roman period, possessing a lot of money was not usual, therefore people had to take good care of their money (Google Arts & Culture, n.d.-a). The Roman arm purse concealed the amount and value of the coins (Google Arts & Culture, n.d.-b).

Roman arm purse and coins (image consulted from

Among the Roman coins, there were gold, silver, bronze, orichalcum and copper, but this has constantly changed with time (Wikipedia, 2023b). The coins were first produced in the 4th century BC in Italy (Cartwright, 2018), and served as models for other currencies as well (Wikipedia, 2023b). The front side of the coins usually showed the portrait of the emperor, and was used as mass media, as the public often only knew about the new emperor when new coins were minted (Google Arts & Culture, n.d.-a). Coins were also used for communicating messages to remind the masses of specific events that occurred (Hekster, 2003). These events were often shown on the tail side of coins (Google Arts & Culture, n.d.-a).

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The lives of Four Emperors on Roman coins (image consulted form
Gold Vespasian coins (69-71 AD) (image consulted from
Roman coins front side and tail side (image consulted form
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The current life of the Roman arm purse

The Roman arm purse carries a long history related to carrying coins during the Roman Empire, such as the rule of Vespasian. When the purse was found, it was incomplete, but with the help of today’s technologies, we can suppose what it must have looked like (see below the imagined model of the original Roman arm purse). The object relates to carrying and storing money, therefore the theme Economics & Wealth is appropriate. Money has always been the symbol of power and status, therefore the theme Power & Politics is suitable (Jackson, 1995).

Original model of the Roman arm purse (image consulted from Centre Céramique. (2017). Top or Topic. Archeological Highlights & Mysteries from the Maastricht Area)

Although we do not know a lot of specifics about the Roman arm purse, based on the rich history of Maastricht from the Roman times, we can make a connection to the object. Similar purses must have been used by the owners of the public toilets under the reign of Vespasian to collect coins for the urine tax. These coins were stored and carried safe inside, and because this particular purse is made of the wealthy material bronze, it gives us the opportunity to research and discover its history.

Written by Mónika Imola Kara & Esther ten Haaf