Dispelling Some Myths: Vomitorium
It is thirty years since the immensely popular ‘Horrible History’ series was launched, which was followed soon after by a television series of the same name. Author Terry Deary claims (tongue firmly in cheek) that the series is his revenge on the boring and badly taught history lessons he had to endure at school. If you are familiar with the books, they are not to be taken too literally (or seriously) but are a superb introduction for children to different historical periods. Just occasionally little mistakes are regurgitated. Yet these are not to the author’s discredit, rather they represent the inclusion of the common errors that still populate mainstream notions about history. One such is the ancient Romans’ use of vomitoria (sing. vomitorium).
Surely the purpose is obvious - the clue is in the name - the vomitorium must have been the place where Romans went to purge themselves of whatever excess (food or drink) they had indulged? Well, no.
The idea of inducing vomiting and quick trips to the ‘vomitorium’ is a modern misinterpretation attributed by the Oxford English Dictionary to Aldus Huxley in 1923, but it may have an even earlier 19th century origin . Cultured Romans entirely disapproved of excessive food and drink consumption. Indeed, public drunkenness was considered a sign of weakness and could lead to social disgrace. Yet, after a meal, if you were feeling unwell, whether from overeating, drinking or otherwise, it was considered wise to use an emetic - something to induce vomiting. To the Romans it seemed silly to remain feeling sick, especially if you may have been ‘inadvertently’ poisoned!
Vomitoria did exist, however. The term was first used by the Roman writer Macrobius in the 5th century AD. In his ‘Saturnalia’, he describes how crowds of people would ‘spew forth’ through the passages inside public venues. In other words, they were the means by which audiences could enter or leave places like amphitheatres, circuses or theatres. The Amphitheatrum Flavium (the ‘Flavian Amphitheatre or, more popularly, the ‘Colosseum’) in Rome, for example, had 80 vomitoria, 76 of which were for the general public, plus four Grand Entrances for Rome’s elite citizens. The arches one can still see today gave admission to corridors that ran around the building giving access to the staircases and passages that led to the amphitheatre’s seats. These passages were called vomitoria and were situated below or behind the tiers of seats. It was boasted that, at the end of a performance, the Colosseum could be emptied in just 15 minutes. Our notion, therefore, of vomiting comes from the Roman crowds literally ‘spewing forth’ from the exits.
Malik, S., (2023), ‘Q&A’, BBC History magazine April 2023 edition, p. 32.
1. In the 19th century writers and journalists spread the misconception because it fitted with their notions of excessive Romans that resided, and still do, in the public imagination.