Were there really vomitoriums in ancient Rome?

November 1, 2002

Dear Cecil:

Were vomitoriums really used in ancient Roman times so that people could throw up between courses in order to eat more?

Let me ask you this, Christine. The last time you were doubled over the porcelain throne heaving your nachos, did you think: I want to permanently consecrate part of my home to this delicious experience?

Well, neither did the Romans. While there was something called a vomitorium (from the Latin vomitus, past participle of vomere, to vomit), it wasn't a room set aside to vomit in. Rather a vomitorium was a passageway in an amphitheater or theater that opened into a tier of seats from below or behind. The vomitoria of the Colosseum in Rome were so well designed that it's said the immense venue, which seated at least 50,000, could fill in 15 minutes. (There were 80 entrances at ground level, 76 for ordinary spectators and 4 for the imperial family.) The vomitoria deposited mobs of people into their seats and afterward disgorged them with equal abruptness into the streets--whence, presumably, the name.

That's not to say the Romans were unfamiliar with throwing up, or that they never did so on purpose. On the contrary, in ancient times vomiting seems to have been a standard part of the fine-dining experience. In his Moral Epistles the Roman philosopher Seneca writes, Cum ad cenandum discubuimus, alius sputa deterget, alius reliquias temulentorum [toro] subditus colligit, "When we recline at a banquet, one [slave] wipes up the spittle; another, situated beneath [the table], collects the leavings of the drunks." OK, it doesn't literally say puke, but come on. The orator Cicero, in Pro Rege Deiotaro, says matter-of-factly that Julius Caesar "expressed a desire to vomit after dinner"(vomere post cenam te velle dixisses), and elsewhere suggests that the dictator took emetics for this purpose. Caesar's hosts wanted to take him to the bathroom, since they supposedly had a squad of assassins waiting there (at the time of Cicero's speech, King Deiotarus was on trial for this alleged attempt on Caesar's life), but he decided to go to his bedroom instead. Nowhere does Cicero say anything about a "vomitorium."

You get the picture. The Romans weren't shy about vomiting, and they had vomitoria--but they didn't do the former in the latter. The conflation of the two appears to be a recent error. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Aldous Huxley using the term incorrectly in 1923, with the stern comment "erron." Urban historian Lewis Mumford makes a similar screwup in The City in History (1961), claiming that the vomitoria of the amphitheaters were named after the mythical dining room appurtenances. So you're in distinguished company, Christine, but still misinformed.

Probably I should leave it at that. But perhaps all this talk of vomiting has you feeling . . . strangely excited. Perhaps I also need to fill out the bottom couple inches of the column. Either way, I'm obliged to inform you about a condition known as emetophilia, which is sexual arousal in response to vomit or vomiting. I won't claim it's a major phenomenon at the moment. I could only find one pre-Internet article in a medical journal ("Erotic Vomiting," Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1982), which calls it "a previously unreported aberration." A quick on-line search suggests emetophilia has a long way to go before it catches up with Japanese tentacle porn. But today's fringe practice is tomorrow's Newsweek cover. I say forewarned is forearmed.

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