Veni, Vidi… Vomit? (1st C BC)

By: The Scribe on Sunday, April 22, 2007

wall painting, Pompeii, ca. 70 AD]One of the common “facts” taught about ancient Rome, both by public schools and uninformed historians, is that Roman houses contained a special room called a vomitorium, which was set aside for the purpose of purging one’s insides from a recent meal… in order to make room to eat more. The word itself comes from the Latin word vomere, which means “to vomit”.

Fortunately for the Romans, this is simply a misconception. Vomiting, for those who have experienced such a phenomenon in the past, is typically not an event that any human wishes to endure any more than absolutely necessary – say, during illness – and thus it would be absolute falsity to claim that the entire Roman upper class was semi-bulimic.

Ancient Rome did have vomitorioums, however, but their purpose was entirely unrelated to the consumption of food! Vomitorium was the proper name for an architectural feature of ancient Roman theatres: it was a wide corridor situated below or behind a tier of seats, through which thousands of spectators could file in and out of quickly (or “spew out of”, to keep the nuance of the Latin word).

a  real vomitorium

The vomitoria of the Colosseum in Rome were reportedly able to allow 50,000 people to enter and be seated within 15 minutes; presumably they would be able to exit in an equally rapid manner, thus earning the passageway its name. The misconception of meaning for this term probably came about in the early 1900s, when historians were writing history texts without a correct understanding of Latin… which meant that they could not read texts of the ancient authors… who, when writing about eating excessively and illness afterward, never once mentioned the existence of special room in which one could throw up.

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One comment so far

Nan Lieberman at September 23, 2008

I have read that though the word “vomitorium” has been misunderstood, the practice of vomiting was practiced. Was this done by a few people or would it be considered a normal practice?
Also, it is written in a few books that a feather was commonly used to tickle tha back of the throat to help induce vomiting. True or not?

Thank you

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