The ancient vomitoriums apparently had nothing to do with vomiting at all!
The “vomitorium” has long been associated with images of ancient Romans indulging in excessive feasting only to purge themselves to eat more. However, this widespread belief is a historical misconception. The real meaning of vomitorium in Roman culture was quite different and far less grotesque.
Vomitorium are Exits
In reality, a vomitorium was an architectural feature in ancient Roman amphitheaters and stadiums. The word, derived from the Latin vomitus, which means to spew forth, referred to the large passageways that allowed crowds to exit rapidly into the streets.
These passageways were efficient in dispersing large groups of people from the venues, similar to how food is expelled from the stomach.
The false notion of the vomitorium as a place for purging after excessive eating likely stemmed from a misunderstanding of the Latin language.
It was an easy jump from “vomitorium,” a term describing the spewing of crowds, to a place for vomiting. The misinterpretation was possibly fueled by modern literature and an already existing stereotype of ancient Romans as excessively indulgent.
Classical texts that described Roman feasts and excesses played a role in cementing this myth. Works like Seneca’s Letters and the satirical ‘Satyricon’ by Petronius depicted scenes of lavish Roman feasts and debauchery. These descriptions, often satirical and exaggerated, influenced modern interpretations and led to the vomitorium myth.
Roman feasts, especially among the upper class, were indeed grand. They involved elaborate dishes and communal eating. Entertainment was common, with dancers and musicians adding to the festivities. Women and men dined together, which was a departure from the Greek tradition.
The feasts could include extravagant presentations, but there is no historical evidence to suggest that these gatherings included rooms specifically designated for purging.
Contrary to the image of constant overindulgence, the diets of both wealthy and poorer Romans were predominantly grain-based. The wealthy had more access to wheat and meats, while the poorer sections of society consumed more millet.
This dietary pattern indicates that while the rich could afford more lavish meals, their eating habits were not as extreme as the myth of the vomitorium would suggest.
Debunking the Myth of Vomitoriums
The vomitorium is a great example of how misconceptions can arise from misinterpretations and satirical representations. It wasn’t a space for bingeing and purging but rather an architectural innovation for crowd management.