The Debunker: What Went On in a Roman Vomitorium?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Ancient Romans Vomit in a Vomitorium?

In the popular imagination, the Romans were so debauched and hedonistic that they set aside a special room just for tossing one’s cookies at a banquet. I guess you’d be chowing down on grapes at a banquet when you’d start to notice you were feeling a little full, so you’d head out to the vomitorium, enjoy a refreshing Technicolor yawn, and then come back to the table for a second helping. We’re supposed to believe, I guess, that this was a common upper-class architectural feature, like listings for Roman houses were all “3 bd/2 bth/1 vm.” Uh, no. Let me clarify: Romans did vomit sometimes. And they did build buildings with vomitoria. But nobody ever vomited in a vomitorium. Not on purpose, anyway.

According to Seneca, Roman banquets sometimes got so crazy that a slave was assigned to crouch under the table mopping up the mess whenever a guest felt the need to deliver street pizza. (I can’t believe I never saw one of these guys on Dirty Jobs.) But note that the liquid burp was a not-infrequent custom at the dinner table, which would seem to make a second room unnecessary. Vomitoria, despite their name, were not anterooms to banquet halls. They were actually passageways that opened onto the seating areas of a Roman amphitheater or coliseum. They were so named, I guess, because of their resemblance to throats spewing crowds of spectators into the stands. Eww.

The Oxford English Dictionary credits Aldous Huxley as the first writer to misunderstand the purpose of a vomitorium. (In his novel Antic Hay, he imagines that Petronius Arbiter, the famed party animal who wrote the Satyricon, would have had a vomitorium in his house. Which is not true, unless Petronius lived in a stadium.) It’s easy to see how the mistake got made, but don’t be fooled! The next time you’re in a real vomitorium—heading to your seat at a ball game, perhaps—please do not vomit. Your fellow fans will appreciate the courtesy.

Quick Quiz: What syrup, made from the roots of a Brazilian herb, was once a common emetic, used to induce vomiting?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.