How Were Vomitoriums Used in Ancient Rome?

Contrary to popular belief, Roman vomitoriums were passages for "spewing out of" entertainment venues, not places for throwing up after overeating.
Contrary to popular belief, Roman vomitoriums were passages for "spewing out of" entertainment venues, not places for throwing up after overeating.

Of all the ridiculous notions promulgated about ancient Rome, one of the most gut-wrenching is that the wealthy would gorge themselves so much that they built vomitoriums in which they could throw up, sometimes en masse, before eating some more. The truth is much less sickening: Vomitoriums were simply passages through which crowds could quickly find their way out of theaters or stadiums after a performance.

The first known use of the term "vomitorium" is found in Saturnalia, a fifth-century work by Macrobius Theodosius, a Roman who decided to write down what he could of talks held at a wealthy's aristocrat's home. In the work, Theodosius mentions vomitoriums (or, more accurately, vomitoria) as places through which theatergoers could "spew forth."

While the word itself suggests how the meaning came to be misunderstood, most historians think it was first misused in print by sci-fi author Aldous Huxley, who employed it in his comic novel, Antic Hay. It has since been borrowed by everyone from daily newspapers to a famous Saturday Night Live sketch.

When in ancient Rome:

  • Common citizens in ancient Rome often had to pay to use public urinals, and their urine was collected for use in different chemical applications.

  • Left-handed people were often demonized in ancient Rome, being seen as sinful or untrustworthy; wedding rings were worn on the left hand to ward off any evil.

  • Most people in ancient Rome really did dress in tunics and togas; most togas were white, but senators and emperors were allowed to wear purple ones.

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    • Contrary to popular belief, Roman vomitoriums were passages for "spewing out of" entertainment venues, not places for throwing up after overeating.
      Contrary to popular belief, Roman vomitoriums were passages for "spewing out of" entertainment venues, not places for throwing up after overeating.