After holiday feasts, when belts are loosened and stomachs are freed, the pangs of gluttonous guilt are often assuaged with thoughts of the Romans and tales of their ravenous gorging followed by visits to a vomitorium to make room for another course or ten. A new discovery of an actual vomitorium in Italy embarrassingly points out that we the meaning of this word all wrong.
Archeologists digging under the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence recently uncovered a 2nd century A.D. Roman theater and the corridor, or vomitoria, used by as many as 15,000 patrons per performance to enter and exit. Closed in the fifth century, the theater was rediscovered in the 1990’s and excavation began at the Palazzo Vecchio in 2004.
The most impressive vomitoria for “disgorging” its human contents belongs to the Colosseum in Rome, which had 76 ground level openings that could let in 50,000 spectators in 15 minutes and spit them back out about as fast. The first reference to “vomitoria” in this context appeared in the early fifth century writings of Macrobius.
So how did vomitoria get its more odious meaning? It’s true that, just like the cartoonish portraits of obese toga-clad diners depict, the Romans ate while reclining and didn’t get up when the urge to disgorge overcame them. The Roman philosopher Seneca gave this tasteful description.
When we recline at a banquet, one [slave] wipes up the spittle; another, situated beneath [the table], collects the leavings of the drunks.
Seneca did not, however, call it a vomitoria. In his 1923 novel “Antic Hay,” Aldous Huxley used the word incorrectly:
There strode in, like a Goth into the elegant marble vomitorium of Petronius Arbiter, a haggard and dishevelled person.
And in “The City in History,” historian Lewis Mumford claimed the vomiting room meaning came first and the corridor definition later. Thus the word acquired its common usage.
After consuming too many hotdogs while watching my favorite football team lose yet again, I often wish the stadium had some of each.