|The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)|
There was once a widespread idea that Romans would duck away from the dinner table to a vomit-room -- a vomitorium -- to make themselves sick so they would have space for more food. This supposed fact was a terrific illustration of how decadent the Romans were.
It has now transformed from a popular myth into a popular example of debunking a myth. Nowadays the word vomitorium is usually understood to refer to a passage in a theatre, through which crowds can be disgorged into the seating area.
In defence of those who believed the myth, the adjective vomitorius in Latin did, in fact, consistently refer to vomiting or emetics. Only one single ancient text ever used the word with the modern meaning of a passage in an amphitheatre (not in theatres) -- and that was only in late antiquity, and only metaphorical. That one text, Macrobius’ Saturnalia 6.4.3 (5th cent. CE), states that the idea originates in a poetic expression in Vergil:
‘mane salutantum totis vomit aedibus undam’ (Vergil, Georgics 2.462): pulchre ‘vomit undam’ et antique, nam Ennius ait: ‘et Tiberis flumen vomit in mare salsum’ (Ennius, Annals fr. 453 Skutsch = fr. 142 Vahlens). unde et nunc vomitoria in spectaculis dicimus, unde homines glomeratim ingredientes in sedilia se fundunt.
‘Each morning the whole building vomits a wave of clients’: ‘vomits a wave’ is a fine expression, and an old one, for Ennius says: ‘and Tiber’s river vomits into the salted sea’. This is why even now we refer to vomitoria at the games, since people enter in a mass and pour into their seats.
(Ennius’ striking expression is in turn a borrowing from Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 2.744, describing a river in Turkey: ὅς τε διὲξ ἄκρης ἀνερεύγεται εἰς ἅλα βάλλων, ‘through the headland it vomits itself forth and casts into the salt (sea)’.)
In Macrobius it’s pretty obvious that this unique expression isn’t a technical term, but figurative, as in Vergil and Ennius. The architectural feature is real, but the word is a nickname. We don’t know what the 1st century BCE architectural writer Vitruvius would have called these passages, unfortunately, as he doesn’t discuss amphitheatres; but in theatres, he calls similar passages exitus ‘exits’ or itinera ‘ways’ (On architecture 5.3.5, 5.6.5).
Vomitorium only became a serious architectural term in the modern era.
So not only were vomitoria as vomit-rooms never a thing: vomitoria in theatres weren’t a thing either. Vomitoria weren’t a thing at all.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the word when talking about modern theatres: whatever the word may or may not have meant in the past, that doesn’t dictate its present-day usage. It just means that, so far as we know, it wasn’t a standard term for the Romans.
|Digression. For the record, ‘vomitorium’ first acquires its architectural meaning in English in 1722, in a translation of Dom Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures vol. 3.2, book 2, chap. 1: p. 149 in the English translation, p. 233 in the French edition (also 1722). The OED records the word in a 1730 English translation of Francesco Scipione’s Verona illustrata. The architectural meaning appeared earlier in the modern era in Latin, in Philander’s notes on Vitruvius 5.3 (see footnote c; remarkably, the 1544 publication of Philander’s notes omits this specific line, perhaps because the term sounded too vulgar).|
|The Oxford Latin Dictionary (1968) has no entry for vomitorium as an architectural feature -- quite rightly -- and only gives meanings related to vomiting.|
Most people’s awareness of the vomitorium myth can be traced back to a debunking by Cecil Adams in a 2002 post on The Straight Dope. Nearly all popular discussions of the subject in the last decade are derived from Adams, whether directly or, more often, very indirectly. Adams doesn’t look into Macrobius, but he does show clearly that there was no such thing as a ‘vomit-room’. He tries to console his readers by strongly suggesting that, even if the vomitorium wasn’t a thing, the Romans still happily vomited at banquets:
That’s not to say the Romans were unfamiliar with throwing up, or that they never did so on purpose. On the contrary, in ancient times vomiting seems to have been a standard part of the fine-dining experience. ... The Romans weren’t shy about vomiting, and they had vomitoria -- but they didn't do the former in the latter.
But even that’s granting too much to the myth. Adams supplies two pieces of ancient testimony -- Seneca (1st cent. CE) and Cicero (1st cent. BCE) -- to support his grudging admission that ‘The Romans weren’t shy about vomiting’. But actually there’s no reason even to admit that. We have very little reason to think of the Romans as happy chuckers, except in a medical context.
Exhibit A. Seneca, Moral letters 47.5
... ne tamquam hominibus quidem sed tamquam iumentis abutimur. [quod] cum ad cenandum discubuimus, alius sputa deterget, alius reliquias temulentorum <toro> subditus colligit.
... we treat (slaves) not even as men, but as cattle. (For) when we recline for dinner, one wipes up things that have been spat out; another gets down (under the couch) and gathers up the mess left by the drunken (diners).
See also the Loeb text and translation. A modern editor has added toro ‘under the couch’ to the text (plausibly: a scribe could easily have thought temulentorumtoro was an error and mistakenly ‘fixed’ it). Another modern editor has deleted quod (I don’t know Seneca’s style well enough to judge that).
Adams quotes the second sentence of this passage without mentioning the context. In addition, he adds the following gloss: ‘OK, it doesn’t literally say puke, but come on.’ Both of these are misleading. The context is important because Seneca’s complaint isn’t about how debauched the Romans are: it’s that slaves are often mistreated. Once you take debauchery out of the picture, there’s no motivation for us to read between the lines to supply ‘puke’. As for reliquias ‘leavings, things left behind’, there is absolutely no way that it specifically connotes ‘vomit’. Taken by itself, reliquiae means ‘remnants’ of any kind. If you’re talking about meals and you mention reliquiae, the most reasonable inference is that you’re talking about leftovers, or scraps that have fallen on the floor -- obviously the latter in Seneca’s case.
A blog post written in 2005 under the name ‘Anna’ takes Adams’ unwarranted gloss and goes a step further. This wouldn’t matter, except that Anna’s post has become weirdly influential. When Adams quoted Seneca, he gave it as
When we recline at a banquet, one [slave] wipes up the spittle; another, situated beneath [the table], collects the leavings of the drunks.
Now, there’s nothing very seriously wrong with this translation (sputa in the plural is more likely ‘things spat out’ than ‘spittle’, and there’s no ‘table’ in the text, but those aren’t major things). Anna, however, quotes it as
When we recline at a banquet, one [slave] wipes up the spittle; another, situated beneath, collects the leavings [vomit] of the drunks.
as though ‘vomit’ were an obvious gloss. Anna has obviously taken her cue from Adams, but she decides to embed the inference directly in the text. That gives the strong impression that Seneca’s choice of words is some kind of standard euphemism. And that ain’t true.
|People have always been getting drunk and throwing up at parties ... but did the Romans do it for fun? (Attic Greek, Brygos Painter or Dokimasia Painter, ca. 500-450 BCE; Copenhagen Nat. Mus. 3880; image source: Wikipedia)|
It wouldn’t matter, as I said. But many writers have taken the quotation from Anna’s 2005 blog post, and not from Adams’ 2002 The Straight Dope post -- even though Adams cites his sources (albeit not to a pro standard), while Anna doesn’t cite any (not even Adams). And I don’t just mean on the internet. Anna’s form of the quotation appears in this book published by Cambridge University Press, and in this book chapter written by a don at Cambridge who specialises in Greek and Hebrew language. So some people who really should know better are taking an unsourced blog post as a reliable authority on 2000-year-old practices. I mean, I know this is a blog post too ... but I do cite my sources. That makes it possible to weigh up the pros and cons of my argument. Just a tiny difference.
Exhibit B. Cicero, On behalf of king Deiotarus 21
‘cum’ inquit ‘vomere post cenam te velle dixisses, in balneum te ducere coeperunt: ibi enim erant insidiae. at te eadem tua fortuna servavit: in cubiculo malle dixisti.’
(The prosecutor) goes on, ‘When you (Caesar) said you wanted to vomit after dinner, they started to take you to the bathroom: because that’s where the ambush was. But your perpetual good luck saved you, because you said you’d rather be in your bedroom.’
Source. (To change languages, click ‘load’ or ‘focus’ at the right.)
This is from a speech made in November 46 BCE, when Julius Caesar -- both consul and dictator at the time -- sat as judge for the trial of Deiotarus, a client king, who was accused of trying to assassinate Caesar a few months earlier. Cicero defended Deiotarus in absentia, and won: he convinced Caesar that the accusations were made up by Deiotarus’ political rivals.
Supposedly this episode proves that the Romans -- or Caesar, at least -- left the dining table to vomit, and this was a habitual thing.
In fact it does not: the vomiting in question was for medical reasons. Caesar’s doctor had put him on a regime of emetics. How do we know this? Cicero himself tells us so, in a letter written a bit over a month later. (He writes of vomiting as providing medical relief for himself, too, in a letter to his wife three years earlier: Fam. 14.7.1.)
In the letter of December 46 BCE (Att. 13.52), Cicero recounts a dinner at a neighbour’s villa, which both Caesar and Cicero attended. He takes on the role of a gossip columnist. Here’s his lowdown on Caesar’s doings on the relevant day:
ille tertiis Saturnalibus apud Philippum ad h. vii, nec quemquam admisit; rationes, opinor, cum Balbo. inde ambulavit in litore. post h. viii in balneum. tum audivit de Mamurra, vultum non mutavit. unctus est, accubuit. ἐμετικὴν agebat; itaque et edit et bibit ἀδεῶς et iucunde, opipare sane et apparate ...
On 19 December, himself (Caesar) was with Philippus until the 7th hour. He didn’t see anyone -- accounts with Balbus, I think. Afterwards he walked on the beach. A bath after the 8th hour. Then he heard about Mamurra (probably his death; Mamurra was a friend of Caesar’s) -- he didn’t change his expression. He got oiled, he reclined (for dinner). He was on a regime of emetics, so he ate and drank unreservedly and cheerfully, a very sumptuous and well-prepared meal ...
Cicero’s gossipy tone has made this a famous letter. It certainly clarifies the passage in the speech for Deiotarus. Did Caesar enjoy a good meal without restraint because his doctor had prescribed something to make him vomit? Yes, absolutely, he did. Guilty as charged. Did he vomit in order to have a good meal? No, he most certainly did not.
So much for Adams’ evidence. But this doesn’t exhaust the case for the prosecution -- the case that Romans were decadent, and that being happy chuckers was a sign of that decadence. We have a couple more passages to look at.
Exhibit C. Seneca, Consolation to Helvia 10.3
undique convehunt omnia nota fastidienti gulae; quod dissolutus deliciis stomachus vix admittat, ab ultimo portatur oceano; vomunt ut edant, edunt ut vomant, et epulas, quas toto orbe conquirunt, nec concoquere dignantur. ista si quis despicit, quid illi paupertas nocet? Si quis concupiscit, illi paupertas etiam prodest; invitus enim sanatur et, si remedia ne coactus quidem recipit, interim certe, dum non potest, illa nolenti similis est.
From all over they (luxurious people) import everything known to a finicky taste. Things are brought from the furthest ocean that a digestion ruined by delicacies can hardly take. They vomit to eat, they eat to vomit: they don’t even see fit to digest the feasts for which they search the whole world. Now, for someone who loathes that kind of thing, what harm will it do him to be poor? And for someone who does want them, poverty would actually be a benefit! He gets cured, unwilling though he is: even if he won’t take his medicine without being forced, still, while he can’t get them, it is as though he didn’t want them.
See also the Latin text from Basore’s edition. Adams didn’t know this passage, so it doesn’t appear in most debunkings of the vomiting myth. (It does appear in a Wikipedia article, thanks to an aside in a 2007 book.)
This passage does -- potentially -- support the idea of recreational vomiting. However, it is the only passage in any ancient Greco-Roman text to do so. As such, it needs to be treated as the exceptional thing that it is. What that means is that if any more obvious explanation exists, then that explanation is going to be more economical than the happy-chucker interpretation, which we have seen is entirely uncorroborated.
Seneca could in principle be talking about recreational vomiting; alternatively, he could be expressing disgust at people on diet fads.
As we saw above, the dietetic interpretation finds support in Cicero; the happy-chucker interpretation finds no support anywhere. So the second is the more economical interpretation. Seneca was probably complaining about people on trendy diets.
Is it possible that the Romans indulged in recreational vomiting? Sure, why not, we can’t rule out the possibility that some people did. Is there any reason to think it was a common practice? No, none at all.
Exhibit D. Petronius, Satyricon: the dinner of Trimalchio
One final point to discuss. ‘Anna’, in her 2005 blog post, links Roman vomiting habits to their supposed decadence. She claims
Everyone knows how extravagant and decadent Roman banquets could be. There were multiple courses and loads of wine to be consumed and the feasting lasted all night. But how did these people manage to eat non-stop for so long?
Later on she mentions Trimalchio. So she was certainly thinking of an episode known as ‘Trimalchio’s banquet’, in Petronius’ satirical novel the Satyricon (1st cent. CE). Anna is not alone: Trimalchio’s banquet is very influential, an iconic depiction of luxury, excess, bad taste, and vulgarity.
There’s just one problem with taking Trimalchio’s banquet as exemplary of Roman decadence: the host, the setting, and most of the guests are Greek, not Roman.
|Fellini Satyricon (1969), adapted from Petronius’ novel. In a widely quoted line, the main character Encolpius supposedly says, ‘Ascilto ... what does the poet say? Each moment presented may be your last, so fill it up until you vomit ... or something such?’ Did Fellini fall for the eating-and-vomiting myth?|
Nope. Encolpius’ actual words are: ‘Ascyltos! Like the poet says, “As for me, always and everywhere I have lived in such a way as to enjoy the present moment, as if it was the last light that was appearing”!’ (‘Ascilto! Come dice il poeta, “Per parte mia, sempre e dovunque, ho visuto in modo tale da godere il momento presente come se fosse l’ultima luce che spuntava”!’)
The misquotation sounds like it’s actually someone trying to make out the line with inadequate Italian and not being too sure of themselves (and maybe mistaking spuntava ‘appeared’ for sputo ‘spit’). Here’s a copy on YouTube where the misinterpreted version has actually infected the subtitles! The vomiting myth has metastasised to a myth about Fellini ...
Trimalchio’s dinner is a satire of the vulgarity of ethnic Greeks who lived in central Italy, in and around Naples. Greek colonies were founded along the coast of central and southern Italy from the 8th century BCE onwards, and they dominated the cultural landscape. Naples was no exception: even the name is Greek (Νεάπολις ‘new city’). Naples allied itself with Rome from around 400 BCE onwards, but maintained autonomy and a strong Greek culture. It finally became a Roman municipium in 89 BCE, and later a colonia under Augustus. But even after that point the city remained proud of its Greek traditions.
In Petronius, some of the characters are characterised by a shaky grasp of Latin: they slip Greek words or Greek-ish malapropisms into their speech, as ongoing reminders of their un-Roman-ness. Trimalchio refers to people as propinasse ‘having drunk a toast’ (a Latinised form of προπίνω ‘drink to someone’s health’, 28.3), and mixes up Latin pono ‘to put’ with Greek πονέω ‘to work’ (vide ... ut ponas, 47.13); one of the guests refers to someone’s boyfriend as topanta (τὰ πάντα ‘his everything’, 37.4), calls Trimalchio saplutus (ζάπλουτος ‘ultra-rich’, 37.6) and malista dignitoso (for μάλιστα, ‘extremely dignified’, 57.10; following George’s emendation), and swears by Athana (not Roman ‘Minerva’, but Greek ‘Athena’ spoken with a Dorian accent, 58.7). When the guests shout congratulations, they cry out sophos (σοφῶς, 40.1). The mangled Latin made the episode of Trimalchio’s dinner a very difficult one for mediaeval scribes, who typically knew very little if any Greek. As a result the one surviving manuscript for this episode is corrupted in very many places.
Petronius isn’t a salacious Roman debauchee: he’s a Roman making fun of Greek nouveaux riches. He probably had in mind the decadent reputation of certain other Greek colonies in southern Italy, especially Sybaris (which gave rise to the word ‘sybaritic’).
And just for the sake of completeness, there is one mention of vomiting in Petronius’ novel ... in a passage describing someone being seasick (103.5-6). That character is emphatically not a happy chucker.