It’s been reported as true by legends, textbooks and history teachers who just want to get kids interested in Tacitus. In fact, it might be the only thing you know about eating habits in ancient Rome. But did the average John Doeus actually throw up in a vomitorium during feast times just so he could return to the dinner table for seconds of the roast mutton? The answer is no.
Vomitoriums (technically vomitoria) did indeed exist, but the word had an entirely different sense. It didn’t appear until the end of the fourth century A.D., when the scientifically named Macrobius referred to amphitheater passageways that “disgorged” patrons to their seats. The vomitoria at the Colosseum in Rome were so efficiently designed, with 76 spectator entrances at ground level, that the entire venue could fill with 50,000 people in just 15 minutes.
So when did the term’s more widely known meaning arise? The Oxford English Dictionary points to an unlikely source: English writer Aldous Huxley in his 1923 comic novel “Antic Hay.” That book may have been the first to bring the word to the attention of a large audience, but it was Lewis Mumford’s 1961 tome “The City in History” that gave us the first in-depth—though incorrect—definition. According to Mumford, the term first referred to a room adjacent to the dining chamber where gluttonous eaters could “throw up the contents of their stomach in order to return to their couches.” Only later, Mumford wrote, did the word come to be associated with stadium entrances.
Though Romans didn’t purge, some of their food choices might make unadventurous modern diners gag. A staple at meals for both the poor and wealthy was a condiment called garum. Similar to fish sauce in Southeast Asian cooking, garum was produced by fermenting the intestines of small fishes like sardines and mackerel. All these spoiled fish intestines created quite a stench, so much that garum production was forbidden within city limits to protect delicate noses. The resulting product was a salty liquid that could be diluted with wine or vinegar to sauce a dish, or even mixed with water and used as a remedy for bowel ailments.
The myth of the vomitorium captures the decadence, debauchery and excess of many Romans’ eating habits. Feasting was an important part of a wealthy Roman’s social life, and perhaps no culture since has dedicated itself to the task quite as wholeheartedly. Roman banquets featured delicacies such as wild boar, mussels, oysters, pheasant and deer. At the fanciest feasts, guests would eat while reclining, and slaves would sweep away discarded bones and olive pits. Luckily for these hapless attendants, they didn’t have to mop out vomitoriums as well.