"There strode in, like a Goth into the elegant marble vomitorium of Petronius Arbiter, a haggard and dishevelled person." – Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay

I recall conversations with a philosophy major several years ago who would often wax poetic about installing a vomitorium in his future house for the use of his guests. As the name implies, we thought a vomitorium was a recipe for bulimia, a special room set aside by the ancient Romans for the purpose of throwing up food after meals for guests who ate too much or wished to eat more.

We were far from the only people to make this mistake. It is a commonly held misconception, and even luminaries like Aldous Huxley and Lewis Mumford thought the Romans used special vomit rooms. The ancient Roman writers mention lots of vomiting, but none note the use of particular rooms for that purpose. The Romans had something they called a 'vomitorium', and given the nature of the word, it seems inevitable that that misconception would arise.

So what was the vomitorium? Vomitoria were passageways in amphitheaters which led to the seats. It’s been said that the vomitoria in the Colosseum could lead 50,000 people to their seats in 15 minutes. Presumably, the name stemmed from the fact that the corridors disgorged people into the streets. They were not intended for vomiting, but the combination of the hot sun and too much drinking probably led to the inevitable staining of the corridors.

The Vomitorium is also the name of a strange website (http://www.vomitorium.net) where a British man shows off his collection of world airline air sickness bags.

primary source: Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope, http://www.straightdope.com/columns/021101.html

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