Vomitoria did indeed exist in ancient Rome, but they had nothing to do with being sick. The word itself comes from the Latin verb vomere, to vomit, or, more importantly in this case, to ‘spew forth’. Contrary to popular belief however, it’s not the contents of people’s stomachs that are spewing forth.
A vomitorium is actually a passageway or corridor in an amphitheatre or stadium through which the audience can easily enter and exit. The vomitoria were wide enough to allow large crowds to leave in a short space of time, meaning it was the building that spewed forth its contents, not the people.
The Colosseum, the largest and most famous amphitheatre ever built, had 80 vomitoria in total, 76 of which were used by ordinary spectators. The other four vomitoria were ornately decorated and used exclusively by the emperor and his elite circle.
As a result of such efficient design, experts believe the Colosseum could fill with 50,000 people in just 15 minutes and empty in as little as five.
The word vomitoria first appears in Saturnalia by Roman writer, grammarian and philosopher Macrobius. Written in the early 5th century AD, Saturnalia was an ‘encyclopedic celebration’ of Roman culture: ‘This is why even now we refer to vomitoria at the games, since people enter in a mass and pour into their seats’ – Macrobious from Saturnalia.
Quoting Virgil, who lived in the 1st century BC, Macrobius writes ‘each morning, the whole building vomits a wave of clients’, showing that the idea of the vomitorium dates back even further. At some point, however, popular culture got the wrong idea.
English writer Aldous Huxley, most famous for his dystopian novel Brave New World (1932), is often cited as the source of the word’s misuse. In his 1923 novel Antic Hay, Huxley wrote about the ‘elegant marble vomitorium’ belonging to one of the book’s characters. Huxley can’t take all the blame though; references to the vomitorium as a chamber next to a dining room have been traced back as far as 1871.
Linguistically, it’s easy to see how the misconception came about – to modern ears, vomitorium instinctively sounds rather unpleasant – but the error was likely entrenched further by tales of overindulging emperors in the history books. Scholars disagree whether habitual vomiting actually took place at Roman banquets – or if classic texts have been misinterpreted or were written as a criticism of the empire’s wastefulness – but if so, it certainly didn’t happen in a vomitorium.