Alice P. RADIN Fictitious Facts: The Case of the Vomitorium
One of the"facts" about classical antiquity current in popular
culture has neither ancient authority nor scholarly provenance: the
assertion that Roman houses contained a special room called
the"vomitorium" set aside for the use of diners to purge themselves
in order to gorge anew. In addition to being a fixture of
entertainment, the"Roman vomitorium" is presented as historical
reality in recent publications ranging from travel guides, restaurant
reviews, and Latin phrase books, to serious articles, books, and
electronic resources in fields as diverse as eating disorders,
conservation, fundamentalist Christianity, and Natural Family
Planning. More alarming is the discovery that the"vomitorium"
has also become a common component of Roman Civilization courses
taught in schools and colleges on several continents. My research has
followed three lines of inquiry: 1) How did the misconception arise
and spread? 2) Why has it become so prevalent? 3) What can-and
should-the classics profession do?
My initial assumption that the architectural term for the wide corridors in arenas and theatres [ìvomitoria," attested to only in a discussion of metaphorical language in Macrobius, Sat. 6.4, but used as an architectural term in English ever since the 18th century] was conflated with descriptions in Roman authors of excessive eating and purging [Suetonius, Seneca] is not supported by the earliest uses of "vomitorium." Indeed, the familiar connection between an architectural"vomitorium" and the eating habits of Romans [e.g., Lewis Mumford,"Forum, Vomitorium, Bath," in The City in History, 1961] may reflect a rationalization of a misunderstood pseudo-Latin colloquialism that arose in what folklorists call"unofficial culture," probably British schoolboy humor.
The prevalence of the"vomitorium" attests to the flexibility of its appeal: a vivid metaphor for decadence, a proud emblem of emancipation from the conventions of society, an attempt to associate a new field with the prestige of antiquity. Although some authors do cite references, in each separate field the earliest source refers to the"Roman vomitorium" as something that"everybody knows."
What should we do? Most people acquire their information about
classical antiquity from non-specialist teachers and a variety of
non-academic sources. With the increasing use of the internet, the
spread of misinformation is accelerating. Surely, the classics
profession can find a way to help people sort fiction from fact.