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Surprising Science

In Wake of Downturn, Rethinking Vomit

In the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Deborah Solomon interviewed philosopher J. D. Trout about empathy.During the course of a rather hostile interview, Trout invoked the image of the Roman vomitorium as a metaphor for waste and excess, and Solomon challenged both the metaphor and the actual existence of the vomitorium in Roman culture.

As it happens, she’s right.While the image of the puking Roman, three sheets to the wind and bursting with sausages and goat fillets, is a cherished part of our revisionist imagination, there is no evidence that the hard-partying patricians actually built special chambers in their houses for the purpose of disgorging their meals.Really, that wouldn’t have made any sense—the Romans had the technology to make most of the same vomit receptacles we use today. So, the idea that a special room was needed—and the Latinate –orium suffix in English gives the word false connotations of grandeur, as though it were the stage for an epic competition or performance—is absurd on face.The real meaning of “vomitorium” is somewhat less lurid: it is an architectural term for one of a series of entrances and exits that flowed crowds in and out of an amphitheater efficiently. One could vomit there, no problem. But it was not expressly built for such an activity.

Other recent semantic offenders on this front include sickened Merrill Lynch execs, disgusted British MP Eric Pickles, and the Montreal Gazette, which gets additional dishonorable mention for attempting a gag-worthy joke about Romans making New Year’s resolutions to “spend less time in the vomitorium.” Like you’ve never been there before, Montreal.


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