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Exaggerated feasting and vomiting in Roman world

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman feast on the fresco of Pompeii
Roman feast on the fresco of Pompeii | Archaeological Museum of Naples

Excessive consumption of food and excess was something the ancient Romans believed should be avoided at all costs. The ideal Roman should be devoted to the gods, his family and homeland, and above all, he should live a simple life and does not demand glory. However, as it always happens, in practice it was different and the Romans, as conquerors of the world, departed from their ideals, e.g. they indulged in boisterous feasts and decadent dishes.

To this day, there is a widespread belief that the feasts in ancient Rome exceeded the limits of good taste. Sometimes they lasted all night, and the “overcrowded” guests could use special rooms where their bowels were cleaned so that they could continue eating more dishes. Maybe such chambers were actually provided by the hosts, but they were certainly not called vomitoria, because in fact vomitorium was understood as an exit from an amphitheatre or stadium and was used in this context.

There is no doubt, however, that abundant Roman feasts in the homes of rich nobles and even emperors ended in vomiting. This is mentioned by the stoic writer Seneca the Younger (4 BCE – 65 CE). In one of his writings he relates how slaves clean up vomit at banquets, summarizing the feasters:

They bring together from all regions everything, known or unknown, to tempt their fastidious palate: food, which their stomach, worn out with delicacies, can scarcely retain, is brought from the most distant ocean: they vomit that they may eat, and eat that they may vomit, and do not even deign to digest the banquets which they ransack the globe to obtain

Seneca the Younger, De Consolatione ad Helviam, 10.3

A great source of information about luxury in the Roman elite is Suetonius, a man unfavourable to emperors because of his senatorial origin. He is where we can read about the practice of using a pen to irritate the palate and empty the stomach.

He [Claudius] hardly ever left the dining-room until he was stuffed and soaked; then he went to sleep at once, lying on his back with his mouth open, p65 and a feather was put down his throat to relieve his stomach.

Suetonius, Claudius, 33

Suetonius is more critical of Vitellius, one of the “four emperors” after Nero’s suicide in 68 CE.

He [Vitellius] divided his feasts into three, sometimes into four a day, breakfast, luncheon, dinner, and a drinking bout; and he was readily able to do justice to all of them through his habit of taking emetics. […]

Being besides a man of an appetite that was not only boundless, but also regardless of time or decency, he could never refrain, even when he sacrificing or making a journey, from snatching bits of meat and cakes amid the altars, almost from the very fire, and devouring them on the spot; and in the cookshops along the road, viands smoking hot or even those left over from the day before and partly consumed.

Suetonius, Vitellius, 13

An interesting image of the Roman feast is presented to us in the satire “Trimalchio’s feast”. The main character of the piece and the host of the feast – Trimalchio addressed the guests in the following way:

You will excuse me, gentlemen? My bowels have not been working for several days. All the doctors are puzzled. Still, I found pomegranate rind useful, and pinewood boiled in vinegar. I hope now my stomach will learn to observe its old decencies. Besides, I have such rumblings inside me you would think there was a bull there. So if any of you gentlemen wishes to retire there is no need to be shy about it. We were none of us born quite solid. I cannot imagine any torture like holding oneself in. The one thing Jupiter himself cannot forbid is that we should have relief. Why do you laugh, Fortunata; it is you who are always keeping me awake all night. Of course, as far as I am concerned, anyone may relieve himself in the dining-room. The doctors forbid retention. But if the matter is serious, everything is ready outside: water, towels, and all the other little comforts. Take my word for it, vapours go to the brain and make a disturbance throughout the body. I know many people have died this way, by refusing to admit the truth to themselves.

Petronius, Trimalchio’s feast

In 45 BCE, victorious in the civil war, Julius Caesar, sat as judge at the trial of Deiotarus – king of Galatia and Pontus – whom his grandson Castor accused of plotting against Caesar’s life. The king was defended by Cicero, who convinced the dictator with his arguments that Deiotarus had fallen victim to the slander of his political rivals. However, what is important for us, in the context of the issue under discussion, Caesar also missed feasts to empty his stomach.

When – says the prosecutor – you said [about Caesar – author] after supper that you wished to vomit, they began to lead you to the bath-room; for that was the place where the ambuscade was; but still that same fortune of yours saved you; you said that you had rather go to your bedroom.

Cicero, On behalf of king Deiotarus, 21

Moving on to the phenomenon of vomiting itself – the Romans considered it a form of treatment. Celsus, a Roman physician, recommended cleansing the stomach in this way, but not every day. The signals that it was worth doing were heavy and pains in the heart, heartburn, profuse salivation, nausea, a bitter taste in the mouth, watery eyes or ringing in the ears. Also, a change in climate or the city can make you throw up. Celsus points out, however, that vomiting cannot be used because of luxury1.

  1. Celsus, De Medicina, 29
  • Vomiting Romans: or, were the Romans happy chuckers?, "Kiwi Hellenists", 13.06.2016

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