What Was The Vomitorium In Ancient Rome

In Ancient Roman culture, the term ‘vomitorium’ has long been misunderstood and misinterpreted. Contemporarily, ‘vomitorium’ is derived from a false belief that Roman citizens used ‘vomitoriums’ to vomit during feasts or symposia. In reality, ‘vomitorium’ was an architectural feature, a corridor leading to a public gathering space, such as an arena or theatre.

Ancient Rome was renowned for grand public feasts and entertainment, which served as a form of ‘bread and circuses’ in exchange for political allegiance. To gather the massive numbers of people who attended these events, many buildings were built in the Roman style with entry and exit corridors called ‘vomitoria’. They provided a structural foundation to facilitate the entrance, seating and eventual exodus of the large crowds of visitors in a safe, orderly and rapid manner.

Typically, ‘vomitoriums’ took a semi-circular or vaulted form, allowing for a large number of people to enter a space simultaneously. Vomitoria were designed with generous doorways and stairs, plus large apertures high above the ground to direct light into the corridor. The spaciousness of the ‘vomitorium’ enabled Romans to ascend and descend from the arena and theatre quickly without becoming overcrowded.

The design was surely practical, but incredibly ornamental too. The walls were decorated with lavish artworks, murals and sculptures inspired by mythological figures and creatures which celebrated theatrical performances and mythical tales. With luxurious flooring, and sumptuous columns and capitals framing the doorways, the ‘vomitorium’ was an ornate and glorified entrance to the amphitheatre, regarded with reverence and awe by Roman citizens.

Archaeologists have discovered evidence of these amazing chambers throughout the Roman Empire, from Pompeii to El Djem in Tunisia, and of course in the Colosseum in Rome. Fascinatingly, similar structures have been found in many European and non-European countries, demonstrating how coronaviruses could spread ideas and symbols quickly and widely. Moreover, ‘vomitoria’ have been used across ruins and structures of different time periods, from the Bronze Age to the Renaissance. This indicates the influence of ‘vomitoria’ upon different cultures around the world.

Though the contemporary notion of ‘vomitoriums’ is erroneous, they were certainly an important part of Roman architecture and culture. While they enabled visitors to enter and leave events quickly, they were also awe-inspiring emblems that symbolised the grandeur and extravagance of Roman grand feasts and festivities.

Vomitorium usage in Greek culture

Vomitoriums have also been identified in Greek culture from the 6th Century BC onwards. The stadium of Akragas in Sicily, for example, hosted the ancient Olympic Games from the 5th century BC onward. Its massive gateways (vomitoria) and seating arrangements facilitated vast crowds of excited spectators.

Unlike the Roman vomitoria, which were constructed for long-term use and thus designed with a grandeur and decorations that reflected the grandeur of Roman culture, Greek vomitoria were simpler and more functional in design. Remains of Greek vomitoria can be seen at the Temple of Zeus, Athens and in the theater of Isthmia.

Although their architectural style and purpose was simpler, they still allowed a quick and easy entry and exit of spectators attending various sporting, spiritual and civil events. Vomitoria were crucial elements of Ancient Greek architecture and were of significant historical and symbolic value.

Modern use of Vomitoriums

Though vomitoria are no longer included in most modern architecture, there are some modern reincarnations of the Roman vomitorium. Modern day sports stadiums, for example, demonstrate this adaptation well. Modern stadiums such as the Allianz Arena in Germany have wide entrances to facilitate the quick entry and safe exit of large numbers of spectators visiting the stadium. Passageways in the Allianz Arena have a similar purpose to Roman vomitoria.

More generally, improved and constantly innovated infrastructure is helping major urban areas in the modern world cope with an inundation of people. In cities like Tokyo, for instance, public transport systems, wide exits and fast-moving stairs enable people to move quickly, facilitating a rapid circulation of people through public areas.

In addition, the term ‘vomitorium’ has been adopted to describe either food outlets at shopping malls or the large halls where customers enjoy multi-course meals. The term is more likely a tongue-in-cheek reference to its Ancient Roman association, but still reflects how Modern society adopts elements of Ancient culture.

Importance of Vomitoriums in Ancient Roman Culture

Vomitoriums were an integral part of Ancient Roman culture, not just for their practicality, but also for their symbolism. The ‘vomitorium’ was designed to reflect the magnificence and prodigality of Roman culture, where grandiose events were held to further the ancient Roman Republic. As a result, it not only allowed Roman citizens to enter and exit large events quickly, but also served as a symbol of the grandeur of the Roman Empire.

Vomitoriums represented something else too: the wellbeing of citizens and the order of Roman society. Their importance can be seen in the emphasis placed upon public events, festivals, and religious ceremonies, which were attended by thousands of Roman citizens. The introduction of ‘vomitoria’ was, then, an attempt to ensure the safety of crowds and to enable smooth transitions between events.

The Influence of Vomitoriums in Modern Architecture

The influence of vomitoriums continues even today. The idea of efficient entry and exit, which was first conceived by Ancient Roman architects, is often used in modern architecture. Aside from stadiums, many public transit systems, department stores, airports, and even shopping malls around the world have large entry and exit areas that are heavily influenced by the historic use of ‘vomitoriums’.

Vomitoria have also informed the very nature of crowd management systems. These structures provided an efficient structure for the movement of crowds, an attribute that is still valued today. The influence of Ancient Roman engineering remains and is still very much in use in the modern world.

Conclusion on the Symbolism of Vomitoriums

The history of ‘vomitoriums’ is much more than their popular misuse in contemporary culture. ‘Vomitoria’ were essential architectural aspects of Ancient Roman culture, symbolising the grandeur and power of the Roman Empire. Their design facilitated the rapid entry and exit of large numbers of people, while also providing a decorative entrance to theatre and arenas. Moreover, the influence of ‘vomitoria’ can be seen in modern-day architecture, such as in stadiums and shopping malls.

Representation of Vomitoriums in Art

Vomitoriums have been depicted in art and literature throughout history, with artists and authors attempting to convey the grandeur, awe, and extravagance of Roman culture. From the marble engravings of 16th century Italian sculptor Giovanni Bologna, to the use of the word ‘vomitorium’ to describe the happy exuberance of life in Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’, vomitoriums have captivated the creative minds of writers, musicians and artists throughout the world, and were a deeply symbolic feature of Classical culture.

Vomitoriums still inspire works of art in the modern world too, whether on canvas or as sculptures. Despite their erroneous universal connotations, vomitoriums remain an important part of Roman culture, serving as a powerful reminder of the influence, splendour and ingenuity of the Ancient Roman Empire.

Vomitoriums in Contemporary Culture

In contemporary culture, vomitoriums are often used to symbolise excess and indulgence. This marvelling hint at a disregard for contemporary norms is seen from students to celebrities, from movie and TV to the world of fashion. In doing so, theypay homage to the original Roman concept of ‘bread and circuses’; the idea of feasting and festivities to keep people loyal to the government.

There are, of course, adverse implications to this. An unnecessary consumption of life’s luxuries and a habit of excess can lead to damaging living standards. But the concept of ‘vomitoriums’ can also be used to great effect. It can be used to encourage a responsible interaction with the world around us and to promote the appreciation of well-built structures, whether classical or contemporary.

Vomitoriums in Literature

Vomitoriums have provided a source of literary inspiration for centuries. While its presence in literature can be seen in ancient works such as ‘The Fall of Troy’ and ‘The Odyssey’, its influence is still felt today. When thinking about vomitoriums, literature often encourages us to reflect upon our own sense of excess and extravagance. For example, in Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’, the narrator contemplates excess and its consequences as he describes attending a great feast in a Roman villa.

Additionally, vomitoriums can suggest the balance between living in excess and living responsibly. In JM Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, for example, the protagonist reflects on the importance of this balance as he contemplates a visit to an amphitheatre and its vomitorium.


From Ancient Roman culture to the literature of the Great Roman Empire, ‘vomitoriums’ have had a profound impact upon cultures around the world. Not only did they enable a safe and orderly ingress and egress of crowds, but their grand design also converted them into symbols of the vigour and majesty of Roman culture. Moreover, their influence is still seen today in both their practical use in modern architecture, and in contemporary culture and literature, where they offer a creative perspective on excess and indulgence in the modern world.

Moshe Rideout is a professional writer and historian whose work focuses on the history of Ancient Rome. Moshe is passionate about understanding the complexity of the Roman Empire, from its architecture to its literature, political systems to social structures. He has a Bachelor's degree in classic studies from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at UMass Amherst. When he isn't researching or writing, he enjoys exploring ruins around Europe, drawing inspiration from his travels.

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