If you happened to be wandering the streets of ancient Rome in say 59 BC at dusk on a seaside resort you might be accosted by a slave inviting you to an imperial banquet. All rich Romans were expected to be fabulous entertainers — the more extravagant their feasts, the more powerful they were perceived to be. And emperors were obliged to be the most over-the-top hosts of all.
On most evenings, hundreds of complete strangers — males and females of all social classes, although with a bias towards the well-dressed and the good-looking — would be lured to events in splendid, marble-floored villas, where they would be bombarded with food and wine to the accompaniment of flute music and erotic Asian dancers. Prostitutes of both sexes would be on offer in the back rooms, and there is no question that many all-night celebrations became drunken debauches. Yet the sort of indiscriminate multiple coupling we associate with Roman orgies was quite rare.
The Dining Room
The dining room was one of the most important reception spaces of the residence and, as such, it included high-quality decorative fixtures, such as floor mosaics, wall paintings, and stucco reliefs, as well as portable luxury objects, such as sculpture artworks and furniture. Like the Greeks, the Romans reclined on couches while banqueting, although in the Roman context respectable women were permitted to join men in reclining. This practice set the convivium apart from the Greek symposium, or male aristocratic drinking party, at which female attendees were restricted to entertainers such as flute-girls and dancers as well as courtesans. In Roman culture a dining room typically held three broad couches, each of which seated three individuals, thus allowing for a total of nine guests. This type of room is commonly described as a triclinium or the “three-couch room” arranged along three walls of the room in a U-shape, at the center of which was placed a single table that was accessible to all of the diners. Couches were frequently made of wood, but there were also more opulent versions with fittings made of costly materials, such as ivory and bronze. The three couches of the triclinium are important because they allow for status suited seating. The place of honor upon the couches would be the leftmost spot on the lectus medius. This is commonly called the “consul’s seat.” The host would sit next to the guest of honor in the furthest seat from the front on the lectus imus. Slaves would be instructed as to each attending guest’s appointed seat, but some guests would push their way to a more favorable seat, though such an action might ensure that he would not be invited again. All guests reclined with their heads toward the middle of the room and their feet pointing back behind them toward the walls.
Food was plentiful and almost sinfully gorged on by the Romans. The festive consumption of food and drink was an important social ritual in the Roman world. Known in general terms as the convivium, which is Latin for “living together,” and another name for a banquet. The Romans also distinguished among types of gatherings, such as the epulum or public feast; the cena, a dinner, normally eaten in the mid-afternoon; and the comissatio, a drinking party. Public banquets, such as the civic feasts offered for all of the inhabitants of a city, often accommodated large numbers of diners. In contrast, the dinner parties that took place in residences were more private affairs in which the host entertained a small group of family friends, business associates, and clients.
A proper Roman dinner included three courses: the hors d’oeuvres or the gustatio, the main course or the mensae primae, and the dessert, called the mensae secundae. The food and drink served were intended not only to satiate the guests but also to add an element of spectacle to the meal. Exotic produce, particularly meat from wild animals, birds, and fish, were favored at elite dinner parties because of their rarity, difficulty of procurement, and consequent high cost, which reflected the host’s affluence. Popular but costly fare included pheasant, thrush and other songbirds, raw oysters, lobster, shellfish, venison, wild boar, and peacock. Even foods that were forbidden by sumptuary laws, such as fattened fowl and sow’s udders, were flagrantly consumed at the most exclusive feasts. In addition, elaborate recipes were invented—a surviving literary work, known as Apicius, is a late Roman compilation of cookery recipes. These often required not only expensive ingredients and means of preparation but also elaborate, even dramatic, forms of presentation.
The Real Vomitorium
Legend has it that there were vomitoriums or vomitoria (such as pictured left) in ancient Rome, which were supposedly places where diners could go and void their stomachs during a meal to make room for more delicacies. There are even detailed descriptions of these rooms, stating that they had large slabs or pillars to lean over to facilitate vomiting. In fact, there are fond Saturday Night Live skits developed around this idea. While there was something called a vomitorium (from the Latin vomitus, meaning to vomit), it wasn’t a room set aside for vomiting, as popularized by legend and SNL skits. Rather a vomitorium (Right) was a passageway in an amphitheater or theater that opened into a tier of seats from below or behind. The vomitoria of the Colosseum in Rome were so well designed that it’s said the immense venue, which seated at least 50,000, could fill in 15 minutes. (There were 80 entrances at ground level, 76 for ordinary spectators and 4 for the imperial family.) The vomitoria deposited mobs of people into their seats and afterward disgorged them with equal abruptness into the streets–whence, presumably, the name as the act of disgorging one’s self. That’s not to say the Romans were unfamiliar with throwing up, or that they never did so on purpose. On the contrary, in ancient times vomiting seems to have been a standard part of the fine-dining experience. The Romans weren’t shy about vomiting, and they had vomitoria–but they didn’t do the former in the latter.
The Audiology Connection
While there was not a formal vomitorium located in one’s house for disgorging of dinner guests, if guests or the host felt gorged and required a tickle to create relief, the tickle was often not the throat, it was the ear canal.
Otologists describe that there is a connection between the stomach and the nerves that innervate the outer ear. Nerve connections to the Auricle are as follows:
- The anterior half of the external ear canal the auriculotemporal nerve, which also supplies the facial surface of the upper part of the auricle.
- The auricular branch of the vagus the posterior half of the external ear canal.
- The greater auricular nerve supplies both surfaces of the lower part of the auricle.
- The lesser occipital nerve supplies the cranial surface of the upper part of the auricle.
Scott Schaffer, M.D., president of an ear, nose, and throat specialty center in Gibbsboro, New Jersey, notes that a light scratch of the outer edge of the ear canal will stop gagging. He explains, “When the nerve [the auricular branch of the vagus nerve] in the ear is stimulated, it creates a reflex in the throat that can cause a muscle spasm.” According to Dennis Fitzgerald, MD, a Washington, DC, Otologist, a favorite Roman method of disgorging was stimulating the ear was with a feather, thereby activating the gagging mechanism [also called the vomit reflex] in preparation for the next course!