The World in the 4th Century BC

The beginning is the most important part of the work – Plato, The Republic [1]

How do you sum up over 4,000 years of recorded human history in one short blog post? The answer is, you can’t.

If you think about it this way, you and I are a mere 2,375 years removed from the moment in time when Alexander drew his first breath. For people living in the 4th century BC, they were even more further removed from the past than that. Someone from that time period might be looking at the Pyramids of Giza, which were built around 2500 c. BC, as old crumbling relics of history no different than a local Roman might view The Colosseum today. It’s just always been there for as long as anyone can remember. The history of the world by the time of the Iron Age was vast, complex, and in some cases, already lost. The game board in which history had played out over centuries had already seen its share of blood and decay–but perhaps what we can do is look at the score card of the pieces already positioned, the ones primed for Alexander’s taking. Most of these players should already be well known to you.

Let’s start first with the world of the Greeks, of which Alexander’s home, Macedonia, is a part of. But perhaps not without some contention, which we’ll get into.

Battle of Marathon, Georges Rochegrosse (1859)

Most of the famous history of Ancient Greece had already come to pass. The legends of famous warriors and the tales of the Trojan War are of a time long ago. A hundred years prior, the Greek city states found themselves facing invasion from the Persians led by Darius the Great and then followed by Xerxes I. Many well-known stories came from these events. Athenians and their allies defended Greece in the Battle of Marathon in the first invasion. Spartan King Leonidas I and his army died failing to defend Thermopylae in the second. The wars eventually culminated in a resounding strategic victory for the Greek city-states lead by Themistocles in the Battle of Salamis and then the decimation of the Persian army in Platae by the Greek allied forces. During these wars, Macedon was a vassal kingdom of Persia, having pledged allegiance early on in Darius’ invasions when a general commiserated with the then king of Macedon Amyntas I. Prior to the invasions, according to Herodotus, there was already some sense of xenophobia when it came to recognizing the Macedonians as Greek–one of their athletes was unable to participate in the Olympic Games for this very reason. It wasn’t until the lineage of the Macedonian Kings was traced back to Argos, and thus the demi-god Heracles, were they accepted as one of their own and the athlete could compete in the Olympics. [2] Following Persia’s defeat in the Greco-Persian wars, however, Macedon became an independent kingdom once more.

Prior to the Persians being expelled from Greece, the Delian League had been established by Athens which formed an alliance between city-states in opposition to Persia and their continued incursions on Greek territory. This ended up giving Athens a considerable amount of power when they started collecting tributes and using the funds for their own purposes which prompted outcry from their rival Sparta. Soon the Greek world fell back into war but this time they fought against each other in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta sought assistance from the Persians, bringing them back into the foray. Though some parts of Macedonia were tributaries to the Delian League, the kingdom of Macedon ultimately sided with Sparta and waged war against Athens. After 27 years–a plague in Athens that killed Pericles and a disastrously embarrassing defeat in Sicily by Alcibiades–the war was officially over in 404 BC with the Spartans emerging victorious. [3]

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Plague in Athens, Michiel Sweerts (c.1652-c.1654)

The Spartans, however, ruled with an iron and tyrannical fist. Their control was short lived when the Corinthian War broke out in 395 BC and those meddling Persians once again gave their assistance–this time to Athens and its allies. The Spartans were finally crushed by the end of 362 BC during the Theban-Spartan war. Again, the tides of power had shifted to another and the city-state of Thebes became top dog in Greece. [4] Constant years of war and destruction, shifts of hegemony, and broken alliances left the Greek world a smoldering landscape ripe for the taking. The slumbering lion of Macedon was about to emerge with Phillip II leading its charge…

You might be wondering about another spunky, imperial up-start lying in wait across the Ionian Sea. The Romans at this time were still playing as a Republic and were busy conquering their neighbors and expanding their military power. They had yet to even see the start of the famous Punic Wars, beginning in 264 BC, which pitted them against Hannibal and his Alps conquering elephants. That reminds me though, Carthage must be destroyed. [5]

Taking a journey now to the Anatolian peninsula (or modern day Turkey), we quickly see the far reach of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The Greeks weren’t the only people these conquerors had been antagonizing–by this time in the mid-4th century BC, the Persian Empire had taken control over the entirety of Western Asia. This included Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Sinai Peninsula (though Egypt having recently rebelled, became temporarily free from Persia’s grasp), the Caucasus, and, of course, the Iranian Plateau. Many Kingdoms and Empires had fallen to the Persians–from the Medians (who toppled the Assyrians), to the Phrygians, and the Babylonians. The Achaemenid empire was the largest the world had ever yet seen and set the stage for other expansive empires like the eventual Roman one centuries later. In fact, what many credit as successes for the Roman Empire at the height of its power, were modeled after the Achaemenid Empire’s practices. With many different cultural backgrounds and religious faiths in its borders, the empire incorporated all of them with the freedom to continue practicing but unified under an official language with an intertwining system of road ways and an ancient postal service. It became the template for a successful massive empire and by this time, despite any losses in war or recent rebellions, was still incredibly strong and centralized. Prior to the birth of Alexander, the current king of the Achaemenid Empire was Artaxerxes II–who was involved with a number of the conflicts with the Greeks noted above, in particular, the Theban-Spartan war in which he ultimately sided with Thebes. [6]

Queen Tomyris and the Head of Cyrus the Great, Mattia Preti (1680’s) This legendary founder of the Achaemenid Empire is said to have met his end to the equally legendary Scythian queen Tomyris.

Moving past the borders of the Achaemenid Empire lay powers unfamiliar to some in the western world. The Indus valley had already seen thousands of years worth of human history, Siddhartha Buddha had already walked the earth, and, hell, they were so advanced at this time, they had already invented plastic surgery centuries earlier. [7] In this region, there were 16 kingdoms and republics that were known as the Mahājanapadas and the Vedic orthodoxy was falling out of fashion with the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. But there wasn’t exactly a sense of unity between them, as the kingdoms frequently warred with each other for dominance. One of these kingdoms, the Magadha, were perhaps the most imperial out of the bunch, conquering swaths of territory and forming a dynastic rule. It was within this kingdom that Siddhartha Buddha was said to have lived and gained enlightenment. The Magadha were a fiercely devout people with a penchant for using early examples of tanks in the form of mace-wielding chariots to get their way and, as usual, marked the end of a dynasty with a bloody affair. For our purposes now, we see the Shaishunaga Dynasty at the seat of power having emerged victorious among the Magadha with King Mahanandin as their leader. [8] However, a certain bastard son named Mahapadma Nanda was ready to make his violent claim…

If we look a bit further, the Chinese were too busy partaking in the epic Warring States period to pay too much attention to the potential of a dashing Macedonian conquering around next door..

With the stage set and the match lit, what is about to befall all of this territory and history other than something spectacular and shocking? A Macedonian King will soon sweep across the land like a raging fire but, first, we start with his maker.

For a man is nothing without his father.

On to Part 2

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Plato, The Republic. Book I. 377-B [x]

[2] Herodotus, The Histories. Book 5. 22

[3] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

[4] Xenophan, Hellenica Book 7, ch. 5 [x]

[5] Beard, M. (2016). SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

[6] Axworthy, M. (2016). A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind.

[7] Sushruta Samhita, Book 1, Ch. 9 [x]

[8] Singh, Upinder. (2008) A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century [x]

What’s so Great about Alexander?

 

Alexander the Great fighting Darius III mosaic found in the ruins of Pompeii, House of the Faun (100 BC)

 

Imagine that everyone knows your name.

It doesn’t feel that intimidating, right? If you’re sitting in a bar called Cheers or you are perhaps from a small town, everyone knowing your name isn’t that unusual or profound. But now try to think about what it might be like for the whole world to know your name. Suddenly, we can envision the weight a name like Queen Elizabeth II or Brad Pitt carries, but now try to consider an entire world collectively remembering one for more than a few decades. Not just the names of a handful of villains in the past century with weird facial hair, or a line of presidents or monarchs centuries before. This name has been permeating in the collective memory of the planet’s inhabitants for thousands of years. Think beyond religious figures, before emperors. Keep going back further, this is a name that has never been forgotten. The world has hoisted this name on its shoulders since it was first spoken, it is perhaps the most famous one ever given. All of us have heard it.

Maybe now we can imagine a little bit of what it might be like to leave behind a legacy like Alexander the Great.

“…after reading some part of the history of Alexander, he sat a great while very thoughtful, and at last burst out into tears. His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. ‘Do you think,’ said he, ‘I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?‘” – Plutarch describing Julius Caesar learning about Alexander the Great. [1]

There is perhaps no figure in history that has left a mark quite like Alexander did. The scar of his exploits some 2,000+ years ago can still be found today. Visible in Greece and Egypt, stretching through the Middle East, and reaching its tendril as far as India. As if a god had stabbed a dagger into the Earth and tore it across the world.

Alexander was not the first great warrior in history. The likes of Narmer, Leonidas, and Sun Tzu all having fought their way on the planet before him. He was also not the first to forge an empire, many like the Zhou Dynasty or the Achaemenid Empire were already dying of old age by the time Alexander was born. He was also not the first conqueror or the first man to be named ‘the Great’, even Cyrus who lived hundreds of years before could not claim this honor for himself either. Alexander cannot even be called the first to be immortalized into legend, kings like Gilgamesh or Achilles living on in fable long before.

So, then, what exactly makes Alexander so Great?

That’s the question I’ll be exploring in this series. Who was Alexander and why is he perhaps the most famous figure in world history? Are his achievements worthy of our admiration, does he deserve the pedestal centuries worth of other successors have bestowed on him? Is his legacy mourned as a tragic figure having died so young like the ancient world’s James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, or Kurt Cobain? Is there truth at all to the much derided theory that Great Men shape human history?

To find these answers, we should start from the beginning…

Stay tuned for Part 1, where we’ll look at the state of the world in the 4th century BC, the Kingdom of Macedon in context, and life before Alexander became king.

La Voisin and the Affair of the Poisons

© RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY, photo by Jean-Marc Manaï

What a beautiful palace you have, would be a shame if there were witches

Right now, most of us are stuck indoors waiting for the world to calm down. Or maybe we are frantically running amok buying out all the toilet paper for some reason. Either way, it’s likely that we’re all feeling a little bit of panic right now over whether or not we (or someone we love) will catch viral plague. Or perhaps we’re even worried over the thought of not being able to properly wipe our bums. The world has experienced many bouts of mass hysteria in its numerous cycles around the sun. Choosing just one to write about while I sit at home waiting to play Animal Crossing and trying not to think about if Idris Elba is okay is no small feat. I figure, why not go with one that is least likely to repeat itself as an epidemic event on a global scale in present day? Unless you think we are at risk for regicide conspiracies, cult black masses, conniving leagues of witches, and a whole lot of poison–than maybe close your browser and find something else to distract yourself with because the notoriety of the famous French witch La Voisin might be even more panic inducing for you.

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Pissing off the Romans: Vespasian’s Urine Tax

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You can’t spell Vespasian without ‘P’

It’s that time of year, folks. Some of us dread tax season, while others have already excitedly processed our W-2 forms and gotten our refund checks already snugly cushioned in our savings account where they will soon be pilfered and turned into euros for next month (Rome and Athens here I come!). No matter how you feel about it, what all of us likely have in common is combing through any possible tax refunds available–and sometimes we stumble across some truly confounding tax laws in the process. Around the world, you can find a “Fat Tax” on junk food or a “Cow Flatulence Tax” on…well. But one of my favorite ones, of course, brings us back to a time when things were so much more delightfully weird thanks to the ever bizarre behaviors of the people living in the Roman Empire.

When they weren’t busy guzzling putrid fish sauce, the practice of collecting pee from urinals in Rome was so popular that some Roman Emperors saw a golden opportunity to cash in. Among them was Vespasian who ruled the empire in the 1st century AD and would otherwise be most famous for starting the construction of The Colosseum, but will now forever be immortalized instead as the guy who taxed the piss out of Rome. [1]

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Shootin’ the shit at Roman latrines. Oh come on, this joke is solid!

The Urine Tax (Vectigal urinae) specifically targeted public collection of urine that was done in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima or great sewer system. The Cloaca Maxima was one of the earliest examples of a sewage system built in the world proving that the Romans certainly knew how to ‘keep their shit together’, which perhaps is a credit to how long the Roman Empire managed to last for as many centuries as it did. These collectors or cleaners would take what urine was left behind in public latrines (the how is a process I’m less inclined to know for the sake of my own innocence) and would sell it to a buyer which is where the taxation came into play. The individual looking to purchase the urine for who knows what purpose is the one who would be charged the additional tax. You’re probably asking yourself, why in the great stabbed Caesar would anyone need a batch of random pee? Well, you’re in for a treat, I guess.

Turns out the use of urine was an industry in and of itself back then and urine was quite the lofty ingredient for all kinds of chemical processes. Urine was primarily included in the uses of tanning, wool production, or even as a whitening product (seems counter-intuitive, I know) with the ammonia helping clean togas. [2] Even more extensive were its supposed medical uses…

 

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Sigh, this beer tastes like piss doesn’t it?

According to Pliny the Elder, essentially the father of encyclopedias and good friend of Emperor Vespasian, urine could be used to cure all sorts of ailments like sores, gout, dog bites, skin irritations, burns, rectum diseases, chaps on the body, head ulcers and scalp diseases, and whatever else could likely be submerged in the yellow elixir. [3] Before we completely write off the old crazy man and thank Mount Vesuvius for taking him and his pee-cures off this planet forever, every single one of us has heard that if you’re stung by a jellyfish the best way to deal with the pain is let it all out on the sting spot like a Coldplay song (It was all yellllowwww) despite doctors telling us not to do this–so apparently urine’s reputation as a cure-all has persisted through history with or without Pliny’s personal contribution. Hey, it’s still better than what the Ancient Egyptians used for contraception.

The loathsome character of a few, such as dung and urine, may originally have been due…to the conviction that life-essence was in them in a concentrated form. …it is just possible that the use in medicine was partly due to the obvious value of manure as a fertilizer. –H.S. Jones, Ancient Roman Folk Medicine [4]

So why is Emperor Vespasian so strongly associated with this Urine Tax since it seems not unusual to a people that see nothing wrong with slathering pee all over their heads, especially since it was unsurprisingly the madman Nero who started the tax in the first place? That would be thanks to a common phrase that goes, “Money Does Not Stink” which is attributed to Vespasian and can still be found referenced in popular works like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example. According to Suetonius, as the story goes, Vespasian’s son and future Roman Emperor Titus lamented to his father on how disgusting it was to consider a taxation on waste from public toilets. Vespasian’s response was to hold a coin under his son’s nose and ask if the smell of it offends him as well. Titus admitted that it did not, to which Vespasian replied, “Yet it comes from urine.” Born then was the Latin Pecunia non olet or “money does not stink” which essentially means to say, despite where it came from or how it was accumulated, wealth retains its value. [1]

Thanks to Emperor Vespasian’s continued efforts toward the taxation of urine from Roman latrines, his name is still used today to denote public urinals which can still be found all over Italy (Bagni Vespasiani!) and France. I suppose his son Titus got the last laugh in this regard–perhaps if Vespasian had listened to Titus, his eternal legacy would have been his name on all built amphitheaters instead.

 

Fact Check It, Yo!

[1] Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum–Divus Vespasianus, c. 110 C.E., P. XXIII, Translated by J.C. Rolfe, The Loeb Classical Library, Obtained via Fordham University: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/suetonius-vespasian.asp

[2] Witty, M. (2016), ANCIENT ROMAN URINE CHEMISTRY. Acta Archaeologica, 87: 179-191. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0390.2016.12170.x

[3] Pliny the Elder, Natural History; 28.19, chap. 18 – Remedies Derived from the Urine: http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=PerseusLatinTexts&getid=1&query=Plin.%20Nat.%2028.18

[4] Ancient Roman Folk Medicine Author(s): W. H. S. JONES Source: Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 12, No. 4 (October, 1957), pp. 459-472 Published by: Oxford University Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24619369

Tutankhamun the Boy King and My First History Crush

When I was 8-years old and most girls were decorating their bedroom walls with posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, I was busy ogling thick textbooks filled with images of sinewy, mostly-shirtless pharaohs. This childhood interest of mine was not at all helped by the release of the Dreamworks animated film The Prince of Egypt that same year which was similarly filled with plenty of cartoon biceps. And as a little girl, it made sense to me that I should aspire to be Evelyn O’Connell in The Mummy (1999) and nab myself a sort of walking Curse Bae with regenerating abs who wants to make-out a little and maybe sacrifice you in some kind of ancient ritual or whatever. I’m not sure why Evie didn’t go for that, personally.

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Deliver us from your thirst trap, Ramses

So when I learned in school about the existence of an Egyptian pharaoh that was my age, I totally thought I had some kind of chance here–despite the fact he’d been dead for 3,000 years or so. But what’s a minor inconvenience in love, right? King Tut was my boy king! Unfortunately, my Catholic school girl self was in for a rude awakening on just how hot this dream barge probably was. Hold on to your chariots, folks!

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Thumps Up for Roman Gladiators

Jean-Leon Gerome Pollice Verso.jpg

Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) by Jean-Leon Gerome 1824-1904

The image of a Roman gladiator’s fate being decided by a thumbs up or down is iconic–one that can be recalled in many Hollywood films including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the famous painting Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome. Many may find themselves familiar with the painting but might not know that the image above became the basis for our pop culture idea of a crowd of plebeians jeering and viciously stabbing their thumbs downward– signaling that they wished for the defeated gladiator to pay for his loss in combat with his life. It is also where Ridley Scott drew his inspiration while directing his movie epic, blessing us with one of the best Joaquin Phoenix performances before Joker danced his way down a flight of stairs.

But, like most beliefs cribbed from famous works–this one turned up false.

Joaquin Phoenix Commodus GIF - JoaquinPhoenix Commodus Gladiator GIFs

Histastrophe’s barometer of historical accuracy as determined by an ego-maniacal Hercules impersonator.

If one were to find themselves judging the outcome of a gladiatorial match in a Roman arena (look, I don’t know your life), it might be helpful to know that if you were to signal with a thumbs up that everything is cool and kosher and you totally don’t wish any ill-will towards the defeated combatant–you might be that idiot screaming in surprise when the loser ends up spurting blood everywhere because your poor judgment resulted in his swift execution. You just sentenced that dude to death, man!

According to Anthony Corbeill, Classics Historian and author of works such as Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, whomever was in charge of administering the judgment of death over the defeated combatant would use ‘the hostile thumb’ or infesto pollice and that it would have been turned upward rather than down. [1] We learn this from 1st c. AD orator/teacher Quintillian who wrote that:

“Even in the fierce arena the conquered gladiator has hope, although the crowd threatens with its hostile thumb.” – Quintilian, Book 11 Institutio Oratoria [2]

We have a couple of reasons to suspect what this would look like–there are a few examples in Roman works that describe orators using certain gestures that were thought of as somewhat obscene. This hostile thumb was also described by Apuleius in his aptly named Golden Ass “like an orator, shutting in the two lowest fingers, extending the rest straight out, and beginning calmly with the infesto pollice.” [3] Naturally, this sort of position would suggest the thumb would be pointing upwards rather than down. Go ahead and try it the wrong way–I’ll wait. Quintilian often remarks on orators who speak with an uplifted hand being rather fond of using the hostile thumb as well–similar to those who enjoy ‘flipping the bird’ which is another gesture that was well in use in the Roman Empire. Both the thumbs up and the middle finger represent phallic imagery and aren’t thought of as particularly kind things to do with one’s hand, least of all one that would denote mercy.

“…numerous examples attest to gestural language outlasting spoken language.” – A. Corbeill, Thumbs in Ancient Rome: ‘Pollex’ As Index. [1]

Interestingly, there’s a great deal of thought and attention in Roman writings put on the power of the thumb. In possibly the most Italian thing ever, the common belief in Rome was that gestures contained a stable essence. Many Roman writers waxed poetic on the thumb (pollex) and were quick to point out the similarity with another Latin word pollet which meant “has power”. Roman writer Macrobius believed the thumb had moral superiority over the other fingers like it was some sentient, Twitter hashtag activist simply because it didn’t take as kindly to ornamentation. Methinks Macrobius simply never found a decent thumb ring. Other writers thought the thumb held power and sway over the remaining fingers by this virtue alone. Some weirdos thought the thumb was somehow connected to sexual organs and thus had regenerative powers because that makes a whole lot of sense. But not as much sense as Pliny the Elder who prescribes the right thumb of a virgin in curing someone of epileptic shock. Basically, Romans were crazy about their thumbs and, oddly, the rest of the ancient world was pretty sure that the thumb was simply connected to the hand. You know, like a normal finger ought to be. [1]

“…the thumb, either as the primary agent or acting by itself, has complete control over grasping and controlling, as if it were the guide and moderator of all things.” – Lactantius [4]

With this kind of obsession, and it stands to reason that gestures survive in cultural context better than verbal language does, it should be no surprise that throughout the timeline of Italian history, there are mentions of an erect thumb pointing at objects or people as one of scorn–from Dante’s Renaissance all the way up to the 20th century–some form of the Hostile Thumb lived on. It’s not even uncommon in other neighboring countries to view the ‘thumbs up’ as a sexually offensive one and it wasn’t until World War II and the influx of American G.I.’s that the cross-contamination of the gesture changed in Italy. [1]

So if you wanted to save a gladiator, what gesture would you use?

Medaillon de Cavillargues –  The inscription reads STANTES MISSI which means ‘released standing’. Depicting an act of mercy for both combatants signaled with a closed fist type gesture. [1]

Remember that the thumb has otherworldly powers, especially over the other fingers. There’s a whole thing from Pliny the Elder which discusses a ‘well-wishing’ thumb exists in proverb where one means to show approval when pressing down the thumb on something, like a hand or upon an enclosed fist. Because these are the Romans we’re talking about, of course pressing the thumb on things held a power in and of itself. Pressing a thumb on things might even cure you of pains and other ailments, and certainly pressing your thumb on your fist would save the life of a gladiator in the arena who maybe lost the fight because he ate too much garum sauce and was a bit sickly. Let him fight another day!

“Raising the hands and closing the fists, therefore, were expressions of power capable to concede life.” Michel de Montaigne [4]

Now, since we’ve gotten this far, I’m sure most of you are well and myth-busted and smartly know that the thumbs up is an ancient signal for death in the gladiatorial arena. For those left feeling a little skeptical still (I get it, magical thumbs are weird) I’d ask you to think on another well-known gesture you are already familiar with that similarly employs the hostile thumb.

How about the “You’re dead” gesture, cutting the throat with a thumbs up like a sword?

Image result for thumbs up cutting throat gesture gif

Yeaaaaaah–maybe rethink your thumbs ladies and plebes.

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Corbeill, A. “THUMBS IN ANCIENT ROME: ‘POLLEX’ AS INDEX.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 42, 1997, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4238745.

[2] Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria. Book XI: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Quintilian/Institutio_Oratoria/11C*.html

[3] Apuleius, The Golden Ass: https://archive.org/stream/TheGoldenAss_201509/TheGoldenAsspenguinClassics-Apuleius_djvu.txt

[4] Corbeill, A. (2004). Nature embodied: gesture in ancient Rome. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

The Roman Vomitorium – A Regurgitating Myth

Colosseum

The Colosseum should just be renamed ‘The Vomitorium’ so people finally get it.

Nothing makes me want to hurl more than oft repeated historical misunderstandings. ‘Christopher Columbus discovered America’ is a saying that forces me to eat copious amounts of cake to feel sane, hearing “Napoleon Bonaparte was really short” and I can be seen adding glasses of wine to the mix, and listening to another geographical wizard exclaim that “Cleopatra was Egyptian” and now I’m trying to find the nearest room to chuck it all up in–which if I were living in the Roman Empire would be convenient, right? Except they didn’t actually have a room for this as is popularly believed.

An illustration found in The Washington Post before Google existed.

‘Vomitorium’ sounds like one of those words one could easily decipher. It’s Latin and clearly using the root word for ‘vomit’ and ‘orium’–so a functional place to vomit. The mind puzzles over what exactly a ‘vomit place’ could be and knowing the extravagant splendor of Roman indulgences of the elite class–wouldn’t it make sense that in between all of those supposed orgies, Emperor assassinations, and dishes slathered with garum sauce, the Romans would require a room in which to purge their feast-ly contents just so they could go back to eating and partying anew?

Sure, if there was any evidence of it.

Unfortunately, the reality of what a ‘vomitorium’ actually is amounts to a much more mundane truth. The term does derive from the same root of the word vomit, in this case “to spew forth” which is exactly what the function of a vomitorium serves as, just not in keeping a toga party raging until dawn. In Roman amphitheatres and stadiums, it became necessary to create a passage way in which a large crowd of people could leave as quickly and efficiently as possible–exactly like the contents of a stomach after consuming those questionably cooked fish tacos from last night. When you’re a civilization of bread and circuses, evacuating a stadium like projectile pea soup ala The Exorcist certainly becomes a high priority in architectural ingenuity. [1]

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Don’t even think about puking in me, culus

So where did this retched misconception come from other than a misunderstanding of architectural terminology and why did it continue to be hurled around as a ‘fun fact’ of Roman history? First, let’s start with the primary sources.

…but all naked and panting as they are, the instant they leave the bath they seize hold of large vessels filled with wine, to show of, as it were, their mighty powers, and so gulp down the whole of the contents only to vomit them up again the very next moment. This they will repeat, too, a second and even a third time, just as though they had only been begotten for the purpose of wasting wine, and as if that liquor could not be thrown away without having first passed through the human body. – Pliny the Elder on ‘Drunkenness’, BOOK XIV. THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FRUIT TREES. [2]

The usage of the word ‘vomitorium’ doesn’t appear until the 5th century AD when it is used by the Roman writer Macrobius in his work The Saturnalia to describe these passageways in stadiums as being designed to ‘disgorge’ an audience from the venue. Seems as if the word itself should have been able to survive into modern times intact with its original meaning then, but instead it was muddled with other accounts and hurled together into the misconception it is today. [3] We can look at the works of Seneca the Younger, a lucrative philosopher of Stoicism (A philosophy also noted for it’s teachings in discipline and freedom of passions), in which he lambasted the indulgence of certain Roman’s in a letter to his mother Helvia where he metaphorically implied that “They vomit so they may eat and eat so that they may vomit.” which seems to have been taken as a literal source of evidence by later centuries of writers who believed this to prove the need of a purge room like the infamous ‘vomitorium’. [1]

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Yo, Dickus Manickus–you gonna eat that?

This misunderstanding is not helped either by satirical works such as the Satyricon which scholars believe was written by Petronius, a courtier of Nero, in the 1st c. AD. Yeah, that guy of reputable shenanigans. Petronius describes a dinner celebration in which the patrons were not only busy fornicating in an orgy but also throwing up the contents of their feast. Even if this were a work of non-fiction, and one that would have been applied to a particularly abominable Emperor, he does not mention a specific room where these events would have supposedly taken place. Other writers such as Cassius Dio, Cicero, and Suetonius mention specific stories in which vomiting after excess had taken place (Julius Caesar was said to partake in purging antics) but, again, no mention of a puke room specifically. [1]

Sure, there is also Aulus Cornelius Celsus who recommends vomiting as a medicinal treatment where he suggests that “…after a dinner of many courses and many drinks of diluted wine a vomit is even advantageous” but continuing to clarify “When anything in the dinner is felt to disagree, he should provoke a vomit, repeating it the next day“. So this is not necessarily meant to suggest that one should be purging the contents of their dinner just so they could resume ingesting as much as they desire immediately after. Also, not to mention, Celsus is a practitioner of the imbalances of humors and prescribes vomiting to ease in the plethoric and bilious. And even then, he specifically states -“I allow that vomiting should not be practiced for the sake of luxury…no one who wants to keep well, and live to old age, should make it a daily habit.” So this supposed practice of binging and purging wasn’t exactly one that was encouraged either. [4]

Yet, despite ‘vomitorium’ clearly being used to describe architecture in its first usage and the lack of a ‘purge room’ being mentioned in sources detailing acts of vomiting among Romans, we get to the 20th century where Aldous Huxley publishes his novel Antic Hay in 1923 which serves as a comical narrative lampooning the lifestyle of exorbitance among the London elite.

“The door of his sacred boudoir was thrown rudely open, and there strode in, like a Goth into the elegant marble vomitorium of Petronius Arbiter…”  Ch. 18 [5]

It’s here that Huxley calls back to the Satyrion as mentioned earlier and applies the term ‘vomitorium’ incorrectly to the salacious acts of binging and purging described by Petronius. From here the association of a room in where Romans would purge their food and resume their feasts enters into the pop culture lexicon and Aldous Huxley is credited with creating a brave new world of alt-historical realities. [6] Almost one hundred years later and people are still regurgitating the same misconception–an idea further perpetuated by any clever writer who thinks the concept of a ‘vomitorium’ a sick one to include in their works or just passed around by people who heard it secondhand.

Clearly, the misuse of ‘vomitorium’ is about as contagious as the stomach flu. Let’s do us all a favor and keep the myth down so we don’t all get sick with a case of ‘being wrong’, yeah?

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Partying it up Bacchus style

Fact check it, yo!

[1Alice P. RADIN Fictitious Facts: The Case of the Vomitorium: 

https://web.archive.org/web/20030320192257/http://www.apaclassics.org/AnnualMeeting/03mtg/abstracts/radin.html

[2] Pliny the Elder, BOOK XIV. THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FRUIT TREES, Ch. 28: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:abo:phi,0978,001:14

[3]  Macrobius, The Saturnalia: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Macrobius/Saturnalia/home.html

[4] Celsus, On Medicine, Book III: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Celsus/3*.html

[5] Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay, Ch. 18: https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/huxleya-antichay/huxleya-antichay-00-h.html