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Vomitoria, Horse Senators, and Other Myths About Ancient Rome: Separating Fact from Fiction

When most people think of ancient Rome, images of excess, debauchery, and eccentricity often come to mind. Tales of gluttonous banquets, mad emperors, and wanton cruelty have long captured the public imagination, shaping our perceptions of what life was like in one of history‘s most famous civilizations.

But how many of these sensational stories are actually true? As it turns out, some of the most persistent and lurid rumors about ancient Rome are more fiction than fact, based on flimsy evidence, misunderstandings, and exaggerations.

Let‘s take a closer look at four of the most common misconceptions about the Roman world – vomitoria, salted earth, Nero‘s fiddling, and Caligula‘s horse senator – and uncover the real history behind these notorious myths.

The Myth of the Vomitorium

One of the most enduring legends about ancient Rome is that wealthy Romans regularly indulged in gluttonous banquets, only to throw up the contents of their stomach in a special room called a vomitorium so they could return to the feast and continue gorging themselves.

It‘s a vivid image of excess and wastefulness, but it‘s not an accurate one. Vomitoria were real structures, but they were not places for purging after overindulgence. They were actually the passageways that allowed crowds to exit and enter amphitheaters, stadiums, and theaters – the name comes from the Latin word "vomō," meaning "to discharge rapidly."

So where did this misconception come from? It may have arisen from a misinterpretation of ancient sources describing Roman dining habits. The Roman philosopher Seneca, for example, criticized the gluttony and waste of some of his fellow citizens, writing:

"They vomit so they may eat, and eat so they may vomit, and they do not deign to digest the banquets for which they ransack the whole world."

However, Seneca was using vomiting as a rhetorical device to illustrate a point about greed and excess, not describing a literal practice. While there are scattered accounts of eating disorders like bulimia in ancient Roman times, there‘s no evidence that vomiting was a regular part of Roman dining rituals, or that there were dedicated rooms for it in Roman homes.

The vomitorium myth may have been further cemented by a misunderstanding of the word itself. When early scholars first came across references to vomitoria, they might have taken the name too literally, assuming it referred to a place for vomiting rather than a passageway for rapid discharge of people.

But the real story of Roman dining is far more nuanced than the vomitorium legend suggests. While ancient authors like Seneca and Petronius describe lavish, hours-long feasts enjoyed by the Roman elite, for most people, meals were far simpler affairs, and food was not something to be wasted.

Salting the Earth: Wasteful Vengeance or Symbolic Ritual?

After the Romans destroyed the city of Carthage in 146 BC, did they salt the earth to ensure that nothing would ever grow there again? According to many popular histories and references, the answer is yes – but the evidence tells a different story.

The idea of sowing salt into conquered lands to render them infertile has a long history, appearing in various stories throughout the ancient world. But whether the Romans actually engaged in this practice is highly doubtful, for one simple reason – salt was an extremely valuable commodity in ancient times.

In the Roman world, salt was used for everything from seasoning food to preserving meat to paying soldiers (the origin of the word "salary"). It was so valuable that it was sometimes used as currency. As historian and archaeologist Paul Erdkamp explains:

"In the ancient world, salt was a scarce and expensive commodity. It was not until the Industrial Revolution that salt became cheap and abundant. The cost of salt in the Roman world was at least 100 times higher than it is today."

Given the high cost of salt, it‘s unlikely that the Romans would have wasted a huge amount of it to deliberately destroy agricultural land. Some scholars estimate that it would have taken over 6 million kilograms of salt to effectively contaminate the farmland around Carthage – an enormous quantity that would have been prohibitively expensive.

So where did the salted earth story come from? The main ancient reference to it comes from the Roman historian Livy, who reports that after the destruction of Carthage, the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus cursed the city and ritually sowed salt into its soil. However, Livy was writing more than a century after the events he describes, and there‘s no archaeological evidence to support his account.

It‘s possible that Scipio did perform some kind of symbolic salting as part of a ritual curse, but it‘s very unlikely that it was done on a large enough scale to have any real effect on the fertility of the land. The same goes for later accounts of the Romans salting the ruins of the Temple of Jerusalem – while it makes for a compelling story, there‘s no solid evidence to support it.

The salted earth myth persists because it taps into powerful themes of vengeance, total destruction, and the ruthlessness of the Romans. But the mundane reality is that salt was simply too precious a commodity for the Romans to waste on grand gestures of agricultural devastation.

Nero: Singing Tyrant or Scapegoat?

The image of the Emperor Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned is one of the most iconic and enduring legends of ancient history. But as it turns out, pretty much every aspect of this story is false.

First of all, the fiddle didn‘t exist in ancient Rome – it‘s a medieval instrument that wasn‘t invented until centuries after Nero‘s death. If Nero played anything during the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, it would have been the cithara, a type of lyre that was popular in the ancient world.

But even the story of Nero singing or playing music while his city burned is doubtful. The ancient historian Tacitus, writing about 50 years after the fire, claims that Nero watched the flames from a tower while singing a song comparing the destruction to the fall of Troy – but he also notes that this was only a rumor, not a confirmed fact.

Other ancient writers give different accounts of Nero‘s actions during the fire. Suetonius, writing in the early 2nd century AD, says that Nero sent out men to intentionally start the fire so he could rebuild the city to his liking, and that he watched the flames from a tower while playing his lyre. But Cassius Dio, writing even later, claims that Nero wasn‘t even in Rome when the fire started and that he rushed back to the city to organize relief efforts.

With these contradictory accounts, it‘s impossible to say for certain what Nero did or didn‘t do during the Great Fire. What we do know is that the fire was a massive disaster that destroyed much of the city, and that Nero took advantage of the destruction to rebuild Rome in a more grand and aesthetically pleasing way, including building himself an enormous palace called the Domus Aurea, or Golden House.

This extravagance, combined with Nero‘s reputation for brutality and megalomania, made him a prime target for rumors and accusations. Many Romans blamed Nero for starting the fire, either out of sheer madness or as an excuse for his ambitious building projects.

But it‘s important to remember that much of what we know about Nero comes from sources that were hostile to him, like Tacitus and Suetonius, who had their own political agendas and biases. Other evidence suggests that Nero was actually quite popular among the Roman people for much of his reign, and that stories of his tyranny and excess may have been exaggerated by his enemies.

The myth of Nero fiddling while Rome burned persists because it‘s such a powerful and dramatic image, one that encapsulates the idea of a mad, decadent emperor who fiddled (literally and figuratively) while his people suffered. But the historical reality is much more complex and uncertain, and it‘s important to approach ancient accounts of Nero with a critical eye.

Caligula‘s Horse: Rumor or Reality?

Another persistent myth about the excesses of ancient Rome is that the Emperor Caligula, in a fit of madness or megalomania, appointed his favorite horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate and made the animal a priest.

It‘s a shocking story, one that seems to epitomize the depths of Caligula‘s depravity and insanity. But like many tales of Caligula‘s reign, there‘s little solid evidence to support it.

The main ancient sources that mention Incitatus are Suetonius and Cassius Dio, both of whom were writing decades after Caligula‘s death. Suetonius claims that Caligula treated the horse as a pampered pet, giving it a marble stable, a jeweled collar, and servants to attend to its every need. He also says that Caligula threatened to appoint Incitatus as a consul, the highest elected office in Rome.

Dio goes even further, claiming that Caligula actually followed through on this threat and made Incitatus a priest as well. But he also includes other outlandish stories about Caligula, like the emperor having conversations with the statue of Zeus and declaring war on the sea god Neptune.

The problem with these accounts is that they were written by historians who had every reason to portray Caligula in the worst possible light. Suetonius and Dio were both writing under later emperors who wanted to distance themselves from the excesses and scandals of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, of which Caligula was a part.

In fact, many modern historians believe that much of what we "know" about Caligula is actually propaganda and slander spread by his political enemies after his death. While there‘s no doubt that Caligula was a controversial figure who made many enemies during his short reign, stories of his madness and depravity may have been exaggerated or fabricated to discredit him and justify his assassination.

So did Caligula really make his horse a senator? Probably not. The most likely explanation is that Suetonius and Dio were repeating a piece of satirical political gossip – the idea of Caligula appointing his horse to the Senate was so ridiculous that it served as a perfect symbol of the emperor‘s perceived insanity and unfitness to rule.

There‘s no actual record of Incitatus serving in the Senate or performing any official duties, and it‘s highly unlikely that even Caligula would have been able to get away with such a blatant flouting of Roman law and tradition.

The story of Incitatus is a reminder of how difficult it can be to separate fact from fiction when it comes to ancient history, especially when dealing with controversial figures like Caligula. It‘s important to approach sensational stories with a skeptical eye and to consider the biases and agendas of the sources that report them.

Conclusion: The Importance of Historical Accuracy

The myths of vomitoria, salted earth, Nero‘s fiddling, and Caligula‘s horse senator are just a few examples of the many misconceptions and exaggerations that surround ancient Rome. While these stories may be entertaining and memorable, they can also warp our understanding of what life was really like in the Roman world.

As historians, it‘s our job to seek out the truth behind the legends, to separate fact from fiction and to paint a more accurate picture of the past. This means closely examining the evidence, considering the biases and agendas of our sources, and always keeping an open mind.

It‘s important to remember that ancient writers were not objective reporters, but rather storytellers and moralizers who often had their own political and personal motivations. Many of the most sensational stories about Rome, like those of Nero and Caligula, come from sources that were hostile to the emperors they describe, and may have exaggerated or fabricated tales of their tyranny and excess for rhetorical effect.

At the same time, it‘s also important not to dismiss these stories entirely, but rather to view them as valuable evidence of how the Romans thought about their own history and society. The fact that tales of gluttony, madness, and extravagance were so common in Roman literature says something about the anxieties and preoccupations of the Roman elite, and the way they used these stories to comment on their own world.

Ultimately, the study of ancient history is an ongoing process of sifting through evidence, questioning assumptions, and revising our understanding based on new discoveries and perspectives. It‘s a challenging and often ambiguous task, but it‘s also a deeply rewarding one, as it allows us to connect with people and cultures that are long gone, but still have much to teach us.

So the next time you hear a sensational story about ancient Rome, take a moment to question it, to seek out the evidence behind it, and to consider the complexities and nuances that often get lost in the telling. By doing so, we can gain a richer and more accurate understanding of one of the most fascinating and influential civilizations in human history.