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The Modern Vomitorium

Few practices from ancient Rome leave a bad taste in the mouth like the vomitorium. During Roman banquets, participants would stuff themselves with food until they couldn't eat any more, then go to the vomitorium where they would tickle their throats with a feather. They would then return to the banquet and eat more.

As any bulimic can tell you, the vomitorium's logic isn't bad: You like to eat food, but don't want its effects, so you throw it back.

Today we laugh at the vomitorium, or find it too disgusting to warrant much analysis. "If you're full, you're full," we say. "If you can't fit any more into your gut, well, maybe you oughtta just show a little restraint and stop."

This comes off as a little odd in our age of excess. All things considered, we're not far removed from Roman excessiveness, which Cicero said was full of reckless moneymaking, status seeking, womanizing, overeating, snacks, wine tippling, anxiety, and desire for fame and public recognition.

"All right," you might retort, "we may have those Roman characteristics and excesses, but we aren't sticking bird parts down our throats."

True, but we do have a society of denizens who effect a similar result without the feather. Instead of a vomitorium, they use the gym. It allows them to eat excess quantities of food without getting fat.

I don't see much difference in this bottom line from the Romans': We like to eat food, but we don't want it its effects. So we eliminate the effects through exercise. Exercise is the replacement for vomiting; the treadmill, the modern substitute for the feather.

I'm willing to concede that the modern method isn't as disgusting as the vomiting method (though some of the sweat-soaked practitioners of excessive exercise are pretty gross, too). But the Roman method has the advantage of efficiency, which is highly valued in our quick-paced society.

We spend excessive time exercising, shedding the calories over the course of maybe five hours every week (excluding stretching, cooling down, and showering), thus translating to over 200 hours every year. This is time we could spend doing a myriad of other things, although, given our Roman-like characteristics, I don't know what we'd do with those extra hours, probably just work an excessive number of hours at the office, dream of fame, tinker with our electronic toys or dink around on the golf course.

I don't know how long it took the Romans to hurl their dinners, but, as a practitioner of the method during my college years following hard-drinking nights, I know the whole procedure takes about five minutes (including the brushing of teeth afterwards). If we did that every day, it would translate to about 25 hours every year, for a net saving of 175 hours per years.

Both forms have their advantages, so I don't know which to choose. Of course, I might opt for a half-way approach: Perhaps I can hit the treadmill for a reasonable 20-minute spurt, but then stop a few ounces short of saturation at dinner. It seems more reasonable-moderate-than treading 40 minutes then gorging myself at dinner, telling myself that I "earned" those calories with my exercise.

It's just a thought. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to grab my feather and get to the bathroom. I hurt my knee two weeks ago and can't exercise, so I need to get rid of the four-pound ham I ate while writing this.

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