50 Shades of Pompeii

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Warning: Please be advised that this blog post contains images with nudity. If you feel uncomfortable with such photos, please skip pass the images. Thank you for your understanding! Mount Vesuvius

The Last Day in Pompeii

Pompeii was a flourishing and sophisticated Roman city that was catastrophically destroyed by a volcanic eruption from Mount Vesuvius located near the Bay of Naples in Italy on 24 August 79 AD. Mount Vesuvius’ 24-hour long eruption covered the city and its inhabitants in layers of molten ash and pumice. The encounter of this tragedy was recounted by Pliny the Younger who was at Misenum where he observed these tragic events unfold that also claimed the life of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was a senior military officer.

Pompeii became a lost city of the Roman Civilization as it was forgotten and lost for over 2000 years. It was uncovered in the 18th century with its ruins and skeletons of its former residents preserved in their exact location 2000 years before like it was frozen in time. (Fun fact: volcanic ash acts as a really good preservative!)

“...Many besought the aid of gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness.”

- Pliny the Younger, a Roman administrator and poet

Prostitution in Pompeii - House of Pleasure

Venus was Pompeii’s patron deity who was a Roman goddess of love and beauty. The walls of the city’s grand buildings were covered with erotic art that depicted various sexual activities. With its robust distinct social class system, most slaves despite their gender were seen as potential sexual partners of the upper-class men such as aristocrats and merchants.

Pompeii was filled with numerous brothels with Lupanar (which is from the Latin word Lupa for she-wolf, a common term for a prostitute) as the city’s most lavish brothel. Brothels had stone beds, erotic frescoes and graffiti and the phallus, an erected penis, which was painted as a sign of good luck. Lupanare is a two storey building with 10 rooms with a stone bed in each room for clients. The upper floor was more luxuriously decorated to cater to the wealthy. The walls of each room have erotic art of various sexual positions that a prostitute could offer her clients. However, some historians believed that such depiction was not a reflection of the intercourse but rather an idealistic and was seen as a marketing gimmick.

Prostitutes were a mix of slaves and free men and women. The men  forced to work there had very low social status; they were probably slaves or poor commoners. The women who were forced, usually slaves, had an even lower social status and were greatly marginalized. Women were forced to wear men’s togan and were not allowed to put their hair up. They had to work in harsh conditions such as windowless and cramped rooms that were separated merely by a curtain while their earnings go to the managers of the brothel since most of the women are slaves that came from Greece. Prostitutes earned the equivalent of no more than two loaves of bread or a half a litre of wine which was also depicted in the lewd art on the walls.

What Do The Erotic Graffiti Signify?

The graffiti on the walls of the brothel provided a fantasy of sex to the people from Pompeii. The various kinds of erotic art carved into the ancient walls illuminate the sexual practices that took place in the brothel. The images told of quality bedding and pillows, something which far surpassed what was actually found in the rooms of the brothels of the first floor.

They expressed a wide vocabulary of sexually explicit terms between clients and prostitutes. Some of these even described sexual acts that included elements of aggression and force. This comes as no surprise since messages of male dominance and violence permeated Pompeiian households. It is highly likely that these beliefs were brought into the brothels as well.

Masculinity in the Brothels

This then raises the notion of masculinity in Pompeii’s sexual labour. Clients would carve the names of the prostitute involved in the sexual acts and the name of any other participants (if there were any). It may appear to be a form of boasting for the men, as they get to flaunt the number of prostitutes they have committed sexual acts with. Men used those women to solidify their masculinity, albeit bringing societal shame to the women. For the Romans, sex was, for the majority of the time, an expression of power. The person penetrating was someone in control and exerting their power, whereas the person being penetrated is someone who has lost control, thus has been degraded.

However, this also places great stress on the women’s sexuality. Aside from being viewed as sexual objects, the women were shown to have a kind of sexual prowess and are hyper-sexualized as a result of the graffiti. The led to an increase in the number of clients they attended to. The better they were at their job, the greater recognition they would receive, and ultimately greater profit for them.

Society’s Attitude Towards Sex

Paid sex was available virtually everywhere in Pompeii. Often used as a means of flaunting power and an instrument of wealth. It appears that almost everyone indulged in prostitution, one way or another. Prostitution was not only confined to the walls of the brothels, it was rampant in Pompeii. The public baths were a place where sex was sold as well. There, the rich mingled with the poor, hanging out in the nude. It is said that in the Suburban Baths, the men’s locker rooms contain the most sexually explicit images in the whole of Pompeii.    

All in all, it is clear that Pompeii was a city that thrived off of sex. Prostitution existed in virtually every corner of Pompeii, with people from all walks of life indulging in it. However, it is ironic for a city that benefits from prostitution, both sexually and economically, to push the sex labourers into the peripheries of society.