The Houses of Pleasure in Ancient Pompeii

The Houses of Pleasure in Ancient Pompeii


Mad emperors, fierce warriors, brutal entertainments, and lascivious lifestyles. These are the familiar images of ancient Rome, but what was it really like?  Rumours abounded regarding Roman emperors and their indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh. Tiberius, for instance, is said to have indulged in secret orgies in his pleasure villa on the island of Capri. But until the 16th century discovery of the buried city of Pompeii, the guilty pleasures of the Romans has been hidden in the pages of the past.

Pompeii is a 6th century BC Roman city frozen in time, preserved by the layers of ash that spewed out from the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.  Although Pompeii was initially rediscovered at the end of the 16th century, it was only properly excavated in the 18th century. This was due to the fact that excavators were startled by the sexually explicit frescoes they were frequently unearthing, quite shocking to the sensibilities of medieval citizens of Rome, so they quickly covered them over.

When excavations resumed nearly two centuries later, archaeologists found a complete city almost entirely intact – loaves of bread still sat in the oven, bodies of men, women, children, and pets were found frozen in their last moments, the expressions of fear still etched on their faces, and the remains of meals remained discarded on the pavement. The astounding discovery meant that researchers could piece together exactly what life was like for the ancient Romans of Pompeii – the food they ate, the jobs they performed, the houses they lived in, and of course, the activities they engaged in for pleasure.   

The ancient city of Pompeii

The ancient city of Pompeii was found to be almost completely intact. Source: BigStockPhoto

Bodies of ancient Roman citizens  - Pompeii

Bodies of ancient Roman citizens lay preserved in their positions in which they died. Source: BigStockPhoto

Excavators unearthed evidence of numerous brothels in the ancient city of Pompeii, as determined by the discovery of both erotic frescoes and graffiti adorning the walls of buildings containing numerous rooms with stone beds. The phallus was a very common decoration for good luck in Pompeii and was painted in the houses, in the streets, and in the shops.

One of the famous brothels in Pompeii is called the Lupanare (Latin for wolf’s den). This was a two-storey building built just years before the destruction of Pompeii. Believed to be the only purpose-built brothel in Pompeii, the Lupanare had ten rooms and a latrine under the stairs. Each of the ten rooms had a stone bed covered with a mattress where a prostitute would entertain her clients. Another famous feature of the Lupanare is its erotic wall paintings. Each of the paintings depicted a different position for sexual intercourse, and is believed to have been an advertising board for the various specialities that were on offer.

The Lupenare of Pompeii

The Lupenare of Pompeii. Photo source: Wikimedia.

Despite the erotic nature of these images, it has been suggested that they were merely an idealised version of sex. To regard them as a representation of the actual transaction would be tantamount to regarding contemporary pornography as the real thing. Thus, it has been postulated that the lives of the prostitutes at the Lupanare was far grimmer than the erotic images suggest. For instance, the chambers where the prostitutes worked were windowless, cramped, and uncomfortable places separated from the anteroom only by curtains. Furthermore, it has been suggested that most of the prostitutes in Pompeii were slaves of Oriental or Greek origin. As they were involved in the slave trade and not trained in other professions, it seems that these women had no real alternatives for work.

A stone bed in one of Pompeii’s brothels

A stone bed in one of Pompeii’s brothels. Source: BigStockPhoto

Their clients, however, seem to have had a better time at the brothels, as demonstrated by the graffiti that they left behind. It has been suggested that there are over 100 inscriptions on the walls of the Lupanare. One inscription, for instance, runs simply as such, ‘I screwed a lot of girls here’. Another inscription even records the date that the person visited the Lupanare, ‘On June 15th, Hermeros screwed here with Phileterus and Caphisus’. It has been pointed out that the wealthy generally did not visit brothels, as they were able to afford mistresses or slave concubines. Thus, it is more likely that those who frequented the brothels of Pompeii and left the graffiti behind were ordinary Romans.

Interestingly, the clients of the Lupanare also left notes on the wall that allowed archaeologists to work out the prices of the services provided there. It seems that two loafs of bread and half a litre of wine would enable a person to obtain the services of a prostitute. Needless to say, the fees were paid to the brothel owner, rather than the prostitutes themselves. Such is the life of a prostitute in a brothel of Pompeii, as far as the archaeology is able to tell us.

While many artifacts recovered in Pompeii have been preserved and displayed within the Naples National Archaeological Museum, the display of Pompeii’s erotic frescoes has been a matter of much contention. In 1819, when King Francis I of Naples visited the Pompeii exhibition at the National Museum with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a secret cabinet, accessible only to "people of mature age and respected morals". Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, it was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s (the time of the sexual revolution) and was finally re-opened for viewing in 2000. Minors are still allowed entry to the once secret cabinet only in the presence of a guardian or with written permission.

The ‘menu’ of services was painted on the walls of the brothels

The ‘menu’ of services was painted on the walls of the brothels.

Featured image: A fresco found within one of Pompeii’s brothels. Source: BigStockPhoto

By Ḏḥwty

References

Atlas Obscura, 2014. The Ancient Brothels of Pompeii. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-ancient-brothels-of-pompei

BBC News, 2006. Pompeii's erotic past revealed. [Online]
Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/6090486.stm

Frost, A., 2013. Lewd Graffiti from Ancient Pompeii. [Online]
Available at: http://dangerousminds.net/comments/lewd_graffiti_from_ancient_pompeii

Harvey, B., 2014. Graffiti from Pompeii. [Online]
Available at: http://www.pompeiana.org/resources/ancient/graffiti%20from%20pompeii.htm

Hooper, J., 2006. Up Pompeii - ancient brothel restored. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/oct/26/italy.johnhooper

Spiegel Online, 2006. Pompeii's Whorehouse: Erotic Murals Re-Exposed. [Online]
Available at: http://www.spiegel.de/international/pompeii-s-whorehouse-erotic-murals-re-exposed-a-445134.html

Walsh, J., 2010. Queen of the underworld: Mary Beard is bringing the ancient city of Pompeii to life in a BBC documentary. [Online]
Available here.

Wikipedia, 2014. Lupanar (Pompeii). [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupanar_(Pompeii)

Wikipedia, 2014. Pompeii. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pompeii

Comments

as a sex worker, i would like to add some insight about certain aspects and assumptions about the lives of prostitutes in pompeii.....the lived experience of modern sex workers can often shed light on ancient sex working conditions...our work is the same in many ways as it was then and as such gives us a unique ability to interpret certain aspects of brothel life in ancient times

the paintings on the walls are assumed to depict services on offer, like a menu. this could be true but in modern brothels and in other time frames, these pictures were meant to tantalize and excite...like pornography. it could be they were meant to get clients into the mood....

also, the assumption of slavery based on the brothel keeper collecting the fees may not be entirely correct...it is a tradition for the brothel keeper to collect the fees for the sake of security. clients will sometimes try to steal the fee back so the third party holds it in a secure location until the worker gets paid out at the end of their work day....

also, some women who wanted to better their lives and the lives of their families may have engaged in sex work willingly....a higher paying job, guaranteed income/ food....these may have been appealing to someone who was of a lower status and needed better pay to survive...

and finally, i think it's clear from the graffiti that there were not only female sex workers but male as well....so the assumption of slave women from asia and greece is not entirely correct excluding those of other gender identities and who surely existed during that time.

if people would like to discuss this further with people who have lived experience, i am ready and willing to add my extensive experience to the effort to decipher these artifacts and places

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