Mural from a Pompeii brothel.

The Grim Reality of the Brothels of Pompeii

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Similarly, it would be naïve to assume that male clients did not seek other men with whom they could participate in acts deemed socially unacceptable (essentially acts in which the citizen male would occupy a submissive role).

Society and the Sex Trade

At the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, Pompeii was a town of modest size, with a population of around 11,000, and a thriving community with sophisticated architecture and infrastructure. Located in Campania, some 23 kilometers southeast of Naples, and near the port of Pozzuoli, it enjoyed robust trade and economy, and had a multicultural demographic.

Pompeii ruins with Mount Vesuvius in the background.

Pompeii ruins with Mount Vesuvius in the background. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The prosperity of the town and the continual presence of merchants ensured a strong market for sex. Indeed, the sex trade was integral to the successful functioning of society, particularly marriages.

As marriages, particularly those among the elite classes, were arranged and predominantly for the birth of male heirs, a husband would not seek sexual pleasures from his wife. Rather, out of respect for her, a man would pay for pleasurable sex, especially those acts that were not expected to be performed by a respectable woman.

Indeed, the graffiti attests to five different types of sex for sale: intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio, active anal sex, and passive anal sex. Thus the sex trade performed a type of social and moral policing of the institution of marriage, as well as the preservation of an adult male’s reputation and masculinity. As sex work was not illegal (being predominantly structured around slavery) but adultery was outlawed, this was another reason for paying for sex.

The layers of volcanic materials that covered Pompeii and most of its population to a depth of 25 meters (82 feet) left extensive evidence of the ancient Italians, their lifestyles, and their environments. Ironically, the eruption that trapped the inhabitants in both time and place has bestowed a strange immortality upon them.

These people whisper to us, and their tales are varied, joyous and sad. Their stories are sometimes shocking and even heartbreaking, but, like the lives of the sex workers, worthy of remembrance.

Top image: Mural from a Pompeii brothel. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The article ‘ The Grim Reality of the Brothels of Pompeii by Marguerite Johnson was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

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