Warning: This article contains graphic images of Romans in compromising situations.
The Pompeii you learn about in stuffy school classrooms with a dinosauric teacher was certainly the PG rated version. Historians such as Mary Beard reveal much darker and more intriguing sides, including the ghoulish cowering human casts and their stories. But let’s be honest, the unmissable stop on the tour of Pompeii is undoubtedly the brothel. In the building itself there isn’t any information to speak of, though you can try eavesdropping on a tour group, but the brothel is much more than some amusing erotic art and a few stone beds. It is just the tip of an iceberg of secret liaisons, slave prostitutes, and the 19th century horror and concealment of Pompeii’s darker side.
How many brothels existed in ancient Pompeii?
The answer is still up for debate. Some historians claim there are as many as 35 brothels, not including taverns, while the inimitable Beard puts the number at 1.
However, while the Lupanare might be the only real purpose-built brothel, there are as many as 13 single rooms located conveniently close to taverns containing only a tell-tale stone bed and pillow.
The Secret Cabinet
Before going into details about the infamous brothel and surrounding debauchery, it should be noted that the erotic side of Pompeii was concealed from public knowledge by zealous 19th century archaeologists until the 21st century. Finds deemed unsuitable for public viewing by Bourbon King Charles III were transferred to the archaeological Museum of Naples, where they were locked and sealed for hundreds of years in a Secret Cabinet. It contains erotic art, phallic street lamps, explicit drinking cups and the famous statue of ‘Pan copulating with goat’. The erotic wall frescos found on walls were covered but for a small fee could be seen by gentlemen as a kind of peep show until the 1960s.
Pompeii’s brothel itself was only opened to the public in 2006.
The oldest known brothel in the world, the Lupanare is located near the forum and the market, forming part of the centre of city life. The name means den of the she-wolf, certainly more creative than modern-day versions. The building consists of five small rooms downstairs containing a stone bed and pillow, which would have been covered by fabrics and cushions, and a toilet. Upstairs, however, there are just large rooms with no stone beds or erotic art. This was probably a place for ‘parties’ and high paying clients looking for luxury.
The ‘menu’ of erotic art on show at the Brothel is, by now, well-known. But historians argue that these images are not really a menu at all, considering their extravagant and poetic nature, but rather a fantasy for clients to imagine.
Furthermore, erotic art was much more widely dispersed in Pompeii than solely in brothels. Private rooms such as bedrooms and back rooms in houses were also sometimes decorated with explicit scenes, for example Pan with a nymph or Venus and Mars.
The walls of the Lupanare are a patchwork of inscriptions, most stating the deed performed in the room, some detailing what services the prostitute in that particular room could provide, and some even leaving reviews of their experience. Names of prostitutes are even recorded, such as Fortunata and Fabia. Graffiti has also showed there were male prostitutes.
The Legendary Phallus in the Via dell’abbondanza
Another must see, tour guides say the phallus carved into the road points to a brothel two streets down on the left. However, it seems dubious that all would assume those directions from the symbol. Some think it could be a good luck charm, another meaning of images of phalluses in Ancient times. But another plausible suggestion is that the house directly on the left is a brothel. This is a large respectable house with atrium but it hides a dark secret. Hidden round the back, in the servants quarters, are 3 prostitutes cells with an entrance from street and perhaps an upstairs area too. This suggests a respectable elite gentleman was actually running a brothel in secret.
The Popularity of Prostitution
Safe to say prostitution was rife in Pompeii, and involved all levels of society. Owners of brothels were likely to be aristocratic, though certainly they stayed behind the scenes. In private homes there were rooms for prostitution, there were erotic parties, and there were upper class wives taking secret lovers.
There were even some aristocratic woman who serviced clients as a kind of thrill, and a dangerous one at that as the punishment if discovered was banishment or even death.
It is safe to say that Pompeii has only gained fame from its tragic end, it’s really a relatively ordinary small city. Yet it has revealed that even modest settlements had a secret but well-established underworld of decadence and debauchery.