Marguerite Johnson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. In our series on sexual histories, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
Like the anxious men who began excavations at Pompeii in the 18th century and discovered more about the ancient Italians than they had bargained for — such as phallic-shaped lamps — historians of sex are regularly confronted with case studies from the past that challenge their own ethics. Those who worked the streets of Pompeii and served clients in the brothels lived hard lives, yet many of the murals that survive depict the women as erotic and exotic.
Stories from graffiti
Murals from brothels and buildings that served as brothels such as inns, lunch counters, and taverns show fair-skinned women, naked except for the occasional breast bandwith stylised hair, in a variety of sexual positions with young, tanned, athletic men. The figures sport on beds that are sometimes ornate and festooned with decorative quilts. In buildings identified as brothels, the murals may have been intended to arouse clients.
They may also have functioned as pictorial menus or even served as instruction manuals for more inexperienced customers. In buildings identified as private residences, the scenes were most likely decorative but also deed, perhaps, for titillation. Contrary to the idealised images, the brothels themselves provide evidence that the women worked in cells, usually only big enough for a narrow bed.
The absence of windows in most attests to the darkness of the cells, as well as limited air flow.
Ancient rome slave market
Excavations also suggest that the cells were usually without doors, which implies that the rooms may have been curtained. They have also revealed stone beds. Wooden beds as well as pallets were likely also used, but would have perished in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD The conditions in which the women worked were of no concern to brothel owners, clients or anyone else for that matter, as most sex workers in ancient Italy were slaves. As the ancient attitude towards slaves was one of indifference at best, and violent disdain at worst, the lives of women were no source of empathy to those outside their class.
The sex workers fulfilled a utilitarian function and nothing else. Confined to the premises by usually male pimps who provided them with only their most basic needs, the women were essentially cut off from the outside world.
This rendered them vulnerable to the whims of both pimp and client alike. Women who worked the streets in Pompeii often waited around archways and other standard locations such as graveyards and public baths. In larger towns and cities, where control of the sex trade was harder to manage, some of these women may have worked without pimps.
Those who made up this percentage of workers were mostly freed slaves and poor freeborn women. Most of it is extremely graphic. Often the names of slaves and, by default, sex workers, had Greek origins. In this case, Euplia promised her clients a fair voyage.
Graffiti also attests to male sex workers in Pompeii. As with the writings concerning women, this graffiti lists specific services offered and sometimes prices. As freeborn women were not permitted to have intercourse with anyone but their husbands, the clients who accessed male sex workers were almost exclusively men. The sexual mores of ancient Rome, catered for male-to-male sexual encounters if certain protocols were maintained a citizen could not be penetrated, for example.
Society and the sex trade
The few literary records that suggest there may have been female clients of sex workers are questionable, as they were usually written for satiric or comedic purposes. At the time of the eruption of VesuviusPompeii was a town of modest size, with a population of around 11, and a thriving community with sophisticated architecture and infrastructure.
Located in Campania, some 23 kilometres southeast of Naples, and near the port of Pozzuoliit enjoyed robust trade and economy, and had a multicultural demographic. 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. 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 metres 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. Roman slave sex stories are sometimes shocking and even heartbreaking, but, like the lives of the sex workers, worthy of remembrance.
Plymouth Contemporary — Plymouth, Devon.
For : roman slave
Edition: Available editions United Kingdom. Brothels in Pompeii were decorated with murals depicting erotic and exotic scenes: but the reality was far more brutal and mundane. Marguerite JohnsonUniversity of Newcastle. Mural from a Pompeii brothel.