Pompeii Delights

City Chronicles: A Little Bit of Italy is my latest work-in-progress and I have reached the Bay of Naples and Pompeii. Pompeii was partially destroyed and buried beneath tonnes of volcanic ash, pumice and rock matter in AD79 when Vesuvius erupted. Focused excavations began in the eighteenth century, with a considerable amount of work carried out in the early part of the twentieth century prior to World War II and since. Looking back through all my photographs one thing that struck me was the amount of erotica that we came across.

Street corners sported phalluses in relief. Erotic artwork was not relegated to houses of prostitution but was found in public baths and private houses as well as brothels. Sex and phalluses were seemingly everywhere.

The phalluses on walls and street corners have been reputed to be directional indicators for brothels, though this is perhaps unlikely. Pompeii would have boasted a high number of brothels if that was the case. My guide suggested they were good luck or fertility charms which people touched to achieve their wishes. Some of them were particularly worn which would lend some credence to his theory. There is only one officially recognised brothel in Pompeii (though there may have been as many as thirty), the Lupanar, which occupies a street corner plot. High on the walls are erotic pictures which have been suggested to be a 'menu' from which customers selected their desired act. Considering the artwork that is on display in other buildings this is unlikely; it is just appropriate artwork for the setting.

Artwork from the brothel, Lupanar, showing a sexual act.
© Deborah Cater

Man with two penises, Lupanar.
© Deborah Cater

Private houses have their fair share of erotic art. The House of Vetti displays a picture of the god of fertility, Priapus, with his enlarged penis, the House of the Centenary depicts a sexual act being carried out, whilst the House of the Faun shows a satyr and a nymph carrying out a sexual act. The public baths though have possibly the most explicit artwork. Discovered in the 1990s the frescoes show amongst other things, a threesome (two men and a woman), the act of cunnilingus, the act of felatio and a woman riding a man. These were on show in baths used by both sexes, so is it likely that they were advertising 'other services available' in upstairs rooms? Once again, I think it is unlikely. The pictures are all shown above what look like painted baskets which in turn have a number. Below them is evidence that a shelf had run along the wall. The original archaeologist arrived at the theory (which seems highly likely as there are no niches in the changing rooms to store belongings)that these were just playful reminders to the clientele as to where they had left their clothes. 'Remember Lucius, I'm the threesome and you're girl on top.'

This was a society with different social mores to those of today, seemingly far more open where sexual proclivities were concerned. Whatever the original purpose of any of the pictures they certainly make for excited chit-chat and giggling among some of the tourists of today, which is almost as interesting to view.

Threesome fresco                              Satyr and Nymph                          Cunnilingus
in public baths                                   in House of the Faun                      in public baths

(Pictures sourced from google, copyright free where copyright not indicated.)


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