Pompeii’s Pornography

Aug 8, 2021 | Diggings Online | 0 comments

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Tourists visiting Pompeii are commonly accosted by guards who will offer, in return for a suitable recompense, to unlock the city brothel and show them the erotic paintings and graffiti within. Few seem able to resist the temptation and it is surprising how many people will pay good money just to be able to mutter “Disgusting!” as their fevered fingers cram yet another film into their smoking camera.

They would probably be even more disgusted if they knew the full extent of Pompeii’s dedication to the amatory arts. Sober archaeologists have concluded that there were as many brothels in the city as there were bakeries which, unless there was some significant overlap between the two professions, means that there were more prostitutes than pastry cooks in Pompeii!

We should not conclude that the whole Roman empire was decadent: Pompeii was a resort town and, like resort towns ever since, offered the tourist trade every sort of attraction. Big Dippers and Tunnels of Love had not yet been invented and theme parks were a far distant gleam in the eyes of Walt Disney’s great-great-great-great . . . . great-grandfather, so apart from the theatre, the circus and the gladiators’ shows, there wasn’t much else on offer in the way of amusements apart from . . .

There are, no doubt, the puritans who would utterly reject the idea of sex as a leisure activity, but the ancient world suffered from no such prejudice. Gourmets might find fulfilment in the delights of nightingale tongue stew or peacocks stuffed with saffron, but the ordinary mortal took his pleasures in a more carnal manner and was not at all restrained in letting the world know about it. The plaster walls of Pompeii seem to have provided the most common medium for eager lovers or satiated satyrs to express their feelings in either words or crude graphics.

It was these latter that provided the greatest shock for the sober, Catholic peasants employed by the nobility to dig for antiques in the wells and tunnels driven into the ash and mud that covered the ancient city. The upper classes were not entirely unacquainted with such activities – Cassanova’s memoirs bear witness to this – but they were solid in their opinion that the lower orders had no business knowing about such things. Somewhat in the spirit of the barrister who, in a famous trial, enquired of the jury whether they would wish their servants to read Lady Catterly’s Lover, the King of Naples was assiduous in having all such objects removed and placed in his private collection.

There were, however, rather more than graffiti scratched into the plaster walls. Priapus, an exuberantly male deity distinguished by his somewhat extravagant (and obvious) endowment, was enthusiastically worshipped by the jaded visitors to Pompeii. Possibly his rites were the ancient equivalent of the more modern (and more effective) Viagra pill. It is certain that a large number of statues, paintings and figurines of Priapus were found among the ruins of Pompeii – and the King of Naples gathered them all together into his locked room.

The most startling, however, were the paintings and frescoes found in some of the brothels. Whether they were by way of a menu, detailing the attractions to be found within, or intended as an aphrodisiac for the delectation of those in the waiting room, the fact is that they are extremely realistic and detailed in their depictions of the almost infinite varieties of human congress. Pepys, with his carefully hidden book of engravings, never came across anything like this – and in full colour, too!

Alas, the time came when the Kings of Naples passed away and the Revolutionaries were faced with the problem of what to do with the contents of the royal private collection. Whatever their personal feelings, the authorities regarded it as in the public interest to lock the salacious objects well away, a view that was seconded by the scandalised church. The result was that for many years the extensive collection was only open to scholars and those paintings remaining in situ in Pompeii formed a lucrative second income for the guides and guardians of the ruins.

The start of the second millenium, however, sees more casual public attitudes (whether more enlightened is open to debate!) and recreational sex is a more or less socially acceptable phenomenon for all except clergymen, successful politicians and anyone’s spouse. In view of the change in the times, the authorities of the Naples Archaeological Museum have recently decided to put the contents of the royal cabinet on display for the first time ever.

The details of this new exhibition are not yet known, but it is probable that the more than three hundred objects of an explicit nature will form a separate part of the museum, viewers of which will have to pay an extra levy. As a young lady of dubious virtue once informed me, “The best things in life are not free.” Suitably warned, I eschewed further acquaintance; I doubt, however, that the hordes of camera-clicking tourists will adopt a similarly high moral stance.

January 2001

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