EDITORIAL: It would seem that in thousands of years, nothing has really changed at all!
Discoveries of erotic paintings and artifacts have given the cities a distinctly racy reputation. But is this deserved, asks Joanne Berry ahead of the ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ exhibition at the British Museum.
By Joanne Berry
7:00AM GMT 03 Mar 2013
One of the features of Pompeii and Herculaneum that often surprises modern visitors is the frequency of erotic images. Erotic art is found all over the cities, in private houses, public buildings and on the street façades. It so shocked the sensibilities of the earliest excavators that erotic art and objects were removed from the excavations by order of the Bourbon King Charles III and kept under lock and key. Later, in 1817, a “Secret Cabinet” was created in which these items were displayed at the Royal Museum at Naples – but only to important male visitors with express permission.
There was no attempt to hide away explicit scenes in the cities, although it is fair to say that there are different categories of erotic art that are displayed in different contexts. Firstly, a particularly common find are phalluses and images of Priapus (in paintings and mosaics, in the form of decorative lamps, and, on one street, carved into a paving stone). These, however, may not have been intended as erotic symbols but as charms to ward off the “evil eye” and ensure prosperity. It is perhaps for this reason that a large wall-painting of Priapus, with enormous phallus, is found at the entrance to the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. Another famous example is the phallus carved into terracotta outside a bakery with the following slogan above and below it: “Good fortune dwells here.”
Other categories are more overtly sexual in nature. There are abundant mythological scenes, displayed openly in different rooms of private houses. Common scenes include Venus and Mars, and Pan with a nymph. These scenes are suggestive rather than explicit. Then there are sexually explicit, realistic, scenes, most commonly found in private spaces such as bedrooms, and back rooms, and in what may have been brothels.
An exception to this rule can be seen in the Suburban Baths in Pompeii. The apodyterium (changing-room) of these baths had once been decorated with erotic scenes, displayed in numbered boxes. There has been much debate over their function. Did they represent a sex manual, were they advertisements for a brothel in the baths, or were they merely designed to entertain and titillate? Whatever the case, by AD79 these scenes had been covered over with new, non-erotic, decoration.
There is plenty of evidence for prostitution at Pompeii, but there is disagreement over the number of brothels because the identification of such properties is not straightforward. Traditionally they have been identified on the basis of explicit graffiti or wall-paintings. But, as we have seen, erotic art was extremely common in the Roman world; in addition, explicit graffiti need not relate to sex for money or mark the precise location of a brothel. Some scholars have argued for the existence of between nine and 35 brothels in Pompeii. But only one premises, known as the Lupanar, appears to have been purpose-built as one. The five rooms of the upper floor were accessed by a separate entrance. The lower floor had five small rooms with masonry beds and the hallway was decorated with explicit wall-paintings.