Erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum
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House of Octavius Quartio
Erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum was discovered in the ancient
cities around the bay of Naples (particularly of Pompeii and
Herculaneum) after extensive excavations began in the 18th century. The
city was found to be full of erotic art and frescoes, symbols, and
inscriptions regarded by its excavators as pornographic. Even many
recovered household items had a sexual theme. The ubiquity of such
imagery and items indicates that the sexual mores of the ancient Roman
culture of the time were much more liberal than most present-day
cultures, although much of what might seem to us to be erotic imagery (eg
oversized phalluses) was in fact fertility-imagery. This clash of
cultures led to an unknown number of discoveries being hidden away
again. For example, a wall fresco which depicted Priapus, the ancient
god of sex and fertility, with his extremely enlarged penis, was covered
with plaster (and, as Schefold explains , even the older
reproduction below was locked away "out of prudishness" and only opened
on request) and only rediscovered in 1998 due to rainfall .
In 1819, when King Francis I of Naples visited the Pompeii exhibition
at the National Museum with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed
by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a secret
cabinet, accessible only to "people of mature age and respected morals".
Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100
years, it was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s (the
time of the sexual revolution) and was finally re-opened for viewing in
2000. Minors are still only allowed entry to the once secret cabinet in
the presence of a guardian or with written permission.
Tile Mosaic, Pan & Hamadryad.
Wall mural of Mercury/Priapus
Bronze wind chimes of "phallus-animals" were common household items.
Note the child on one of the wind chimes -- the large phallus (whether
on Pan, Priapus or a similar deity, or on its own) was not seen as
threatening or erotic, but as a fertility symbol.
Wall Painting of Priapus, House of the Vetti
Another fresco of Priapus, this time from the entryway of the largest
The second image, from Schefold, Karl: Vergessenes Pompeji:
Unveröffentlichte Bilder römischer Wanddekorationen in geschichtlicher
Folge. München 1962., with its much more brilliant colors, has been used
to retouch the younger, higher resolution image here.
Fresco from the largest Pompeii brothel
An erotic wall painting from Pompeii
It is unclear whether the images on the walls were advertisements for
the services offered or merely intended to heighten the pleasure of the
visitors. As previously mentioned, some of the paintings and frescoes
became immediately famous because they represented erotic, sometimes
explicit, sexual scenes. One of the most curious buildings recovered was
in fact a Lupanare (brothel), which had many erotic paintings and
graffiti inside. The erotic paintings seem to present an idealised
vision of sex at odds with the reality of the function of the lupanare.
The Lupanare had 10 rooms (cubicula, 5 per floor), a balcony, and a
latrina. It was one of the larger houses, perhaps the largest, but not
the only brothel. The town seems to have been oriented to a warm
consideration of sensual matters: on a wall of the Basilica (sort of a
civil tribunal, thus frequented by many Roman tourists and travelers),
an immortal inscription tells the foreigner, If anyone is looking for
some tender love in this town, keep in mind that here all the girls are
very friendly (loose translation). Other inscriptions reveal some
pricing information for various services: Athenais 2 As, Sabina 2 As (CIL
IV, 4150), The house slave Logas, 8 As (CIL IV, 5203) or Maritimus licks
your vulva for 4 As. He is ready to serve virgins as well. (CIL IV,
8940). The amounts vary from one to two As up to several Sesterces. In
the lower price range the service was not more expensive than a loaf of
bread. Prostitution was relatively inexpensive for the Roman male but it
is important to note that even a low priced prostitute earned more than
three times the wages of an unskilled urban laborer. However, it was
unlikely a freed woman would enter the profession in hopes for wealth
because most women declined in their economic status and standard of
living due to demands on their appearance as well as their health.
Prostitution was overwhelmingly an urban creation. Within the brothel it
is said prostitutes worked in a small room usually with an entrance
marked by a patchwork curtain. Sometimes the woman's name and price
would be placed above her door. Sex was generally the cheapest in
Pompeii, compared to other parts of the Empire. Although an estimation
of price is difficult to guess, one should suspect the prostitute's age,
appearance, and skill level would play a part in the price. All services
were paid for with cash.