Here’s What You Need to Know about Pompeii’s ‘Main’ Brothel

If you’re planning on visiting Pompeii or have ever visited this magical ancient site at the foot of Vesuvius, then you may have heard some pretty tall tales about the ‘main’ brothel (lupanar). So if you want to be one step ahead of the tour guides, here’s what you need to know about the most visited building in Pompeii:

An erotic scene from the brothel in Pompeii.

It’s One of Many

There’s an estimated 35 brothels in Pompeii (Varone, 2002) which range from small cells leading directly off the street (cellae) to lavish villas. This number is an overly high estimation as it means there was one brothel for every 75 Pompeian males (Beard, 2008). We need to consider that many of these men had wives, slaves or others to satisfy their sexual needs. The building in question (VII.12.19) has been frequently confirmed as a purpose built brothel owing to its unusual layout. It’s located in the west of the city near two main gates and consists of the ground floor of a corner building. It’s separated into six small cells and a toilet. Above the brothel is a small apartment which is reached by an external staircase.

We Don’t Actually Know How it Worked…

No one’s entirely certain if the prostitutes were slaves, owned by the brothel’s proprietor, or if they were independent prostitutes who rented out a cell as and when they had a client. The prostitutes who worked there may have even lived in the tiny cells. An alternative theory is the prostitutes lived in the small apartment above the brothel. This would certainly make sense if some of the women, as a result of the nature of their work, had children.

One of the tiny cells inside the brothel.

It was Noisy, Smelly and Uncomfortable

If you’re labouring under the illusion the brothel was at all romantic, then you’re sorely mistaken. The building was utilitarian and each dark little cell was equipped with a stone bed. Even with soft furnishings, the beds would still have been incredibly uncomfortable. There was also very little privacy. None of the cells or the toilet had doors and there was even a gap between each cell. Assuming the cell doors were covered with curtains, one can only imagine the sounds and smells emanating from the cells… and the toilet!

Women AND Men Worked There

From what we can glean from literary sources, it was only acceptable for men in ancient Rome to visit brothels and there was plenty of services to sate any appetite, including homosexual sex. Homosexuality in the ancient world was considered reasonably acceptable if you were the active i.e. penetrating partner. The evidence we have of men working in the brothel comes from the ‘waiting rooms’ – the two cells on either side of the main door – where graffiti written by clients attests to the sexual prowess of men working within the brothel.

One of the erotic wall-paintings in the brothel.

The Sex ‘Menu’

Tour guides are keen to claim the seven erotic images above the cell doorways were some form of menu for clients to pick and choose their services. Many guides claim the pictures enabled clients, unable to understand Latin or possibly unable to communicate with prostitutes of foreign birth, to demonstrate what service they required. However, the positions depicted are hardly overly complicated and even the most basic of gesticulation would have achieve the same result without such artifice. Furthermore, the pictures do not include all the possible services on offer (including homosexual sex). Considering the unpleasant conditions in the brothel, the pictures may simply have been aesthetically pleasing. Alternatively, as the couples in the pictures are depicted in far more luxurious circumstances than those of the brothel, the pictures may have provided a distraction by showing fantasy scenarios.

If anyone wants to have a proper nosy around Pompeii but can’t afford the travel costs, take a look at PompeiiInPictures. It’s also where I’ve borrowed these pictures from…

Thanks for reading x

Another erotic scene from the walls of the brothel.

Thanks for reading x

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2 Comments

Filed under History, Travel

2 responses to “Here’s What You Need to Know about Pompeii’s ‘Main’ Brothel

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