Prostitution in ancient Rome: Miserable lives of sex slaves revealed in newly discovered Pompeii graffiti

The walls of the ancient brothel, Lupanar of Pompeii, feature number of erotic paintings that depict group sex and many other sexual acts, indicating myriad of sexual services that the brothel offered


                            Prostitution in ancient Rome: Miserable lives of sex slaves revealed in newly discovered Pompeii graffiti
(Getty Images)

If you walk amidst the remains of the ancient city of Pompeii, you can possibly get a good idea of how the now abandoned ruins were once a bustling city of Rome. The city was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and buried it under tonnes of rubble and volcanic pumice. 

Ancient Romans were way ahead of their time, having invented so many contraptions that are widely used in construction and infrastructure in the present day. They invented the modern sewage system, underfloor heating, roads, cement, and a recent discovery has revealed that the Pompeiians were the pioneers of recycling.

Now, 2000-year old graffiti on the stone walls excavated from the city also detail how sex trade was prominent in the city and how it worked in ancient times, implying that Romans were indeed very forward. Pompei was first discovered in the 16th century, after which innumerable excavations have been conducted to retrieve artifacts from the historic site. In the 18th century, archeologists recovered venereal artifacts like phallic-shaped lamps, prompting a study into how the ancient Romans perceived sexual intercourse.

Lupanar of Pompeii (Wikimedia Commons)

They discovered the  'Lupanar of Pompei', a famous brothel comprising ten rooms, which was extremely popular with men. The walls of the ancient brothel feature a number of erotic paintings that depict group sex and many other sexual acts, indicating a myriad of sexual services that the brothel offered. These murals are almost pornographic, illustrating fair-skinned women in the nude, with styled hair and assuming various sexual positions with young, tanned, athletically-built men.

Each of the ten rooms even housed a stone bed that was covered with a mattress and was used by prostitutes to entertain their clients. 

The graffitis depicted instructions like 'Thrust slowly' or advertisement for a prostitute that said  'Euplia was here with two thousand beautiful men', and even listed prices like 'Euplia sucks for five dollars*' This shows that sex workers worked under pseudonyms or aliases. The wall paintings also ascertain that many male prostitutes also rendered their services in the sex trade.

Women were prohibited from having sex with anyone besides their husbands, so the clients who accessed male sex-workers for their services were mostly men. As a matter of fact, ancient Romans condoned male-on-male sexual encounters, as long as there was no penetration involved. 

Erotic paintings and graffiti inside the Lupanar (brothel) on November 14, 2010, in Pompeii, Italy. Pompeii is a partially buried Roman town-city near modern Naples. The Schola Armatorum, a 2,000-year-old House of the Gladiators, collapsed November 6, 2010, exposing the perilous state of the historical city. The area was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997 (Getty Images)

There was a variety of buildings that conducted similar activities, including inns, lunch counters, and taverns, that were identified as brothels, and they all housed murals. However, researchers opine that the paintings may have been drawn to arouse clients, or served as an instruction manual for customers who were inexperienced. In private residences, as archaeologists have identified some buildings to be, the murals were possibly used for a more decorative purpose and designed for sexual stimulation. 

However,  research has also suggested that the images on the wall may have just been an idealized illustration of sex and not the reality of those that lived in the brothel. They believe that although prostitution was legal in Pompeii, prostitutes were treated as slaves and weren't trained to work any other professions. They also opine that the chambers within the brothel were dingy, cramped and windowless, making them extremely uncomfortable. 

Erotic paintings and graffiti inside the Lupanar (brothel) on November 14, 2010, in Pompeii, Italy. Pompeii is a partially buried Roman town-city near modern Naples. The Schola Armatorum, a 2,000-year-old House of the Gladiators, collapsed November 6, 2010, exposing the perilous state of the historical city. The area was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997 (Getty Images)

Most sex workers in Italy were subjected to slavery. Biblically and historically, the ancient attitude towards slaves has always been indifferent, so the conditions of the women that worked in the brothel were barely of concern to the brothel owners, clients on anyone else. They would display no empathy to those that were 'beneath' them and only show them disdain or violent outbursts.

They only had one job to do and were usually confined within the brothels by pimps or madames who would provide them with only basic needs. These women were also cut out from the outside world, which made them vulnerable to exploitation from both pimps and clients.

Women who took to working on the streets of Pompeii would usually wait around the curb or other remote locations like graveyards or public baths. In larger cities, women had autonomy over the sex trade and basically employed themselves without the need for a pimp and they comprised of mostly freed slaves or poor women. 

Prior to its fall, the city of Pompeii thrived in terms of its economy, and also housed a multi-multicultural population of an estimated total of 11,000 people. For its time the city was well-developed with intricate architecture and robust infrastructure. The town prospered and rich merchants often traveled through the city, which also ensured a strong market for the sex trade which only grew. It was integral to the success and functioning of the society, and even the institution marriage.

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