Brothels in Pompeii were decorated with murals depicting erotic and exotic scenes: but the reality was far more brutal and mundane, writes Classical Literature and Classical Reception Studies professor Marguerite Johnson of the University of Newcastle (Australia).
Like the anxious men who began excavations at Pompeii in the 18th century and discovered more about the ancient Italians than they had bargained for – such as phallic-shaped lamps – historians of sex are regularly confronted with case studies from the past that challenge their own ethics. Those who worked the streets of Pompeii and served clients in the brothels lived hard lives, yet many of the murals that survive depict the women as erotic and exotic.
Murals from brothels and buildings that served as brothels (such as inns, lunch counters, and taverns) show fair-skinned women, naked (except for the occasional breast band), with stylized hair, in a variety of sexual positions with young, tanned, athletic men. The figures sport on beds that are sometimes ornate and festooned with decorative quilts.
In buildings identified as brothels, the murals may have been intended to arouse clients. They may also have functioned as pictorial menus or even served as instruction manuals for more inexperienced customers. In buildings identified as private residences, the scenes were most likely decorative but also designed, perhaps, for titillation.
Contrary to the idealized images, the brothels themselves provide evidence that the women worked in cells, usually only big enough for a narrow bed. The absence of windows in most attests to the darkness of the cells, as well as limited air flow.
Excavations also suggest that the cells were usually without doors, which implies that the rooms may have been curtained. They have also revealed stone beds. Wooden beds as well as pallets were likely also used, but would have perished in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
The conditions in which the women worked were of no concern to brothel owners, clients or anyone else for that matter, as most sex workers in ancient Italy were slaves. As the ancient attitude towards slaves was one of indifference at best, and violent disdain at worst, the lives of women were no source of empathy to those outside their class.
The sex workers fulfilled a utilitarian function and nothing else. Confined to the premises by (usually) male pimps who provided them with only their most basic needs, the women were essentially cut off from the outside world. This rendered them vulnerable to the whims of both pimp and client alike.
Women who worked the streets in Pompeii often waited around archways and other standard locations such as graveyards and public baths. In larger towns and cities, where control of the sex trade was harder to manage, some of these women may have worked without pimps. Those who made up this percentage of workers were mostly freed slaves and poor freeborn women.
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In the last few months in Pompeii there began to emerge untouched finds, never seen before, which add new elements to the reading of the history of the ancient city. At the Schola Armaturarum a new excavation of the courtyards has been started, never investigated before (the Schola Armataurarum is a building that comes up now like a symbol of the rebirth for Pompeii, where the original frescoes saved since the bombing of 1943 are being restored).
It is here that 14 new amphorae were found. The amphorae were found intact, they contained oil, wine and fish sauces: one of them has painted some inscriptions in which we read numbers that indicated the quantities and, probably, the contained product. The use as a deposit for the environment is confirmed by some visible graffiti on one of the walls of the same, which reaffirm the storage activity. At the end of the excavation, scheduled for the end of December, the amphorae will be relocated in situ as part of a wide project to enhance the "widespread museum" that the Archaeological Park is adopting in several areas of the excavations to re-contextualize the finds in the places of origin.
The exploration of the complete structure of the Schola is not the only operation planned in Pompeii. Also a work in progress is the large excavation site in the Regio V, the so-called "cuneo" (an area of over 1,000 square meters in the area between the Casa delle Nozze d'Argento and the buildings to the left of the Lucretius Frontone alley) from the which is expected to bring to light further structures and findings of private and public environments.
"We are happy with the discoveries that are emerging," says Massimo Osanna, director of the Archaeological Park, who adds: "Pompeii has started a new season, that of intense archaeological research and of the continuation of the site's knowledge. After the opening of new restored domus, the return to the use of entire districts so far inaccessible, thanks to the recovery of the practicability of the almost all urban streets, we can also be focused on the excavation activities, which are flanked by scheduled maintenance and that will allow to provide new hypotheses to the history of everyday life of the ancients. Pompeii is the symbol of a story of redemption. In these years a long and silent work has been done and the possibilities of growth are still extraordinary.
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We already talked, in a previous article, about the history of the Temple of Isis (which was a testimony of the influence of other cultures upon roman religion), but the ancient city of Pompeii, like any other Roman city, was full of important religious buildings dedicated to various gods we want to talk about in this article.
The people of Pompeii worshipped several Gods, including Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva—the three principal deities of Rome—as well as Apollo and Venus, the patrons of Pompeii. Each god had a special day which would be made a public holiday, so that the Pompeians could visit the temple for whichever god was being celebrated. The gods were worshipped by processions and priests would make animal sacrifices at the altar which was in the front of the temple. Animal sacrifices reminded the ancient Romans that human beings had a higher place than that of animals but at the same time were much below that of the immortal gods. Special people called augur would take the remains of animals into the temples to predict the future.
TEMPLE OF APOLLO
We know that this temple was consecrated to Apollo thanks to the dedication in Oscan by quaestor Oppius Campanus that was found in the cell. The sacred area is surrounded by a portico with 48 Doric columns, in the centre of which, on a podium in the Italic style, is the actual temple. The interior originally contained a statue of a divinity (not found) and a rock of carved tuff representing the world’s navel, modeled on the one located in the famous sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi. At the bottom of the temple is an altar in Greek Marble dedicated shortly after 80 A.C. by Marcus Portius, Lucius Sestilius, Cneus Cornelius and Aulus Cornelius, quattuorviri of Pompeii.
TEMPLE OF JUPITER OR CAPITOLIUM
This was the main centre of religious life in Pompeii. Situated on the northern side of the Forum, it is dedicated to the highest divinity of ancient times - actually it was built in honour of the Jupter, Juno and Minerva triad - and towers above a wide staircase with two large arches either side which have remained virtually intact. The temple, dating back to the 2nd century B.C., was built in two stages, the second of which, scheduled towards the end of the same century, led to the expansion of the architectural structure.
TEMPLE OF THE PUBLIC LARES
This sanctuary was dedicated to the protector gods of the house and was built by the Pompeians as a token of their gratitude for having escaped the perilous earthquake. Executed in brick, it has a rectangular plan enlivened at the far end by an apse with fine ornamental columns and with niches on either side. The Lares were the tutelary deities of the house and were probably to be identified with the deceased: they protected the property and the family. Each house had a site or a small temple dedicated to them.
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The Italian Minister of the cultural heritage, Dario Franceschini, and the Superintendent of Pompeii, Massimo Osanna, received the praise from Rudolf Niessler, General Director of Regional and Urban Policy of the European Commission: “The Great Pompeii project - says Niessler - is a good practice, and the Commission regards it as a model of intervention in Europe to administrate the cultural heritage”.
A total amount of 105 million euros, of which 25% as a national share, 76 financed interventions, of which 64 are concluded, 9 are in progress and 3 are waiting for start-up: this is what the Great Pompeii project means. Franceschini says - "it's a good story, and I'm sure the images of Pompeii at night will go around the world". Yes, because thanks to the paths of sounds and lights made for the initiative called "One night in Pompeii", the excavations was open also at night for all the whole summer season. Nighttime visits to Pompeii has been realized thanks to the renewal of the lighting system of the ruins. From the Porta Marina gate to the Basilica 430 old-fashioned lighting fixtures were replaced with new LED ones that allow for energy savings of about 60 percent. There are lots of lights for the whole path which goes through the Porta Marina gate, the suburban baths until you come to the Forum, the main square of the old Roman city. The path of lights is accompanied by sound suggestions, voices and three-dimensional projections.
“The new lighting system of Pompeii - as Franceschini explains - is another important step in the revival of a unique archaeological site in the world, a journey that in three years has allowed to give back to the public 30 domus (houses), to provide Wi-fi in the entire archaeological area and to make a three-kilometer itinerary that allows full accessibility to significant parts of the excavations. Thanks to the play of lights, the lines and shapes of the ruins now shine with a renewed beauty”.
“The rebirth of Pompeii - the minister continues - is also crucial for the international image of the country. Now we must make it a landmark for the development of the entire territory, linking Pompeii with Herculaneum, Stabia and Torre Annunziata. This is one of the most beautiful areas in the world, and it needs to be valued. Pompeii is the visible evidence of how an efficient programming and an optimal use of cohesion policy resources will help to improve, in concrete and even addressing complex situations, the state and the prospects of the whole territory”.
Now the real challenge is to grow in terms of the tourist economy and receptivity. Franceschini hopes that local and private institutions will play their part.
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In the Regio VII of Pompeii, there was a well-known shop, the Bakery of Popidius Priscus. There were several bakeries in Pompeii, 35 shops in total, which had to feed a population of 10 thousands of people. The latin name of a bakery was “Pistrinum” and often the bakeries also made different kinds of pastries, as well as breads.
The Bakery of Popidius Priscus faces on the vicolo Storto (Regio VII 2,22), in the centre of the city. The shop has a masonry oven, that is similar to any modern bakery and recalls, in its shape, the wood-burning oven in pizzerias. The mill and the bakery were connected because the place of grinding and processing of flour was part of the same production process.
In the courtyard, there are five millstones, which are made of igneous rock and were once turned by men or donkeys for wheat milling. The Millstones were composed by two different components: the base stone, which is conic-shaped and stationary and the runner stone that is movable and has the shape of an hourglass. The friction of the two millstones converted the grains of wheat into flour. Once ready, the flour was mixed with water, thanks to a special "kneading machine". One of these kneading machines was found in another bakery in the Regio IX (12.6) and it’s similar to our modern machines, but naturally it’s hand-operated. The dough was subsequently worked on some special desks to give shape to the product. It was generally the famous Roman round shaped bread, with relief segments.
In the large kiln placed in the center of the building, the bread was then cooked and usually sold in a small adjacent bar counter. In the building of Popidio Prisco the counter was absent; Probably the bread was produced on commission or sold to wholesalers or by street vendors, called “Libani”. The cost of a form of bread was around the 2 axes (the tipical Roman coins).
Bread in Antiquity was a basic nutrition food. Unlike what we can find in our bakeries, soft and fragrant, the antique bread was particularly hard because of low quality flour and insufficient yeast, which, if stored for too long, was found to be acidic. Even for these reasons, bread was hardly consumed fresh: rather it was preferable to put it in wine, oil or soups. The Romans also knew made other types of refined bread, such as the bread with spices, milk, eggs, honey or oil.
In addition to the round shape that the excavations of Pompeii have given back to us, there was also a form of elongated bread. Among the bakery products, also various types of "pizza": soft (in latin “artolaganum”) and crunchy (in latin “tracta”).
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Staff at Flashback Journey to Pompeii. Our goal is to bring you up-to-date information on events, continuing archeological excavations and more on Pompeii.