Pompeii has been often called the city of love, dedicated to the passions of eros and evident in its customs. But this is not completely true.
Over time this rumor was mistakenly fed by myths and legends born around the Vesuvian city since its discovery. Erotic objects, bold written and obscene written messages have created the myth of the rough town, but in Pompeii they're not practicing love/sex neither more nor less than in any other Roman cities.
The sexual freedom was certainly greater than modern taboos and the places of pleasure were not absolutely deemed indecent. Prostitutes, in fact, played a major role in society, allowing the men their freedom and the women to be able to remain honest and virtuous according to the mos maiorum.
Prostitution was not a crime and the harlots held quite freely their profession, selling themselves on the streets or employed by a pimp inside taverns or brothels. The clothing of a prostitute was trumpery: succinct and transparent garments, marked makeup and hair dyed bright colors like red or blond to attract potential customers. Among the many graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii, there are many made by prostitutes about the opinions of their clients or their specialties and prices. The rates ranged from a minimum of 2 axes (equivalent to a glass of wine) up to a maximum of 16 axes.
In the Latin vocabulary there were so many names for prostitutes. Meretrix comes from the verb merere, indicating a gain behind a performance; the meretrix was not a common prostitute, but an experienced courtesan specialized in the ars amateur, music, dance and song: a real entertainer, usually with an exotic name, greek or oriental.
Often the prostitute was a slave who came from distant lands or a humble class woman. But there were also real professionals such as Novellia Primigenia, a mime of Nocera often frequented wealthy men, of which there are about 20 graffitis in Pompeii. The wolf, on the contrary, was a low-class prostitute and from here comes the word lupanare (place of lupae, used to describe the Pompeian brothel).
But there were also the fornicatrix, who worked as a prostitute under the bridge (fornices); the bustuaria, who practiced at the cemeteries, where there were marble busts of the deceased; the circulatrix, who was walking by seeking customers. Usually, the social class of customers was average; the rich people could freely dispose of male and female slaves directly in their domus (house).
It is curious to find out that on April 23rd the Roman calendar included a festival dedicated to female prostitutes and on April 25th, however, the party was for male prostitutes. It was not uncommon, in fact, to find guys who sold their bodies: homosexuality itself was accepted. In Pompeii there are several testimonies of male prostitutes: some graffiti tells us of the performances and the prices of a man named Menander.
The number of places where prostitution was being practiced in Pompeii is uncertain, because often it is given the name of brothel in places where there were only graffiti, raising the number to 34: the figure is disproportionate both to the modest size of the city and to the number of inhabitants.
Take a tour of Pompeii with us and time travel to the past! Start by viewing our guided Pompeii tours here. Or call our Pompeii office at +39 081 1877 7006.
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.