Explore the Brothels of Pompeii

We know the Ancient Romans for their once ruthless entertainments, lavish lifestyle, and their many indulgences, most particularly their communal pleasures of the flesh. Pompeii was no different, once a popular vacation spot for high-class citizens, extravagances were bountiful in the form of exotic foods, fashion, and prostitutes. During the long-standing excavation of Pompeii, archaeologists have discovered at least 25 separate brothels scattered all over the city with each giving away numerous secrets to the city’s erotic past.

The Brothel’s Façade

The Facade of Pompeii Brothels

Prostitution was permitted both socially and legally in Pompeii, and it was seen as a social norm for Roman men to engage in regular visits to the Brothels. Brothels had no stigma within the city, seen as a typical shop offering services like any other. The rooms were dimly lit by a few flickering candles to create a sensual atmosphere, and the walls were adorned with large, beautifully designed frescoes. These wall paintings were not only for decoration; the erotic imagery also represented a menu of the services provided. Theories suggest that they could also have functioned as instruction manuals for more inexperienced visitors to the brothels.

The women in brothels worked within small rooms containing a stone bed. Wooden beds may have been used but these would have perished in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD and so little evidence of these remains. The brothels had no doors so the rooms may have been closed off by lavish curtains, and behind each was a companion ready to welcome their next guest.

The Brothel’s Frescoes

The Fresco of Pompeii Brothels

What transformed the brothels of Pompeii from cold, stone rooms into sensual areas for visitors was the decorations. Brothels used delicate fabrics and candles to create a romantic glow but mainly used frescoes to enhance a visitor’s desire. They painted these large designs on entire walls, depicting sexual acts between women and men. Beautifully preserved by the volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius almost 2000 years ago, the images have provided a unique insight into the lives of ancient Rome. Had the frescoes contained less explicit imagery then the city of Pompeii may have been discovered years earlier. The first people to uncover them found the paintings so shocking that they covered them over and did not continue their excavation.

These superb decorations were used for three reasons. The first was to enhance the space of the small rooms the workers used. A lot of the rooms could only fit a small single bed and typically had no window, with these sensual paintings they enhanced the space to distract visitors. Another reason for the frescos is quite obvious – they were used to get visitors in the mood. With stunning figures depicted, visitors would see the paintings and get a better desire no matter if there were limited choices. Lastly, archaeologists have guessed that these paintings were also used as a kind of menu for the brothel, with the different positions displayed on offer in real life. After studying the remaining frescoes, archaeologists have guessed there were five major services provided; intercourse, fellatio, cunnilingus, active anal sex, and passive anal sex.

The Lupanar of Pompeii

Thought of as the official brothel of Pompeii, the Lupanar is the largest of the pleasure houses discovered in the ancient city so far. Latin for ‘wolf’s den’ this two-story building housed ten rooms, each fitted with a stone bed which was likely topped with a thin mattress. There were five rooms located on the ground floor with five larger rooms upstairs. Frescoes can, of course, be found on the walls but alongside these are etchings left by the brothel’s visitors. On the internal walls can be found around 120 examples of graffiti scratched into the walls by clients, each of whom wanted to document the performance of their companion.

As Pompeii was a trading town, the Lupanar welcomed visitors not only from the town but also visiting traders. Clients searching for the brothel followed a unique set of directions to locate the building. Phalluses carved into the walls and roads of the city pointed towards the Lupanar and gave clear directions to the brothel.

The Truth of the Brothels of Pompeii

The truth of these Pompeii brothels and the prostitutes within was, in fact, harsh and quite heartbreaking. The majority of the sex workers within Pompeii were slaves who lived a harsh life until they were of no further use to the brothels. They were given only the basic essentials, with all the payments from their clients going to the brothel owners. It is suggested from the city’s remains that a large number of slaves were of Oriental or Greek origin, ripped from their families and taken into the slave trade when Romans or traders invaded their land.

As well as not being paid, their living conditions and those in which they worked were depraved. The small, intimate rooms the brothels portrayed were, in reality, cramped and windowless cells inside which the workers spent the majority of their time. So small they could only contain one single stone bed, the rooms were far from comfortable. Confined to the premises, the workers rarely saw the outside world, being under complete control of the brothel owner at all times. By being completely closed off, the salves had no other distractions from their work. Despite this cruel lifestyle, the workers were meant to put on a smiling face, with punishments if they misbehaved.

Lastly, although sex was an accepted and natural experience for the Pompeii men, prostitutes still lacked respect. Stigmatising women that made them ineligible for any alternative and respectable work, committing them to the lower class of society.