Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Brothels of Pompeii: Part 1

The Lioness - Purpose Built Brothel, Pompeii
Almost everyone who has visited Pompeii (or even heard of it's existence) has seen the large "purpose built" brothel to the east of Pompeii's forum. They may even have heard that there are dozens more brothels located throughout the city. It turns out, of course, that the truth is not quite so spectacular.

In 2006 I was fortunate to receive a grant from the University of Pennsylvania to help fund a trip to Pompeii with the purpose of surveying what remains of the relatively few "definite" sites where sex was offered for sale in the ancient city.

Before we get into the details we'll need to work on some definitions. In 1995 Andrew Wallace-Hadrill published an article seeking to create a formal definition that would allow clear identification of Roman brothels. That definition includes three points:
  1. Structural evidence of a masonry bed
  2. Paintings of explicit sexual scenes
  3. Graffiti of the "hic bene futui" type
It turns out that this definition trims the number of brothels from "dozens" to ten. Those ten are the purpose built brothel (the one everyone knows about) and nine "cellae meretriciae". This last group, often referred to as "cribs" are small rooms (3 or 4 square meters) with a single street facing door. If you've been to Pompeii you almost certainly walked right by some of them without even a second glance. They're not mentioned in any of the street guides (unless you use Eschebach's Gebaudeverzeichnis und Stadtplan der antiken Stadt Pompeji as your street guide that is). Except for a few where the decorative plaster remains they're not even very interesting - unless you know what they're there for.

It turns out that of the nine cribs mentioned in the literature, only seven remain sufficiently intact to be identified today. 

Map of the Cribs after Eschebach
On the map above, you'll see six little red dots, a green one, and a green blob. The green blob is the purpose built brothel that everyone visits. The dots are the cribs that remain more or less intact. So let's take a look! We'll start with the one at the top left (VII 4, 42) and work our way south.

VII 4, 42
Floor plan VII 4, 42

First, a note on the names of these things. Pompeii is divided into a number of regions that are always noted in roman numerals. Each region is further divided into Insulae or blocks and then the doors or other ground level openings are numbered consecutively. So this crib is located in Region VII, Insula 4, Door 42. That doesn't tell you much by itself until you start looking at a map (like the one in Eschebach). 

On the map, it becomes instantly obvious that this crib is built into the back of a very large house. Specifically, the Casa della Caccia Antica. It turns out that it can be dated to about a decade before Pompeii was buried, possibly as part of reconstruction and redecorating after the earthquake of 62. 

This crib is actually in rather good condition. It's about 3.8 square meters in size and irregularly shaped because it's built into the south east corner of the adjoining house's peristyle. There are traces of red vertical stripes on the plaster behind the masonry bed and according to Eschebach there was once a drawing of a couple engaged in intercourse as well. (Those sorts of things have an unfortunate habit of vanishing from the site.)

When built the masonry bed, now covered with moss, would have been faced with painted plaster and possibly topped with colorful scraps of terracotta, simulating the decorative marble surfaces found in many Pompeiian tavernas.The entire shaded area in the floor plan above is the "bed" surface.

At the back of the crib you can see three holes that meet a modern roof line. There are corresponding holes behind the front facade, indicating that the crib originally had rather low (about 2 meters) vaulted roof. There are indentations on the threshold that indicate a door was once present.

Conventional wisdom indicates the prostitution should be located near bars or other hospitality establishments. This one, however, is different. Instead, it seems to be located to serve the foot traffic that would visit the bakery, shops, and public fountains in the immediate vicinity.

So, why would a wealthy family add a little brothel to their house? The most obvious reason, given the date of construction, was simply to make a little money from the flood of masons, plasterers, painters, and laborers who likely flooded the area following the earthquake of 62. Since the household certainly owned many slaves there would have been little or no incremental labor cost. Even at the very low going rate (two "asses" or 1/8 of a denarius) the potential for profit, while limited, was very real. As we'll see the owner of the Casa della Caccia Antica was not the only one who had this bright idea.

Coming next:
Part 2: Three very well preserved cribs 1 block from Pompeii's main street.
Part 3: A crib that might not crib and what may have been the most luxurious crib of all.

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