Monday, September 16th, 2019
Graffiti leaves a mark behind of the person who engaged with it, offering historians a unique insight into the lives of themselves and the location and surroundings of the graffiti. It has been found in many historic places around the world, including the streets of Iran after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and covered the walls of the prisoners held in the Tower of London throughout its rich history.
Pompeii and the ‘lupanar’
The archaeological site of the Roman city of Pompeii just outside of Naples was buried in ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. This has become a treasure-trove for archaeologists who have discovered graffiti covering various walls of buildings across the city, offering a fascinating insight into the lives of the Pompeii citizens buried before they met their tragic death. One such place of graffiti was found at a ‘Purpose-built brothel’ offering an insight into the lives of prostitutes and clients who spent time there. These buildings were known as lupanar’s, which meant ‘wolf-den’, with the prostitutes who worked within their walls referred to as a lupa, or ‘she wolf’.
The Pompeii lupanar contains frescoes which is a technique of mural painting using watercolour quickly painted onto wet plaster which fixes as it dries. These murals contained erotic images and can be seen above the doorways in the hallway of the brothel. The graffiti is mainly found in the small cubicula (bedroom of a roman house) and half show a list of names with about one-third of the graffiti writing being of a sexual nature.
Brothels in Ancient Roman Society
Some of the graffiti found in the brothel contain the titles and job descriptions of those written, including a perfumer, soldiers, and a guild-member. Archaeologist Sarah Levin-Richardson, who has produced much work based around this purpose-built brothel, suggests that these titles show that the males entering the brothel were of the lower class of Roman society. This may in-turn suggest that others had the financial means to satisfy themselves sexually in their own home with their slaves. Many of the females listed on the walls of the brothel similarly suggest a lower status in society.
The graffiti found on the walls of the purpose-built brothel in Pompeii can provide insight towards the meaning of sex within the Roman city during this time, values of masculinity, and the economic value of prostitution. Archaeologists have argued that most prostitutes working in these brothels were slaves. In Pompeii there was estimated to have been eighteen purpose-built brothels. Through graffiti around Pompeii we can gain a picture of the prices for such sexual services from the prostitutes, with the lowest level ones on the street selling oral sex for one asses. For comparison, two asses generally corresponded to the price of a daily ration of bread. The graffiti of brothels such as this one in Pompeii could therefore equally tell of the price of services there and provide insight towards the monetary worth of a prostitute.
To find out more about the history of graffiti listen to our podcast!
By Amy Stokes.
- Thomas A.J. McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel
- Antonio Varone, Erotica Pompeiana: Love Inscriptions on the Walls of Pompeii (Translation by Ria P. Berg, with revisions by David Harwood and Roger Ling) (Via Cassiodoro: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2002)
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