THE BROTHEL OF POMPEII: Sex, Class and Gender at the Margins of Roman Society 

Sarah Levin-Richardson

CUP (2019) h/b 243pp £75 (ISBN 9781108496872)

Each hour, we are told, 455 tourists visit this, the only building from the Roman Empire securely identified as a purpose-built brothel. One assumes the ancient footfall was rather less.

L-R offers a thorough assessment of the building, presented in two halves, with inevitable cross-referencing. The first part looks mainly at the physical evidence (five chapters examine the structure, finds, graffiti, frescoes and the upper floor) while the second focuses on the prostitutes and their clientele. 

Part 2 is inevitably more speculative, but does set the brothel in the wider context of Roman prostitution with comparative material from elsewhere. L-R is constantly mindful of the limitations of all evidence for such topics as the assertion of masculinity, or emotional relationships between prostitutes and clients. She considers—with a speculative ‘may have’ that is characteristic of much archaeological interpretation—‘ways in which prostitutes were expected to “put on performances” for their clients’. 

Finds can be suggestive: a knife and a bowl suggested shaving may have been one of the ‘services’ on offer. A vial (for perfume?) L-R imagines ‘may have been a gift from a client to a prostitute’. What’s more, the presence of a graffito Phoebus unguentarius optume futuit (Phoebus the perfume maker fucks best) might suggest that the vial ‘may have been interpreted by those in the structure as a gift from Phoebus’. Phoebus certainly seems from other graffiti to have bigged himself up: Phoebus bonus futor (‘Phoebus the good fukr’—when translating graffiti L-R tries to convey the spelling of the originals). 

From her analysis of sight lines L-R concludes that ‘the structure was designed to be potentially penetrable to the gaze of those walking by’, thus integrating it into the ‘urban … and social landscape’.  Thus, while the surviving state of the brothel gives an opportunity for studying it in its Roman context, it is an opportunity that also requires some imagination and speculation—for instance, L-R asks, is Phoebus the unguentarius the same as the Phoebus pedico (ass-fucker) recorded on another graffito from the same wall in the same room? The famous frescoes of erotic scenes, illustrated here in colour, depict ‘a narrow and normative set of sexual acts’ (i.e. heterosexual intercourse), with one exception, a Priapus with two erect phalluses (giving bisexual a new meaning?).  Visual representations of Priapus, L-R observes, ‘served many functions’ such as indicators of financial success (from the famous fresco at the entrance to the House of the Vettii) or apotropaic symbols. Here the figure is depicted on a plinth in a leafy setting, suggesting the function of the protective garden god, but would the clients think of Priapus protecting the prostitutes as ‘produce’?

The graffiti, like the frescoes, are little more than a dull collection of repetitive records of sexual accomplishment. But even some humour can be found here—for example in the name Scordopordonicus (Mr. Garlic-farty)?

L-R devotes a chapter to the upper floor although it had a separate entrance and no direct access to the ground floor. Also its lack of graffiti and erotic paintings, its different layout and lack of masonry platforms have made scholars question whether it had any function in relation to the brothel below. But the majority, from Fiorelli at the time of excavation onwards, have taken for granted its use for prostitution, and they have explained the differences between the two floors with suggestions that the upper storey was used by high-class prostitutes or it was the pimp’s flat. L-R considers other possibilities, such as a rented flat or rooms. 

There are two appendices: (A) on the history of the excavation and its finds, including a transcription of the daily log kept by the excavators; (B) listing the graffiti (144 on her count). To have gathered the primary evidence in the appendices is a helpful tool for further study and her analysis of that evidence to create a lively picture of the establishment and its functioning makes this both a valuable contribution to academic study and an accessible tract for a wider audience.

Alan Beale

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