March 10, 2024

We naturally wanted to see the erotic images taken from Pompeii that had been locked away in the Secret Cabinet until 2000 and finally moved to their present location in a suite of rooms in the National Archaeological Museum in 2005. Even now there is a guardian on duty to prevent minors from seeing them unless accompanied by a guardian. These paintings and objects were on display in people’s houses and were meant to be seen by guests. Until Constantine introduced Christianity and ushered in the Dark Ages that set civilisation back a thousand years the Romans had no concept of sin and enjoyed sex openly and pleasurably – it was a gift of the Gods. There were rules, of course, one being that you should not have adulterous sex with those of your own class, which might threaten inheritance and property rights, but you could have guilt-free sex with anyone else, male or female, including the poor slaves in your household. 

The bronze images are almost entirely of men, in fact almost all are of oversized phalluses. Many of them were used to bring good luck, as fertility symbols, to encourage plants to grow or simply used to boast about their wealth, they showed what a good life you could afford. 

In Pompeii and in the museum there are brothel scenes which show sex in all its forms: threesomes, same sex, cunnilingus, fellatio, sodomy, all designed to encourage the clients to enjoy themselves and use their imagination. Though Rome was a patriarchy and women didn’t have the vote, they could own property and did have some power and sexual freedom, for instance there are many images of lesbianism. It wasn’t just an early form of the Playboy mansion. 

In the main museum there is a mosaic of Venus, which shows that the Roman ideal woman was more realistic than today’s skinny supermodel look. 

There is a Modern Art museum as well, of course, but we only peeked in as it was time for the 2pm pizza. Fried this time. Delicious.

We had hotel rooms on the same square as the Central Station where the suburban train to Pompeii leaves from. Though rain was promised, the weather was fine. I think a visit to Pompeii in the rain would be a very unsatisfying experience. Upon entrance your first significant building is the Stabian baths. They have a few erotic paintings, just to get you into the spirit of the place, but the building is not properly marked, and most people miss it on their way to The Forum, which comes next. It is actually not difficult to imagine the colonnade complete and roofed over, with garlands of flowers hanging between the columns, swags and endless statues of local dignitaries parading around the edge.

The streets are paved with large flagstones with a raised pavement on either side, something that places like London or Paris did not get for another 1,800 years. The reason for this was that there was no sewer system or rubbish collection: everything was just thrown in the street which was essentially an open sewer churned up by great carts ploughing through it, cutting grooves in the stone with their iron wheels. Water was periodically directed down them. Every few houses there was a steppingstone to allow pedestrians to cross the street. Looking down the empty streets I was reminded of the West End during lockdown. People are missing. The tourist groups arrived soon enough, but we were lucky in that it was not crowded.

Many of the houses are remarkably well preserved with wall paintings filling their walls. I particularly liked the snake that appears in several of the pictures.

I was keen to see The House of the Vettii that has only recently been reopened. Owned by the wine merchants Restitutas and Coviva AulusVettius, it is famous for the painting of Priapus who guards the entrance to the atrium. His enormous cock symbolises the wealth of the owners. For many years this was covered with a door and was only shown to respectable men (for a small payment). 

There are wall paintings of erotic classical themes – Dionysius discovering the sleeping Ariadne, and the like – and erotic paintings in a room where the slave girl Eutychis was ‘offered’ for two asses, according to the painted inscription outside her room. Life for the slaves and non-elite in Roman times was short and painful.

The Villa of the Mysteries is out in the suburbs, past the cemetery, and has separate admission. I was prepared to leave it out as there were so many things to see but Camila, wisely, determined that it looked really interesting. She was correct; it contains the most important Roman wall paintings yet found. A Roman villa combined domestic and agricultural use so there are rooms for storing produce and equipment as well as beautifully decorated rooms for family use. The entrance has not been excavated so you enter through the side. The large room that gave the villa its name was decorated c 40BC in ‘second style’ (of the four) Pompeiian fresco painting. It contains an exquisite frieze that runs right around the room and could easily have been painted by one of the Pre-Raphaelites. It depicts the rituals involved in the Bacchus-Dionysus cult the details of which were always revealed only to initiates. We spent some time there.  

To be honest, it would take two full days to see everything in Pompeii, partly because the houses all close at 4:00pm and the site at 5:00pm so even if you arrive early it would be difficult to do justice to the place, even with a carefully planned itinerary. But it is more fun to just wander around and make sure that you see at least a half-dozen of the amazing houses.

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