Monday, March 30

The brothels of ancient Pompeii

Erotic fresco from Lupanar, Pompeii, 1st century AD.Photo by Frédéric Soltan © Getty Images

When countries around the world grapple with the legalization of prostitution, what, if anything, can we learn from the legalized brothels of ancient Pompeii? Sarah Levin-Richardson's new book deals with the economic, social and legal complexity of old sex work. The book is the first to deal systematically with our only surviving “purpose-built” Roman brothel that was sealed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.

In 1862, archaeologists began excavating the two-story brothel between the Pompeii Forum and its main north-south business district. It was aimed at Roman men who bought sexual services from both male and female prostitutes. Only five years after its first excavation, Mark Twain visited the building and noticed that female tourists were prevented from entering at this time due to the rather racy murals. Although Twain timidly remarked that "no pen would have difficulty describing these frescoes," this richly illustrated volume provides many of them in full frontal color, accompanied by careful analysis that reveals the apparently clear nature of these pictures and the people in them Asks question.

The obscene and often witty Latin American graffiti, which was woven into painted sexual tales and scribbled across the corridors of the brothel, aroused Twain's imagination and continued to reveal the lives of those who visited or worked in the room today. Since the renovated brothel reopened in 2006, thousands of men – and now women – have visited a place where sexual and emotional work has been sold, paid, and even taxed. Levin-Richardson covers the archaeological remains of the brothel and reconstructs the poignant but transient physical and emotional experiences that happened in and around the brothel. Just like the age-old graffiti of the brothel that Twain arrested, readers are drawn to the hundreds of translated graffiti and inscriptions compiled in this book. These range from men crowing over sexual conquests (& # 39; Murtis, you suck well & # 39;) to the names of employed prostitutes (& # 39; Hey, Mistress Fabia! & # 39;). An appendix contains the evidence, but it is Levin-Richardson who skillfully describes how they together show a hierarchy of male competition.

The brothel graffiti often creates an amusing atmosphere, but Levin-Richardson quickly reminds readers of the harsh realities of slavery and human trafficking. Enslaved men and women most often occupied old brothels. They sold physical services such as penetrative sex or shaving their clients, while at the same time being expected to provide emotional services to clients through small talk or writing flattering bragging about them. Like all enslaved people, their bodies were subjected to sexual assault, rape, beatings, and even torture.

Whether legal or illegal, sex work has always exposed prostitutes to abuse by pimps, panties and the public. In addition to being physically vulnerable, sex workers in ancient Roman society bore a social and legal stigma of shame. The customers who visited them didn't. The book fulfills the question of shame – who gives and who receives.

As the book shows, old and modern sex workers and brothels cannot be reduced to simplified archetypes. Sex workers do not have to be manned as victims or authorized agents, but can be given nuanced identities that include both. By reconstructing both environments of the old brothel, the modern public can begin to understand its uniquely central yet marginal position within the old city – an existence that resembles that of the workers employed there.

The Pompeii brothel: gender, class and gender on the margins of Roman society
Sarah Levin-Richardson
266pp £ 30

Sarah E. Bond is an associate professor of history and classics at the University of Iowa.

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