In the year 79 AD the Roman city of Pompeii was buried under twenty feet of ash from a two day eruption brought on by the looming Mount Vesuvius.
As with all Roman cities, the façade of Pompeii was glorious but a long hard look at the subculture of Pompeii reveals more than beauty. One can’t help but notice the frescoes depicting Priapus with a phallus large enough to fill any hole. Streetlamps designed in erotic display set to notify the random passerby of exactly where they were located, with brothels, prostitutes, and orgies all symbolized by phallic symbols.
It kind of makes one envious of the lifestyle, even with Vesuvius about to erupt.
Pompeii would have had a difficult time promoting this promiscuous culture at any other point in history.
Caligula, Claudius, and Nero reigned from 37 to 68 AD and it was the stance of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which was so against the objective morality and family values of the newly formed Christianity that allowed sex in the ancient Roman Empire to thrive.
Historians agree that Rome did have far more sex and overshadowed Pompeii in regards to brothels and prostitution. Relative to population though — with Pompeii only having 20,000 inhabitants — the promiscuous behavior that went on in Pompeii per capita was considerably more rampant and public than anything going on over in Rome.
Even with all the symbolism in Pompeii, it’s unlikely that it was seen as taboo or as something to be hidden. Sex was simply a part of everyday culture, with subtle distinctions among the social strata much like in contemporary Western society where there are apparent yet subtle differences between rural communities and urban communities in terms of values, promiscuity and what’s considered taboo.
In Pompeii the rich had private sex orgies and the poor typically paid for lower end prostitutes. At least 75 percent of the population at the time was considered poor so most of the focus in Pompeii was around the business of brothels. That’s not to say that the high end sex clubs had no special attention of their own. High class estates had rooms built solely for group sex. Carvings and frescoes in these rooms depict sexual positions and gratification. There were even small windows looking in on these rooms so others could watch in voyeuristic delight.
Needless to say that behind the tragedy of Mount Vesuvius and what Pompeii is so widely known for there was an underground world, taboo by our standards, going on in Rome that I’m sure all of us wish we could experience if even for a day.
Image, “A painting of Priapus found in the House of the Vetti,” is public domain. For more information about Pompeii, visit the History Channel.
Anthony Licari is the editor of Lounge Nouvelle, a subculture web magazine. When he’s away from the computer you can probably find him at your local dive bar controlling the jukebox, getting into hick fights and embarrassing himself to the point where women will actually laugh in his face.