Upstairs at the brothel
Despite the bleats in my last post about not getting enough time for (real) work, I am now in Naples for seven days doing some serious hard graft at Pompeii: my last good look at the site before I write my book on it.
One of the Pompeian places that is sure to feature somewhere in this book is The Brothel. Now that the famous House of the Vettii is closed to the public, it is this that is the tour guides’ hot spot, nicely restored with Danish money a few years ago. On the ground floor, it consists of five little rooms, each with a fitted stone bed – plus a single loo, though no running water.
What makes it 100% certain that it is a brothel rather than (say) a cheap lodging house is the decoration (a lot of more or less unimaginative bits of painted erotica above the doors to the ‘cells’). And, of course, the graffiti: all over the walls are scrawled boasts and confessions, along the lines of “I fucked Glyce/I want to fuck Glyce/I fucked Glyce for tuppence”.
Hardly surprising, I guess, that it attracts streams of visitors. And hardly surprising that the site authorities enter into the sprit of it a bit. Some wag, no doubt worried about the effect of light on the paintings, has posted “No Flash” on the notice outside.
But what I’ve always wanted to know is what happened upstairs.
The Brothel is a two storey building, and the upstairs is shut to the public. Some books tell you that there were more rooms for sex workers there. Others claim that it was where the girls slept or took a break between clients. Until this week I hadn’t had permission to go and see for myself.
What you actually find is a neat stairway (with a loo at the bottom) plus five more rooms. One is a rather nice, and nicely decorated, large saloon; the others smallish chambers of some sort. There were no obvious cooking facilities. So if anyone lived here, beyond fruit and bread etc, and some hot snacks and the ancient equivalent of a cup of tea cooked up on a portable brazier (lots of those are found in the city), they would have eaten out.
So what was this suite for? Well it could hardly have been more “working” rooms. At least, there was not an erotic painting in sight and no graffiti at all, so far as I could see.
So what then?
Well maybe the girls’ quarters, with four bedrooms (for how many workers?) plus a recreation area. But it was hard to resist the idea that the nice big room was where that stock villain of Roman comedy, the pimp or “leno” hung out and counted his takings, and lived in some style (even if minus a kitchen).
Or maybe, as one of our party pointed out., we were still being too fanciful. Given the multiple use and multiple occupancy of most domestic space in Pompeii, this could equally well have been the flat of someone who just happened to have the address “above the brothel”.
And as for the girls? Just as likely that they slept on (or off) the job.