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Thesis analyzes sexuality and affection amongst the popular class in Pompeii

View of Pompeii: in a few hours, thousands died

ROGER VIOLLETView of Pompeii: in a few hours, thousands diedROGER VIOLLET

“Lovers, like bees, seek a sweet life. Would that it were so!”
– Phrase from a mural in Pompeii, the theme of a recent thesis

The works of art and other objects with a strong sexual connotation found in profusion in the excavations of Pompeii, a city annexed by the Roman Empire in 80 B.C. and destroyed by the volcano Vesuvius in 79 A.D., imparted a persistent jinx on the love lived by men and women in that place and at that time: relationships between them were furtive and fleeting debauchery and lasciviousness permeated their encounters.  Little by little, though, modern researchers are trying to prove that this vision is distorted, and that it was constructed with the help of the aristocracy of the time, which, in its literary work, insisted showing the people as perverted and immoral.

Researcher Lourdes Madalena Gazarini Conde Feitosa has given her contribution towards rewriting the history of love of this population dominated by the Roman Empire with her doctoral thesis, prepared at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) with a scholarship from FAPESP.  In it, Lourdes studied sexuality and affection amongst the common people of Pompeii from a perspective of gender – an analysis using the social identities associated with the differences between the sexes.  The main source, alongside those from historical writings and literary works, were the graffiti found at the archeological sites at the place, hundreds of them done by men and women who were expressing on the inside and outside walls of the city the joys and pains of loves, disappointments, jealousies and attempts at reconciliation.  That is to say: situations and sentiments just like those of nowadays.

The common people of Pompeii, a center of trade in the Roman Empire, which even had a port, was made up of sons of the city or wanderers, free workers, slaves and freedmen.  Men and women shared the same workplace, which would often be their house as well.  Countless trades and professional associations are mentioned on the walls: they would be small tavern owners, workshops and bakeries, teachers, tailors, people selling clothes and jewels, and they would organize themselves in various associations, such as sellers of fruit, coachmen and tavern keepers. They would also share their moments of leisure.

Pompeii’s couples used to interact.  The masculine, far from the sense of authority and power, was constructed in conformity with the feminine.  An open-air museum, the city holds countless material evidences of female participation in the social and economic dynamics of Pompeii. There are many records of women asking for votes for their candidates, for example. Of the 2,500 or so posters found, only 750 have the name of the person who is giving support, and of these 52 are signed by women, and this in a universe of 10,000 inhabitants. There is consensus amongst historians that this period of history was one of social and sexual emancipation of Roman women, particularly of the aristocrats.

In this universe of equality (not forgetting that Pompeii was a colony subjugated by the Roman Empire), the common people would use the inside and outside walls to record the facts of their daily life: announcements, messages, insults, satires on politicians, lovers’ declarations and tiffs.  These inscriptions became known as graffiti, because they used an instrument called a graphium for write them.  Made of metal, it had a hard tip that made it possible to scratch and mark the wall, leaving grooves. They were spread all over the place: public buildings, taverns, workplaces, dwellings. Up until now, 10,913 graffiti have been cataloged, but the volume is far greater.  It is calculated that there still remains one third of the city to be discovered, in spite of the first excavations in the region having taken place at the beginning of the 18th century.

With the inscriptions, it is possible to sketch the cogs and dynamics of this less favored portion of Pompeii’s society. Many of them are amorous writings, like this one, found on one of the entry gates of the region.  “Marcus loves Espedusa”. Or this other one, in a tavern: “Marcellus loves Prenestina and is not corresponded”.  There were more complex phrases, like the one found in reception room on Iminente street: “Long live those who loves, death to those who do not know how to love! And a double death to those who prohibit love!” Then there is this one, a strong candidate for a motto: “Anyone who loves should not bathe in hot springs, as no one who has been scalded can love the flames”.  The walls also recorded that women used to take the initiative in the amorous field. “I beseech you. I desire your sweet wine and a desire it a lot.  Colpurnia sends you greetings” or “I won’t sell my man for any price!”  Some graffiti leave no doubts that many affective relationships were solid and lasting (“Segundus like Primigenia, by mutual agreement” of “Balbus and Fortunata, the two alike”).

Another significant aspect of the writings of Pompeii is the presence of the goddess of love, Venus. She was the protector of the colony, appointed when it was annexed by the Roman Empire as Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeiorum.  The goddess is present in many writings (“If anyone has not seen the Venus painted by Apelles, let him look at my girl: she is just as pretty as she is!)”.  It is possible to conclude that Venus became an accessible figure, familiar to the people of Pompeii, an accomplice in the love stories experienced by its inhabitants.

The love stamped on the walls is inherent to life, like eating and sleeping, in Lourdes’s analysis.  Sexual union and the practices for its satisfaction are also part of this sentiment.  Sex in Pompeii was neither more nor less important than in other places. “The inscriptions insist in escaping from the straightjacket of inactivity, social apathy, of prejudice and obscurantism with which the question of sexuality and social activity of this significant portion of the Roman population has still been treated”, says Lourdes.

In Pompeii, sex was exposed on the walls, in works of art, and in objects.  The phallus, for example, was frequently represented.  It worked like a symbol, which had two main functions, the historians wager: it was a protection against the evil eye, and it brought luck and protection, for being connected with fertility and life.  The Archeological Museum of Naples preserves examples in several situations, such as in little lamps, in trade insignia , seals and fountains. All the material found was kept in the Obscene Objects Office, created in 1819, where only people of “known morality” were allowed access. It was only in 1860 that steps were taken to catalog the whole repertoire, and its name was changed to Pornographic Collection, the denomination still used today. This collection was only opened to the public in 2000, under vehement protests from the Vatican. “There is a new way of studying the references from the past with sexual connotations, but it is still something very recent”, Lourdes says.  The great challenge for contemporary researchers is to assess this material, knowing that it is far away, in time and culture, from the values with which it was originated.

The graffiti found in Pompeii were written in the city’s last 20 years.  Many inscriptions were destroyed in 62 A.D., when the region was hit by a strong seismic shock.  Moreover, researchers report, areas of advertising were cleaned up, and there was interference from the climate.

The inscriptions also show that the majority of the Pompeian population was literate.  The language printed on the walls was a mixture of Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire, with the native Oscan. The people created a new language of their own, popular Latin. Reminiscences of Oscan script and syntax were adapted to the Latin language, generating alterations in phonetics, orthography and juxtapositions in many words. Its arrangement in a phrase, it is supposed, was also close to the spontaneous manifestation of daily speech. This language of its own, the major source for research into it being the graffiti, reveals that the poorer population, at one and the same time, accepted and rejected the conditions of material and spiritual exploitation to which they were submitted.

The popular writings show that there was a diffusion of literary culture outside the elite.  In them, it is possible to see the epic, elegiac and dramatic Roman, Greek and Hellenistic literary influence in the representations of affective sentiments. Citations of authors like Homer, Virgil and Tibertinus, Catullus, Lucretius, Propertius, amongst others, are present.  It is not known how they were presented to the people: they may have had learned about them at school, in contact with immigrants, in commerce, on military service, or even in the theatrical shows by the circulatores, people who would put on itinerant entertainments.

Poisonous gas
The present-day city of Pompeii, located in the Italian region of Campania, is an urban center that was organized after the archeological excavations of the 18th century.  Known today all over the world, it was not so notorious in antiquity.  Until the city was rediscovered, the information on it was very sparse. Pompeii, like Herculaneum, Stabiæ and Oplontis, was covered by an eruption of Vesuvius, on the night of August 24 to 25 of 79 A.D.    In a few hours, lava, ashes and poisonous gases killed hundreds of people.  The description of these moments is to be found in the letters of Tacitus.  He took the report from Pliny the Younger, who saw the catastrophe when he visited his uncle, Pliny the Elder, one of the victims of the poisonous gas.

After the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the two largest cities of the four, the region came to be the property of the kingdom of Naples, under the Bourbon dynasty.  It was only in 1811 that the land became public property.  “From that century onwards, the excavations were intensified.  Countless problems of a political and economic nature and with the handling of the evidence have involved the works in the region”, says the historian.  As the central interest of the 19th century researchers was Pompeian art and architecture, many artifacts were lost, dispersed or destroyed.

The quantity and diversity of objects form a rare set of sources that are a valuable instrument for studying the organization of Roman society.  According to Lourdes, this documentation is an alternative to the information from many and varied literary sources, making it possible to expand the data from these latter.  A case of false perversion, nothing more than an expression of love.  •

Love and the Representation of Sex in Roman Pompeii: an Analysis of Wall Inscriptions (nº 98/09032-0); Grant mechanism Doctoral scholarship; Principal investigator Pedro Paulo Abreu Funari (IFCH/Unicamp); Scholarship holder Lourdes Madalena Gazarini Conde Feitosa (IFCH/Unicamp); Investment R$ 104.079,00