The cyber world is all hot and bothered this week with the emergence of a photograph that seems to show a Pompeii man frozen in time while masturbating. The unidentified man, an unfortunate victim of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, has gained the grudging respect of twitter users who wryly noted that he “held on to the end” and died “holding his loved ones.” If the analysis holds, this man certainly had a clear plan about how to spend his final moments.
This isn’t the first time Pompeii has gained a reputation for debauchery. In the 18th century, archeologists were scandalized by the sexually explicit artwork that adorned the walls of the city’s residents. The artwork at Pompeii – including oversized phalluses --was so shocking to modern viewers that in 1819, when Francis I of Naples visited the Pompeii exhibition, he ordered the erotic art to be locked away in a secret chamber so that only those of an appropriate age could view it. Today minors are only allowed entry to the “Gabinetto Segreto” (Secret cabinet) in the National Archeological Museum in Naples, if a guardian is present (or they have written permission).
Excavations at Pompeii uncovered a number of brothels, the most famous of which -- the Lupanare (wolf’s den)—was built specifically for this purpose. This wasn’t the case with all ancient brothels which, as Professor Sarah Bond has written in Trade and Taboo, could set up shop in inns, taverns and even mills. The Lupanare contained ten rooms, each of which was furnished with a stone bed and mattress that were separated from an antechamber by a curtain.