As anyone who has seen the HBO series Rome knows, the Romans were definitely not prudes. This was to the point where most of the artwork in this post was off-limits to the public until just a few years ago, so if you are conservative it’s probably best to stop reading this post now.
You’re still reading, aren’t you? I knew it!
The first serious excavations of Pompeii began in the middle of the 18th century, and to say the excavators were scandalized by the contents is an understatement. The Roman towns were teaming with sexual imagery everywhere, ranging from mosaics to household items to the occasional stone penis hung on the wall, and in fact some sites were so upsetting that they were re-buried or saw the frescoes painted over. What erotic finds ended up in the Naples Archaeological Museum were ordered by the King of Naples to be locked into the “Cabinet of obscene objects” in 1825, available to visitors only by special permit. Getting a permit was a terrible backlogged affair until the collection was opened to the public in 1978 for the first time; it then underwent renovation until 2000.
With that, here is the current entrance to the now-named “Secret Room,” at the Archaeological Museum into which no one under 14 may enter-
Not surprisingly, the biggest visitors to the Secret Room these days are teenagers on field trips sneaking off from the group. And everywhere you look, you see stuff like this-
The thing you have to realize is that the Romans didn’t have the concept of sex being a shameful thing like Judeo-Christian cultures, to the point where it was assumed that men and women alike would have affairs in a healthy marriage, so painting stuff like this on your wall was no big deal. For us, though, it leads to entertaining results-
For example, swan sex. The god Jupiter/Zeus has several myths in which he turns into various animals or showers of gold or whatever to seduce lovely women (and men!) on Earth, which is often portrayed in Greek and Roman art (though I must say, I never understood why he should have a better chance to score with ladies in animal instead of hominid form). This particular painting shows Jupiter as the swan ravishing Leda, who gave birth to eggs out of which hatched the twin gods Castor and Pollux.
This statue was unearthed in an ancient Pompeii garden. It begs an important question: if you have sex with a goat but are half-goat yourself, does it still count as bestiality?
Speaking of gardens, it turns out the Romans had a god whose job was to guard the garden and impale people with his giant penis who stole produce. For some reason this was never covered in high school Latin.
Another god(dess) who was never mentioned in Latin class, named Hermaphrodite. If you look at this picture closely, you will no longer wonder just where this word comes from.
And that is the Secret Room- all in all not as exciting as it was portrayed back in the day when the general public wasn’t allowed in and rumors could swirl, but definitely worth a visit if you want to understand an important part of Roman culture frankly no one talks about. (I also suspect the main reason you need to be over 14 to enter the room is kids younger than that frankly act silly enough when spotting the nudes in the sculpture galleries.) If the hedonism of the Secret Room isn’t enough for you, though, one can also visit the Lupanare, aka brothel-
Beyond the several tiny rooms with beds and graffiti on the walls advising you which girls are good and which have STDs and the like, you have these frescoes. The academic reason for their existence was for customers to get an idea of what they wanted, as “this was a brothel” is apparently not a good enough explanation.
Yeah, you get the idea. Interestingly having sex with a prostitute in Pompeii was about the price of two glasses of wine, and only the slaves and lower-class men came here. After all, if you had more money then why not visit a courtesan or have the girl come to your house to save you the trouble?
Mind, the Lupanare is almost more interesting to visit just to see other people’s reactions to the frescoes, as lots more people and tour groups visit Pompeii than visit the Naples Archaeological Museum. Lots and lots of giggling. I find it interesting that the Romanns were more capable of evolving beyond the elementary school stage 2,000 years ago than we are today.