Extract from Mary Beard’s Pompeii book

Mary Beard

Sex, shopping and chasing slaves

Roman sexual culture was different from our own. Women, as we have seen at
Pompeii, were much more visible in the Roman world than in many other parts
of the ancient Mediterranean. They shopped, they could dine with the men,
they disposed of wealth and made lavish benefactions. Yet it was still a
man’s world in sex as it was in politics. Power, status and good fortune
were expressed in terms of the phallus. Hence the presence of phallic
imagery in almost unimaginable varieties all round the town.

This is one of the most puzzling, if not disconcerting, aspects of Pompeii for
modern visitors. There are phalluses greeting you in doorways, phalluses
above bread ovens, phalluses carved into the surface of the street and
plenty more phalluses with bells on and wings. One of the most imaginative
creations, which once jingled in the Pompeian breeze, is the lusty
phallus-bird, a combination (I guess) of a joke and an unashamed celebration
of the essential ingredient of manhood.

In this world, the main functions of respectable, well-off married women –
that is, the occupants of the larger houses at Pompeii – were twofold: first
the dangerous job of bearing children (childbirth was a big killer in
Ancient Rome, as it was in every period up to the modern era); and second
the management of house and household. One tombstone from Rome famously hits
the nail on the head. It is an epitaph put up by a husband to his wife
Claudia. It praises her beauty, her conversation, her elegance; but the
bottom line is that “she bore two sons, she kept the house, she made wool”.

For elite men, the basic message was that sexual penetration correlated with
pleasure and power. Sexual partners might be of either sex. There was plenty
of male-with-male sexual activity in the Roman world, but only the very
faintest hints that “homosexuality” was seen as an exclusive sexual
preference, let alone lifestyle choice. Sexual fidelity to a wife was not
prized or even particularly admired. In the search for pleasure, the wives,
daughters and sons of other elite men were off-limits (and crossing that
boundary might be heavily punished by law). The bodies of slaves and, up to
a point, of social inferiors, were there for the taking. Poorer citizens,
with a less-ready supply of servile sexual labour, would no doubt use
prostitutes instead. But individual relations between Roman men and women
were not as unnuanced and mechanical as my stark summary might suggest.

All kinds of relationships of care and tenderness flourished, whether between
husband and wife, master and slave, lover and beloved. An expensive gold
bracelet, for example, found on the body of a woman at a settlement just
outside Pompeii is inscribed with the words, “From the master to his slave
girl”. It reminds us that affection can exist even within these structures
of exploitation (though how far that affection was reciprocated by the slave
girl concerned, we of course do not know). And the walls of Pompeii, both
inside and out, carry plenty of vivid testimony to passion, jealousy and
heartbreak with which it is hard for us not to identify, even if
anachronistically, “Marcellus loves Praestina and she doesn’t give a damn”,
“Restitutus has cheated on lots of girls”. All the same, the basic structure
of Roman sexual relations was a fairly brutal one, and not one that was
female friendly.

Feasting and frolicking

The lavish banquet at which men and women recline in various states of
undress, being fed grapes by battalions of slaves or tucking into silver
platefuls of stuffed dormouse, is a familiar image from sword-and-sandals
movies.

The Romans themselves had a hand in mythologising their eating and dining. At
Pompeii itself we find wall paintings depicting extravagant parties that fit
nicely with our own modern stereotype of Roman dining. One scene shows two
couples reclining on couches covered with rugs and cushions. Though hardly a
picture of sexual debauchery, other types of excess are on display. The
drink is set out on two tables near by. A considerable quantity has already
been consumed, for a third man has passed out on one of the couches, while a
woman in the background has to be supported by her partner or slave. Another
painting from the same room shows a similar scene, but this time in the open
air, with the couches covered by awnings and a slave mixing up wine in a
large bowl (wine was usually mixed with water in the ancient world).

So do the dining rooms and dining customs of Pompeii match up to these images
on its walls? In part. A group of table settings from another house in the
city show four elderly men, naked, with long dangling penises, each
supporting a small tray for holding appetisers, titbits or any dainty food.

But everyday food for most Pompeians, was far from showy. In fact it must have
been a repetitive – if healthy – diet of bread, olives, wine, cheese, fruit,
pulses and a few vegetables. Fish would have been available and, more
rarely, meat.

The basic diet of ordinary Pompeians is vividly illustrated by a neatly
written list, scratched into the atrium wall of a house. Presumably it
represents an attempt by someone to keep track of his or her recent
expenditure. We cannot now decode all the Latin terms, but it is basically a
diet of bread, oil, wine and cheese, with a few extras thrown in.

It is easy to feel romantic about the simple and healthy diet that these lists
seem to represent. Indeed Roman poets, a comfortably-off crowd whatever
their protestations of poverty, often waxed lyrical about the wholesome fare
of the peasant. Cheap local plonk, they crowed, and some simple bread and
cheese, were better than a banquet if the company was right. So indeed it
might have been. But the eating habits of the ordinary Pompeians were a far
cry from the image of Roman dining in modern movies, or from the image of
dining displayed on the walls of Pompeii itself.

Binge-drinking and brawls

The best way to escape a diet of bread, cheese and fruit, eaten in small
lodgings, where there were limited or no facilities for cooking anything
more interesting, was to eat out.

We get a glimpse of the atmosphere of a bar from paintings in two drinking
establishments in the town where the images on the walls were obviously
meant to entertain the customers with scenes of the “bar life” that they
were enjoying. Humorous, parodic, idealising, though these may be, they are
our best guide to Pompeian café culture.

The first series is from the so-called Inn (or bar) of Salvius (“Mr Safe
Haven”). On the left, a man and a woman enjoy a rather awkwardly posed kiss.
Above them is the caption “I don’t want to [the key word is sadly lost] with
Myrtalis”. Whatever the man did not want to do with Myrtalis, or who she
was, we shall never know. Perhaps this is a vignette of the fickleness of
passion, much the same then as now: “I don’t want to hang around with
Myrtalis any more, I’m getting off with this girl.” Or perhaps, given the
stiffness of the pose, this girl is Myrtalis and the man is none too keen on
the encounter.

Drinking is followed by a game of dice in the next scene, and another argument
is brewing. A couple of men are sitting at a table. One shouts, “I’ve won”,
while the other objects, “It’s not a three,it’s a two”. By the final scene,
they have come to blows. It is too much for the landlord, who throws them
out. “If you want to fight, go outside,” he says. The customers, as they
looked at the paintings, were presumably supposed to get the message.

Baring all at the baths

A tombstone from Rome, put up some time in the first century to an ex-slave
Tiberius Claudius Secundus, by his partner Merope, includes the piquant observation:
“Wine, sex and baths ruin our bodies, but they are the stuff of life – wine,
sex and baths”.

Roman bathing was synonymous with Roman culture: wherever the Romans went, so
too did Roman baths. Bathing in this sense was not simply a method of
washing, though cleanliness was part of its purpose. It was a mixture of
activities: sweating, exercising, steaming, swimming, ball-gaming,
sunbathing, being “scraped” and rubbed down. It was Turkish bathing-plus,
with all kinds of optional extras, from barbers to libraries.

Everybody except the very poorest went to the baths, including some slaves –
even if they were only acting as retinue for their master. But, as a general
rule, the well-off would have shared their bathing with those less fortunate
than themselves. In other words, unlike for dining, they went out to bathe.

Bathing naked, or nearly naked (there is evidence for both), the poor were in
principle no different from the wealthy, possibly healthier and of finer
physique. This was Roman society on display to itself; it was, as one modern
historian has put it, “a hole in the ozone layer of the social hierarchy”.

But nakedness, luxury and the pleasures of hot, steamy recreation were, in the
eyes of many, a dangerous combination. Unsurprisingly, given the nakedness
and the possible mingling of women and men (at least in Roman fantasy),
baths were also associated with sex. Just like bars, some have been thought
to be brothels masquerading under another name.

And it is not only the modern visitor who is drawn to reflect on quite how
hygienic it all was. There was no chlorination to mitigate the effects of
the urine and other less sterile bodily detritus. Nor was the water in the
various pools constantly replaced, even if there was sometimes an attempt to
introduce a steady flow of new water into them.

The Roman medical writer Celsus offers the sensible advice not to go to the
baths with a fresh wound (“it normally leads to gangrene”) . The baths, in
other words, may have been a place of wonder, pleasure and beauty for the
humble Pompeian bather. They might also have killed him.

© Mary Beard 2008. Extracted from Pompeii (Profile Books, September 18,
£25). The book is available at £22.50, free p&p, from Times
Books; tel 0870 608080, timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst

Mary Beard will speak at the British Museum on Monday, November 10, at
6.30pm. Tickets are £5 but Times readers can order tickets for £3. Call
020-7323 8896 and quote “Times offer”.

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