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The Brothel of Pompeii: Sex, Class, and Gender at the Margins of Roman Society

The Brothel of Pompeii: Sex, Class, and Gender at the Margins of Roman Society

By Sarah Levin-Richardson. Pp. xx + 243. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2019. $99.99. ISBN 9781108496872 (cloth).

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Levin-Richardson’s book fills a gap in the scholarship, since—as the author’s careful assessment of the literature abundantly makes clear—the Lupanar at Pompeii has never been subjected to a comprehensive study. To accomplish this objective, she combs all available primary sources, including excavation diaries and material finds; she considers the rather meager assortment of objects found in the structure; and she provides an impressive, in-depth analysis of the numerous graffiti. Add to this her careful consideration of the numerous modern studies that use the Lupanar to make a variety of points about Roman prostitution, and we have an impressive study that modifies current interpretations and proffers some new ideas about the building’s unique status as the only known purpose-built brothel from the ancient Roman world.

Levin-Richardson’s approach is systematic. Part 1 considers the material evidence (architecture, archaeological finds, graffiti, frescoes, and the upper floor); Part 2 explores the physical and social experiences of those who frequented the brothels as well as those who worked there: male clients, female prostitutes, and male prostitutes.

Most of Levin-Richardson’s ideas are original and sustainable: her assessment of the upper floor and its uses (certainly not for prostitution; probably for rental lodging); her analysis of views into the structure and between rooms; the subjective and objective meanings of the graffiti for both customers and prostitutes; how the graffiti may have forged identities; and the possibility that activities other than sex-for-sale went on there, specifically drinking and grooming.

Other ideas have less to go on. In particular, her proposal that the furnishings of the rooms were more luxurious than they look in their current state I find hard to embrace. Levin-Richardson says that the masonry platforms, properly furnished with mattresses and sheets, were intended to allow a customer to experience elite-style drinking and lovemaking (77). This idea is based on the quite meager material finds and on her elevation of the representations in the frescoes in the central corridor to a higher realm of artistic and ideological excellence than they actually attain. I have asserted elsewhere that, compared with paintings of sexual couplings or erotic dallying from houses, the paintings from the Lupanar appear crude and abbreviated. They are a far cry from the paintings in the Villa under the Farnesina at Rome (J.R. Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250 [Berkeley 1998] 93–107), or even the modest painting from the House of Caecilius Iucundus at Pompeii, ca. 62–79 CE (Clarke [1998] 153–61). The paintings in the Lupanar are quite basic in both theme and execution. True, the artist includes some furnishings (a lampstand, a pinax, mattresses and pillows), but—quite tellingly—we see no bedroom servants, the sine qua non of elite representations of lovemaking. Moreover, the pigments used are of poor quality, and the execution is only a cut above rudimentary quasi-monochromes of the House of Vettii room x′. My explanation for both the iconography and execution of the Lupanar’s paintings is that the owner paid an artist to “pretty up” the establishment with images of idealized lovers in standard positions (Clarke [1998] 201–2); Levin-Richardson takes this a bit farther to say that the Lupanar saw emulations of luxury entertainment on those cement platforms.

This leads me to a mild criticism concerning the economics of the operation. When a turn with a prostitute cost an average of two asses, the same price as a cup of common wine, maximizing profits would require the sex workers to maximize their sex acts. In addition, given that the profits from selling wine were so meager, would an owner or pimp want his prostitutes dallying with customers pretending to be guests at a high-class drinking party? The same goes for the idea that prostitutes provided shaves for their customers (34–35, 113), or even the quite interesting proposal that they did emotional work for them (113–18). The author's examples of emotional labor include writing graffiti that use second-person forms to praise clients' sexual prowess, entertaining clients as they drank, and helping clients with their love lives (116).All this takes time; how can you monetize these time-consuming services?

Although the book is attractive in its layout, many of the illustrations fall short. The photographs—nearly all taken by the author—appear unevenly lit, dark, and in some cases fuzzy. The textual apparatus, in contrast, is outstanding. The author provides two useful appendices: one presents the information recorded in the excavation daybooks (the Giornale dei soprastanti for May and June 1862) and the other a catalogue of the graffiti, giving their locations and translations, as well as a column listing names found elsewhere in the Lupanar. The notes are extensive and accurate, including several fascinating discussions that could have been integrated into the text. Levin-Richardson has compiled an excellent, up-to-date bibliography.

The Brothel of Pompeii is a timely, informative, and well-researched book that contributes significantly to a scholarly discussion that has relevance for classicists, ancient historians, and scholars who work on sexuality and gender. It is well written and clear. Levin-Richardson’s readings of the graffiti in particular give them a context that goes well beyond the current state of the literature. If I have misgivings, they center on the “fantasy-luxury” argument, hesitant as I am to make quite so much out of the wall paintings and reported finds. These minor quibbles aside, Levin-Richardson’s volume goes a long way toward bringing to life the individuals who both frequented and worked in the Lupanar. It is a book that would fit well into graduate and undergraduate classes on gender and sexuality and one that is sure to spark lively discussion.

John R. Clarke
Department of Art and Art History
The University of Texas at Austin

Book Review of The Brothel of Pompeii: Sex, Class, and Gender at the Margins of Roman Society, by Sarah Levin-Richardson
Reviewed by John R. Clarke
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Clarke

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