Paestum tombs
Paestum tombs

Sex & Death in Pompeii

Pompeii is a fascinating destination to visit for a number of reasons, but there's nothing quite like exploring this sprawling site in the company of an expert guide as there are so many stories to uncover. Our very own Dr Eireann Marshall is no stranger to Pompeii and she has written a few pieces for us about the themes of sex and death in relation to it. 

Sex & Decadence

A theme that has never been far from the discussion of these new discoveries is sex. The tavern or shop in which the gladiators fresco was found has variously been described in the press as being a place in which gladiators could have trysts with barmaids, based on no evidence whatsoever.

Two frescoes from the House of Leda and the Swan, uncovered in November 2018, also reflect modern preoccupations with sex. The reception of the rather graphic fresco of Leda and the Swan, and the equally colourful depiction from the same House of Priapus of the god weighing his impressive phallus, have focused on the erotic nature of the depictions, neglecting the world view of ancient Pompeiians. As myths were associated with Greek literature, the owner of the House of Leda and the Swan would have commissioned the fresco in order to impress his guests with his culture. This is emphasised by the fact that the same house has revealed another painting of a myth, a rather more beautiful megalographia (a depiction of life-sized figures) of Narcissus. So, where we see quite transgressive sex, Pompeiians would have seen erudition. The same owner would have seen the fresco of Priapusin his fauces (a narrow corridor or entryway) as a symbol of good fortune, as the phallus – the essence of masculinity – represented power and luck more than sex. Particularly interesting to me is the way in which the Priapus fresco is so reminiscent of the famous painting in the fauces of the House of the Vettii. It is possible that the owners of the new House of Leda and the Swan, like the Vettii, were freedmen who made their fortune in trade and wanted to show off their good luck with paintings of Priapus as well as their culture through paintings of myths.

Gladiators in Pompeii

A painting found beneath the stairs of a shop or tavern in October 2019 hit the headlines for its subject. There is nothing more attention grabbing than gladiators, and this painting, which depicts a fight between a murmillo and a thraex (both types of Roman gladiators), catches the eye for its overt gore. What is interesting here is not so much the fight between the two gladiators, which is a commonly found motif, but the way in which the fresco characterises one as a clear victor and the other as the loser, whose blood can be seen gushing from his arms and chest. This is something that goes right to the heart of the appeal of gladiators, in that during a struggle between two men or women hell bent on harming each other, one will always emerge victorious. This allows the audience, typically identifying with one of the two fighters, to either feel the thrill of victory or the pang of regret. Particularly intriguing is the way in which the defeated gladiator raises a finger, which brings to the fore the debate about how hand gestures were used to signal either death or mercy to gladiators. While Juvenal – a poet known for his collection Satires– describes the gesture despatching a gladiator as a downward pointing thumb, or the pollice verso (Satire 3.34-37), some scholars including Corbeill have argued that the gesture used was an upward-pointing thumb. The gladiator in this new fresco, in what must be a request for mercy, is offering an all-together different gesture, which may suggest body language wasn’t standardised, just as gladiator types and equipment weren’t always the same.

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Sex & Death in Pompeii was published on 25 October 2021