The “Purpose-Built” brothel (VII 12 18-20), as Pompeii’s only definite brothel, has figured prominently in discussions of Roman prostitution (McGinn 2004), Roman erotic art (Myerowitz 1992, Clarke 1998), moral zoning at Pompeii (Wallace Hadrill 1995, Laurence 2007, McGinn 2002), and the prosopography of Pompeian prostitutes (Varone 2005). While these previous studies have examined the building’s architecture, frescoes, and graffiti, the items found during the excavation of the structure in 1862 await scholarly exploration. These, I propose, reveal an array of activities including gift exchange, dining, and religious worship. Ultimately, I argue that the brothel’s archaeological finds demonstrate a range of commercial and emotional relationships between the clients and prostitutes, and among the prostitutes themselves, beyond the exchange of money for sex.
Hampering the investigation of these items for many years was the difficulty in accessing the original excavation records; the material finds of the brothel only become publically accessible in 1994, when Van der Poel and Capri transcribed, edited, and published some of Pompeii’s original excavation notebooks. While the notebooks give only bare descriptions and little physical context other than the structure in which they were found, the following items can be ascribed to the brothel: a small glass perfume jar, a green glass cup, fragments of other glass cups and bottles, a cylindrical bone vase, a bronze statuette of Mercury with a rectangular base, and a bronze cylindrical vase that could be suspended by the attached chains (Van der Poel and Capri 1994).
I begin with a brief discussion of other evidence for social relationships in the brothel, including recent work on the purpose-built brothel as a locus for establishing and contesting masculinity (Levin-Richardson 2011). I point to the large number of graffiti found in the structure-—representing one of the largest clusters of graffiti found anywhere in Pompeii—to demonstrate that there was both time and inclination for clients and prostitutes to scratch messages into the walls. In addition, these graffiti preserve at least five greetings (CIL IV 2206, CIL IV 2208, CIL IV 2212, CIL IV 2231 CIL IV 2239), several sets of graffiti responding to each other (e.g., CIL IV 2212, CIL IV 2225, and CIL IV 2226), a poem (CIL IV 2258a), and an expression of local town rivalries (CIL IV 2183). I then build on Penelope Allison’s analysis of the social relationships suggested by the material assemblages in Pompeian houses (e.g., Allison 2004 and 2010) to explore the types of bonds implied by the items found in the brothel. The perfume jar and vases, for example, were perhaps gifts from a client to a prostitute, while the cups might have been used by prostitutes dining with their clients or with each other. The bronze statuette of Mercury suggests religious worship by the members of the brothel. In these activities, one can see longer-term relationships between clients and prostitutes than previously thought, as well as an environment of homosocial bonding among the prostitutes.
In the end, I use the material finds from the brothel to challenge the current scholarly status-quo, which holds the purpose-built brothel to be a place fit only for rough and ready sex.