[A note to my readers: This blog post contains several images of a sexual nature. Not much more than you would see in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.] To my more delicate and pious readers, this leaves you with three choices:
1~Scroll past this post (and miss some interesting content).
2~Shelve your morals, grit your teeth and read on. See, learn and enjoy for a few minutes.
3~Report me to Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis.
[Pompeii, inside the Forum. The cloud-shrouded Mr. Vesuvius lurks in the distance. Photo is mine.]
Part One: Ancient Pompeii
It was August 24, A.D. 79. It may have been late afternoon because there is evidence that the Pompeians were preparing their dinner. But this August day was destined to be like no other for the residents of this resort-of-sorts, close by Herculaneum, and only about seventeen miles from present day Sorrento. Pompeii was the home to 20,000+ residents at that time. Many were wealthy merchants from Naples or Rome. We could think of the city as a sort of Hamptons, or Sag Harbor of its day. Many of the villas were spacious and well-appointed. Large open air markets were common. Fishermen sold their catches of the day. Bakers offered bread. It was a very cosmopolitan city.
Not surprisingly, it supported and allowed the Oldest Occupation In The World. It had a red-light district. (More on that later).
I’m sure more than a few people wandering the streets or walking through the Gymnasium noticed the ominous cloud above Mt. Vesuvius, about six miles to the northwest. The cloud grew to an unusual height. The next twelve hours were filled with tons of pyroclastics, terror and instantaneous death. Historians are unclear about how many people perished that day. What is known is that a great many did survive. There exists a few first hand accounts of the day.
I won’t go into the well-known details of the aftermath except for this brief summary:
The city was buried under twenty feet of ash and cinders, pumice and earth. Pompeii’s very existence began to fade into history. People knew there was a city there, but where was it? Simple excavation equipment didn’t exist. It wasn’t until 1549, when an Italian named Domenico Fontana, digging a water channel through the site found indications of the city. He obviously wasn’t too interested in Archeology because it took another two hundred years before serious excavation began. The year was 1748. A Spanish military engineer with the impressive name of Roque Joaquin de Alcubierre was put in charge of uncovering the entombed metropolis. What he and others discovered was nothing short of one of the most important finds in the Annals of Archeology.
As of 2023, only 2/3’s of the city have been excavated.
So, what was found beneath those twenty feet of volcanic detritus? There were signs of gardens, opulent (for the day) villas, fountains, ovens, storage terra-cotta vases, streets, lanes, Temples to Apollo, Jupiter and Minerva and, of course, brothels, (again, more later). What also caught the eye of a few archaeologists were a large number of empty cavities in the cinder (now turned to stone). Someone had the brilliant idea to pour plaster into these cavities. Here’s where the good stuff comes in.
When the liquid plaster hardened, the resulting casts were the victims caught in the ash fall, in the physical position they were in at the moment when the hot death came for them. Among these are a dog, a man on his elbows gasping for his last breath he will ever take, a woman protecting her infant and two young women (maidens as described in the literature) embracing and kissing as they died.
The poignancy is heartbreaking.
These are just a few examples of many more that were eventually discovered. Here are a few images to look at, contemplate and weep:
[One of only a few human casts on display at Pompeii. Photo is mine.]
[Two women in an embrace, kissing, dying. Photo: Dreamstime.com]
[A haunting cast of a man taking what is likely his final breath. Photo source: See photo.]
Moving on from the awesome casts…
As the twenty feet of burial ash and cinder were cleaned away, houses began to take shape. The frescoes appeared like a photograph in a darkroom. Many depicted scenes of classical mythology. Some illustrated stories relating how men, having too much wine, would chase the women about.
[Household fresco of dubious nature. Photo is mine,]
I promised you the X-Rated frescoes. The innocent souls may turn away at this point. No one will think unkindly of you.
There were several Red Light Districts in Pompeii. How would a man (or woman) in need of some comfort and attention (for a few denarii) of a warm body for an hour or so locate such a place? If you were a resident, you’d already know. But what about visiting merchants or sailors? The Pompeians made it quite simple.
Look for the Phallus.
[This Phallus indicated to strangers where the action was. Photo: Google search.]
What did the brothels look like? That would depend on the location and reputation. The better the clientele, the better the bed. Shown below is likely a ‘working mans’ room.
This is likely not where the high class of sex workers would ply the trade. Photo is mine.]
[A naughty fresco in a brothel. Photo is mine.]
Another common question is what would the typical prostitute charge for her services. The answer is that the average fee was two asses. Yes, I know that sounds like a joke, but an ass was a bronze coin that made up a certain part of a larger amount. A gold denarii was equal to twenty-five silver denarii which was equal to ten bronze asses. There you have it
Part Two: Our Visit
Our excursion from the Wind Star began in the rain and ended in the rain. Our tender rocked violently in the choppy seas. It took two shuttle busses to get us to the top of the cliff that defines the town of Sorrento. The ride was slow all the way. Once there, we were given little radios to hear the guide. We passed beautiful apartments and plant-filled window boxes.
We walked the streets of this very old town. The visuals were extremely fascinating and worthy of an extended examination…but we had to keep up with the guide (who was a fast walker). My personal opinion? I did not have a particularly pleasant day. The rain fell heavy, the cobblestone streets were slippery, the walk seemed endless because of the maze of streets.
And the crowds. I either had to watch where my foot landed on a slick stone or I had to dodge an umbrella. (I can’t believe I forgot my Gore-Tex). There were simply too many people…and yes, I know I was part of that problem.
But how else can travel be done today?
Here is a small sample of what I had time to photograph:
[A rain slicked cobblestone street. Note the grooves that are parallel to the curbs. These are original chariot ruts. Photo is mine.]
[The Temple of Apollo. Note the black lava altar on the white pedestal in the center. Photo is mine.]
That brings my tale of a visit to a place that has held my fascination since I was a young boy. The memory of the stories I read about Pompeii even held its own after I grew a little older and discovered truly mysterious and incomprehensible beings that I knew would share my lifetime on earth.
Insight and poingant. As ever. Paul