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Pompeii is always good for some new insights to the way people lived around 1000 years ago. Walking around the ancient roads of this roman city, getting lost in the maze like ruins which the erupting Vesuvio left behind in the year 79 A.D., and a bit of fantasy can transfer you from your daily 21st century life into a world of splendor, decadence and savoir vivre.

 

The fresco ”Leda e il cigno” (Leda and the swan) was only recently discovered in the Regio V archeological area in Pompeii. The fresco depicts a story and art subject of Greek mythology, with goddess Leda being impregnated by Zeus – Jupiter in Roman mythology – in the form of a swan. Erotic pleasures were highly appreciated in these times, and the obvious material wealth of the city must have given the Pompeiians enough self-esteem to turn sex from a pure reproductive measure to a way-of-life and to an act of artistic creativity.

The last time I had the chance to visit Pompeii 6 years ago. It was under extraordinary circumstances, in two regards:  First, I was there late at night after the gates were already closed, and second I was there with Asal, a young Iranian beauty who finally agreed to accompany me. In my lucid imaginations, Asal could have been a typical Roman woman, a bid superficial, but extremely enchanting.

 

After we got completely lost in the darkness, between the unnamed streets in the settlement, we luckily found a torch to light us the way. It also allowed us to illuminate some of the graffiti shown above, the figures on them appeared almost alive in the guttering blaze of the candle. Only later I found out that some of the most explicit murals were decorations of brothels, or buildings that served as brothels (such as inns, lunch counters, and taverns). They show fair-skinned women, naked (except for the occasional breast band), with stylished hair, in a variety of sexual positions with young, tanned, athletic men.

Indeed, the graffiti attests to five different types of sex for sale: intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio, active anal sex, and passive anal sex. Thus the sex trade performed a type of social and moral policing of the institution of marriage, as well as the preservation of an adult male’s reputation and masculinity. As sex work was not illegal (being predominantly structured around slavery) but adultery was outlawed, this was another reason for paying for sex.

The layers of volcanic materials that covered Pompeii and most of its population to a depth of 25 meters left extensive evidence of the ancient Italians, their lifestyles, and their environments. Ironically, the eruption that trapped the inhabitants in both time and place has bestowed a strange immortality upon them.

These people whisper to us, and their tales are varied, joyous and sad. Their stories are sometimes shocking and even heartbreaking, but, like the lives of the sex workers, worthy of remembrance.

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