Pompeii, Prostitutes and Priapus…all in a day’s work (for Obscura, not Richard Armitage)

I’m teaching an upper division course on Pompeii and Herculaneum right now.  One of the things I require of students at this level is an oral presentation of the results of their research on a chosen topic.  (two presentations actually – I’m trying to cultivate a reputation as a hard ass).  **Before you go further, *WARNING* ancient nudity ahead…

The catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE destroyed a number of cities and private villas in the Bay of Naples region of Italy.  There is nothing archaeologists like more than a good cataclysmic disaster that seals context at a moment in time.  A city like Rome has a rich archaeological history, but it has been continuously occupied since antiquity, which means that much of the archaeological material has been destroyed by subsequent occupation.  Not so at Pompeii  – the 79CE eruption of Mt. Vesuvius encased the city and it’s contents under a thick blanket of volcanic debris for centuries.   As such, the remains of these sites provide a unique window to look at the lives Romans led.


That’s a CGI reconstruction folks…the Romans were advanced, but not that advanced 😉

I offer my students a variety of research topics to choose from, and someone ALWAYS chooses to research brothels, prostitution and Roman sexuality…ALWAYS.  They are also almost always shocked at what they find.  For most of their long cultural history, the Romans were a thoroughly pagan people for whom sexuality was a normal part of life…a biological imperative like eating or drinking.  They had sexual mores that were enforced, but these were very different from what is commonly viewed as appropriate or normal or whatever, in contemporary western culture, which has been heavily influenced by certain Christian attitudes toward the “sinful” nature of sexuality.  The pre-Vesuvius Romans were burdened by none of this, so sexuality and nudity were openly a part of everyday life.

As I sit listening to these presentations, I have to suppress a smile when the presenter struggles with some of these concepts – especially when it comes to discussing the visual record of Roman sexuality – it is present at Pompeii, in full, living color.  Admittedly, I am pretty passé about these subjects, having studied this material for years – I have literally seen just about everything…except some of the stuff in the “secret” room in the Naples Museum.  No one was allowed in the last time I was in Naples, but most of it has since been published.  The Romans, like the Greeks before them, also considered certain parts of the human anatomy to be symbols of good luck.  Hence the proliferation of “erotic” objects from lamps to wind chimes…

pompeii erotica

Students usually do OK with these.  I mean really, who doesn’t love the winged phallus complete with legs, a tail and it’s own phallus with wind chimes attached?!   It’s when they inevitably get to the next bit that things always go south…I know it’s coming…wait for it, wait for it…

Fresco of Priapus from the House of the Vettii at Pompeii

Fresco of Priapus from the House of the Vettii at Pompeii

Yep, there he is…Priapus was a god of fertility and fecundity for the Romans…symbolized by a supersized (ithyphallic) phallus.  (Now everyone knows what is meant by Priapism on the Viagra warnings – you’re welcome.).  By this point a room full of adult students is looking everywhere but the screen while their instructor elaborates on the role of such images in Roman culture.  This painting was found in a very public part of the house, so clearly it was considered fit for public viewing.  It was essentially the Roman equivalent of a horse shoe or a four leaf clover.

What does this have to do with Richard Armitage?  Absolutely nothing – even I am not advocating that role!

47 comments on “Pompeii, Prostitutes and Priapus…all in a day’s work (for Obscura, not Richard Armitage)

  1. guylty says:

    *hahaha* OH I loved this post. Not for the gratuitus phallic porn, but for the last line – and the little digs at the uncoolness of the students. Really, people, grow up. We are all grown ups, the classroom is not a peepshow, so everyone can participate without shame… Gosh – anecdotes like this just make me feel so good. Yeah, I may be an old fart – but boy, am I less hung-up on stuff like that. Comes with age, I guess. (Mind you – the winged phallus would not be gracing my porch, either. Good thing I don’t have any. Porch. Or phallus.)
    Thanks for cheering me up with this. (PS: Hm, potential topic to be discussed between Prof Obscura and her acting pupil… Maybe the two of them go on a field trip, to the “secret room” in the Naples Museum?)

    • obscura says:

      I am always a bit surprised at how Victorian some of my adult students are (most are my age or younger now)..I won’t even tell you how this goes with the traditional students!

      Yeah, *stuffing ithyphallic wind chimes in box in garage* me neither 😉

      (Oh boy…that sounds enlightening!).

  2. Servetus says:

    With all due respect for Richard Armitage, I suspect he would need a prosthesis 🙂

  3. Servetus says:

    Reblogged this on Me + Richard Armitage and commented:
    Could Richard Armitage play that role? [comments there]

  4. Leigh says:

    Good one, Obscura. I had seriously thought about annoying my neighbors by hanging a tintinabulum in my patio, as they insist on peering over the wall… And if your students have an issue with Priapus, they should see some of the Japanese images that show the membrum virile the size of a telephone pole, supported by assistants.

  5. Perry says:

    I’m still laughing – loudly. As one who has put forward some cockamamie roles for Richard Armitage, even I’m not touching this ten foot pole.

  6. Peggy Kincaid says:

    I was reminded of a comment from The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell where a Viking character commented that the Romans were successful in everything until they became Christians. LOL

  7. I was fortunate enough to visit Pompeii in 1979. WOW!! You can’t even imagine the magnificence of the place until you are standing in one of the homes looking at the mosaics from 2 feet away. Of course now it’s a little more secure, but back then we walked through everything, could touch stuff. It was incredible. I’ll I can say about Priapus is I always hoped he got that growth removed from the tip of his penis. It sort of looks like a little fist.

  8. katie70 says:

    I would most likely be the floor open please fast, student. I am ok on my own, just not in front of other people.

    • obscura says:

      It is something that you get better at overtime and practice I think. I would never assign this material to a student, but if they choose to research it, game on. (I should note that they have very well illustrated text books, so none of this should be a complete shock to anyone if they’ve been doing the assigned readings 🙂 )

      • Servetus says:

        This something that’s always made me laugh — when I was in college most history texts were not illustrated or only very lightly, and they were very cheap in comparison to the science textbooks with heavy graphics and multi-colored mathematical formulas and the whole deal. Now history textbooks are all illustrated heavily “to create interest.” Few students read them then and fewer read them now, but now they have pictures and cost as much as the calculus textbook. I figure if they’re not going to read them they might as well spend a third of the money for an old-style non-illustrated one. 🙂

        • obscura says:

          Oh yes…I’m thinking fondly of the old standard Cary & Scullard text on Rome…some plates in the middle. The books for this class are probably closer to general interest texts than traditional textbooks. The book on Herculaneum is really an exceptionally well written coffee table book, but really affordable..under $50 with fold out maps and giant color images throughout.

          But I know what you mean…I’m veering away from bound texts for 101 next semester. I think that $120 for a one semester history text is outrageous…I can easily supplement the maps and images these days.

      • katie70 says:

        We have been talking in Psychology about sex disorders and I find it kind of weird since most of my classmates are the same age or younger then son1 at 22. I know they are all adults, but yet there still kids to me.

        • obscura says:

          Oh yeah, that can be awkward. We have a class titled The History of Sex and Abstinence (predictably light on the abstinence) and the number one rule of teaching it to traditional undergraduates (18-24yr olds) never let them see you blush! 🙂

  9. Joanna says:

    😀 …so much better then the chimney sweep !

  10. asteraurora says:

    Porter as Priapus maybe? Sorry that just popped into my head. I’m blaming that on being in the middle of your fic The Longest Night.

  11. Brilliant. I just adore the wind chime. And, yeah, I would be one of those that would enjoy watching the folks in class squirm over seeing and discussing such an anomaly. Finding a penis like that would certainly be the equivalent of finding a four leaf clover, if that is what you meant. And like the clover, I would have to leave that one alone and “unplucked.”

  12. linnetmoss says:

    Brilliant post! I well remember how one of my old profs used to delight in showing Priapus “weighing his wanger” in a Classical Mythology course. Of course, he also liked to show Playboy cartoons of satyrs and nymphs, which was going too far. Later, a prof at my institution was accused of sexual harassment for showing this image in a class (he was found not guilty).
    As for Richard Armitage, remember it’s not the size of the actor’s part that counts. It’s what he does with it 😉
    Looking forward to enjoying more of your unique blog!

    • obscura says:

      Wow – this one got lost in the holiday fog!

      Thanks – we have a great deal of academic freedom here, but I think there are certain lines in the sand for everyone.

      And thanks for upping the double entendre ante!

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