Frescoes that have been frozen in time through volcanic ash help tell the stories of women in Pompeii. Prior to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii was a thriving city by the bay of Naples that served both the community and visitors. In Pompeii, prostitution was common among lower class women and their trade was depicted through various fresco paintings. The artists who pained these frescoes helped capture the most intimate sexual encounters between men and women. Women that have been painted in a series of sexual positions show a sign of dominance over the men. Through beauty, sexual positions, body language, and body size, women are shown to be superior to men.
Besides brothels, frescoes of sexually explicit scenes have been found throughout Pompeii in various locations. Brothels, bathhouses, and private homes are some of the locations of where these frescoes have been located. It has been debated whether or not the frescoes found in suburban bathhouses were painted for humor or for the solicitation of sex. A question posed when looking at these frescoes is whether or not women are showing a sign of sexual freedom and dominance or are they being painted for male pleasure. Some scholars may argue that yes, these frescoes do show women to be in control of sex and showing their sexual independence, while others argue they are doing nothing more than satisfying the male.
Through various frescoes and sexual positions the role of women can be looked at closely and determined whether a form of female dominance and independence was shown.
Image 1 : Erotic scene found in Pompeii. Source: Getty
In image 1, a woman is straddled on top of her male companion and is shown to be staring at the viewer. Rather than making direct eye contact with her partner she is looking at either the artist, or the audience. The positioning of this woman can be seen as a form of her taking the dominant role of the sexual activity they are engaged in. Not only has she put herself in a position of control through the positioning of her body, but through her beauty as well. She is completely naked and has exposed herself fully to the male, and allows her hair to rest on her shoulders. The observation of beauty used here is a form of domination, and is shown in other images as well. Since the woman is on-top of her partner and her gaze is not on him, it becomes quite clear that he is not her focal point. It is not known whether or not women had sex in the ancient world for their pleasure or men’s pleasure. In this particular image it can be seen as the woman is fully enjoying her time straddling and using her male partner. An exception to the rule of whether or not women had sex for pleasure may be prostitutes who were paid for their services. In their career field they may have been allowed to engage in sex for their personal satisfaction, whereas married women of the elite had sex for procreation reasons.
Historians Catherine Johns and Paul Veyne see the role of women in frescoes completely different than the other does. Johns has stated that, “with the female on top, and riding him, she has a form of sexual independence and expression… she can move quite independently.” Whereas Veyne has analyzed a different interpretation that the woman is pleasing the male while he sits back and enjoys her doing all of the work by being placed on top of him. These interpretations can be looked at through other frescoes where the female is being inferior to the male. The basis for the analysis of these frescoes show female dominance through not only their sexual positions but as female using their beauty along with their body.
No only was the woman painted on top, but she was painted much larger than the male below her. The portrayal of her size helps to capture the dominant role she has taken on, her size can be seen as a form of superiority. The size along with the with beauty is a common characteristic given to these women in other frescoes.
When these frescoes were discovered it was believed by archaeologists that the site was a brothel, or a place where sexual favors occurred. Whether or not these locations were brothels or not the question is asked, where these frescoes painted for solicitation or for humor. It was not just in the form of having sex through penetration that women were able to assume the position of a dominant, but also through other sexual positions.
Image 2: Erotic scene found in Pompeii. Source: Getty
Oral sex had been frowned upon by ancient Romans because they believed their mouths to be pure. In Rome at this time along with Pompeii, men and women would greet one another with kisses on the cheek. Any mouth that performed oral sex would be looked at as dirty and immoral. Preventative measures were taken to ensure the oral health, special instruments were used to floss their teeth along with brushing them. Every morning they would make sure to clean their teeth so they never turned black through laziness. Lozenges were also used to help with the smell of dirty breath throughout the day. With the importance of mouth health anyone that engaged in oral sex would be deemed disgusting, immoral or just embarrassing.
Oral sex was a sexual favor that took place between men and prostitutes. Images found in both bathhouses and the Lupanar in Pompeii show men and women to be performing oral sex. What was asked of a prostitute would never have been asked by the wives of elite men. If someone was known for performing sexual favors with their mouths they would be looked at completely different, and no one would want to be greeted by the individual. However, despite the idea of this act being frowned upon, men and women both participated in it. Romans believed that the unclean mouth affected not only the perpetrator, but also they community as a whole and would spread amongst them. Those of the lower class including prostitutes would engage in this act, yet the elite also had their part in it as well.
Men that took part in oral sex are believed to only have participated in it with prostitutes in brothels. It would have been unacceptable and out of line for a man to ask this act to be performed by his wife. Whether or not women that were paid for these services of performing fellatio enjoyed it is unknown. Whether they were actively participating in this or not, they were expected to perform the task as they were being paid for this service. Women were expected to please and abide by the rules of males, and this was expected by a women who performed fellatio on a customer. Women were not the only only ones to perform oral sex, women have been shown in frescoes to be the receiver of oral pleasure.
In Image 2, a woman is depicted to be lying down on a bed with her left arm propping her up, her breasts fully exposed, one leg in the air and the other positioned in an inward position. A male is kneeling down on the floor in front of her while performing cunnilingus on her as they both gaze at one another in the eyes. This woman is shown to be much larger than the male is, and while the woman is fully naked the man is clothed. With the female being fully naked and exposed to her partner while he remains fully clothed shows the role of domination. Women were able to use their bodies and beauty to fully captivate men and put them under their control.
In the Roman hierarchy of sexual debasement, it was believed that any male who performed cunnilingus on a female was more likely to be defiled than a man who served as the passive partner in a male-to-male relationship. This was not appropriate behavior for a male to take part in. It was one thing to allow a woman to perform fellatio on a man, but it was a completely different story to perform cunnilingus on a woman. Roman culture also believed that it was males’ duty to penetrate the female and receive sexual pleasure from a woman, not a woman receive pleasure from a man. A woman’s dominant position is evident in this fresco and have showed the table to once again have turned in the favor of a woman. The image above shows the woman to be in complete control of her male partner, and that she is the object of genital worship.
Photo: Soprintendenza Speciale per i beni Archelogici di Napoli e Pompei
Women in Pompeii had become concerned with their beauty and how they looked and presented themselves. Makeup, hairstyles, jewelry, and personal hygiene were important to the Pompeian women. In the case of elite women they had alabaster skin and were not tan like the lower-class women of Pompeii. The reason for their alabaster skin was due in part to they could send their servants out to do their daily chores while they remained home. In these frescoes that have been found the beauty of women has been identified and characterized by how they appear. Women are shown by certain artists to be more feminine than others, this may be in large part of more experienced artists or new styles of women.
Ovid wrote the self help manual Medicamina Faciei Femineae (The Art of Beauty) as a guide to getting a man. Beauty was an important topic mentioned in his writings, and it was believed that through beauty a woman could tantalize a man. Beauty, along with sexuality can be seen as a form of dominance possessed over a man. Through her naked body a woman can completely entice a male and have him submit to her fully. Not only are frescoes the eyes into the past, but so are the jewels and other beauty regiments left behind. Women were known for wearing their hair either pulled back or resting on their shoulders. They had special hairpins that they would use to showcase their femininity and beauty. Women also wore jewelry, and this would also be used to enhance their beauty along with their wealth. Makeup was used as well, along with certain clothing that would help draw men in. Ovid wrote that women needed to “beautify their faces”, this would be key to male attention. It is unknown whether or not these women would have followed the advice of Ovid to enhance their beauty in order to get men. What is known is that women
Through male attention women would be able to show a level of dominance over them. In Medicamina Faciei Femineae Ovid directed his attention towards women and wrote through their sexual position of riding the man her beauty will be shown. A man would be completely enticed through the naked body of a female. It would be through her beautiful face, torso, and breasts that the man gave himself fully to her.
Women in brothels and Pompeii had the opportunity to express themselves through their newly found sexual identities. By using their bodies and their beauty, women were able to be the dominant role provider in this frescoes found throughout Pompeii. Archaeologists and historians have been able to use these surviving frescoes from excavated sites of Pompeii bathhouses and other sites to help understand the roles women played. The role of female prostitution since Pompeii has evolved into the twenty-first century, women today still partake in the trades that earlier prostitutes once did. Women in Pompeii as seen throughout frescoes can be depicted as women who were in control of their sexual partners through various forms of love making.
Frederick, Davis. The Roman Gaze. Johns Hopkins University Press.2002
Richlin, Amy. Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press. 1992.
Varone, Antonio. Eroticism in Pompeii. Paul Getty Museum. 2001
Butterworth, Alex. Laurence, Ray. Roberts, Paul. Pompeii exhibition: beauty, fashion, and jewelry- Roman Style. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/pompeii/9848689/Pompeii-exhibition-beauty-fashion-and-jewellery-Roman-style.html Accessed 2017, December 6.
Love Books of Ovid http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/lboo62.htm . Accessed 2017, December 6
Richlin, Amy. Pornography and Representation in Greece & Rome. Oxford University Press. 1992.
Ambrosio, d’ Antonio, Women and Beauty in Pompeii. L’Erma di Bretschneider
Image 1: Varone, Antonio. Eroticism in Pompeii. Paul Getty Museum. 2001
Image 2: Varone, Antonio. Eroticism in Pompeii. Paul Getty Museum. 2001
Image3: Soprintendenza Speciale per i beni Archelogici di Napoli e Pompei Accessed: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/pompeii/9848689/Pompeii-exhibition-beauty-fashion-and-jewellery-Roman-style.html .2017, December 6
2 thoughts on “Women in Pompeii and Their Dominance Through Frescoes”
Interesting ideas you’ve proposed in the post. Certainly unique to the time period to see such sexual leverage suggested in the artwork.
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I really like like this article. Your argument about the depiction of women in the frescoes as being bigger than the men is interesting however I would like to make a possible counterargument. Could it possibly be that the reason that the women were depicted much bigger was because it would be easier to show the sexual practises that were on offer?