Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Writing on the Wall for Pompeii

The ancient ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum have been in the news a lot recently in the UK. This is because of a major new exhibition at the British Museum called “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum”. British television has even been showing Frankie Howerd’s film “Up Pompeii” several times.

Pompeii has become well-known for the explicit sexual artwork that has been preserved on its walls. Lots of paintings, frescos and carvings both there and in Herculaneum show men with erections and people having sex. It’s a strange situation to us which highlights just how different their attitude to sex was to ours. There was also quite a lot of same-sex activity being depicted that it seems gay sex was nothing out of the ordinary either. But it doesn’t seem to have the same place in Pompieiian society that gay sex had in Ancient Greece. You won’t see many Greek paintings of statues of men with huge erections, for example, except for representations of man’s bestial nature.

Perhaps the reason why Pompeii and Herculaneum seem so much more pornographic in their art lies in the origins of these cities and their inhabitants.

Pompeii is situated in what was once a vast area of Italy populated by the Etruscans, people from modern Tuscany area. They founded Pompeii as part of their expansion into southern Italy and dominated the area until about 420 BC. Even though populated by successive Italian sub-nations Pompeii retained much of its Etruscan character.

To the Romans and the Ancient Greeks the Etruscans were immoral and synonymous with prostitution. It was not unknown for Etruscan couples to have sex in front of other people, or wife swap at parties, often offending their Roman hosts. This was also the case with male-male sex. On a fresco in the Etruscan settlement of Tarquinia (about 160 miles up the coastline from Pompeii) there’s a scene of an audience of men at a chariot race. Underneath the seating platform are several naked male figures, two of whom are clearly having sex. In Pompeii there is even a scene on the wall of the changing rooms of the suburban baths of two men and a woman in a bisexual threesome.

But it is the graffiti in Pompeii that has become more famous for its sexual expression. Like modern sexual graffiti most of it is gay or bisexual in nature, and sometimes could be meant to be an insult or “outing” a local person. Several examples are (translated) “Phileros is a eunuch” and “Secundus likes to screw boys”.

It still happens today. Outside the lift in the apartment block where I live someone kept scratching “Bobby is gay” into the paintwork, only for the name to be scratched out the next day and the name “Juan” scratched underneath. That happened several times over many months, no matter how often it was painted over.

Some graffiti in Pompeii give boastful claims from men who had sex with others and were not afraid to give their names. Some even mention where it took place – “Auctus and Quintus had sex here”, and “Quintus Postumius asked Aulus Attius to have sex with me”.

There are many more examples like this, and much more explicit. When they were first discovered, along with the other erotic artefacts, archaeologists were shocked. They tried to keep it all hidden way and only accessible to men (not women) of an “appropriate” moral standing. The graffiti on the city walls were a bit more difficult to hide, though attempts were made to cover them up or even paint over them.

Today these examples of street literature are being conserved by scientists. There has always been a problem with the wall paintings, frescos and graffiti. Being open to the elements they are in danger of being lost forever. Over 90 percent has already disappeared since the 1800s through exposure to the air. Recent conservation techniques by universities from America have used digital technology to record every details on the walls and have used infra-red to detect features previously un-noticed by the naked eye.

However much attitudes to the use of graffiti and the depiction of sex have changed over the centuries what seems to have remained the same is the urge to express yourself on the walls in public. The Pompeiians didn’t need Twitter!

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