The Erotic Art of Pompeii and Herculaneum

By | 2018-03-11T18:59:12+00:00 February 26, 2018|Categories: Arts and Culture, Europe, History Travel, Italy, Unesco World Heritage Sites|Tags: , |12 Comments
Italy pompeii herculaneum erotic art bacchus 2

Bacchus and his wine serving helpers often got the party started in the salon.

The buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, not surprisingly, contained a lot of erotic art. Luckily, since the cities were buried by Vesuvius in 79 A.D. and not unearthed again for 17 centuries, this erotic art was preserved from later marauding vandals and the even more destructive proponents of the puritan strains of subsequent religions.

Romans certainly had a more open attitude toward sex, as is evidenced by the fact that these erotic works of art are found not only in brothels and public baths in Pompeii and Herculaneum, but also in private homes. Indeed, prosperous Romans were predisposed to decorating their homes with frescoes which depicted the rooms’ purpose, e.g. dining rooms had pictures of food, salons had pictures of people having conversations (often with the aid of the wine of Bacchus,) and bedrooms often had both erotic and fertility decoration.

I suppose I should warn you now, in case you haven’t figured it out from the title of this post, that these images are probably not for everyone. So, if you aren’t interested in the historical sexuality of the Romans, please click away to another post about visiting Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Oplontis, where I’ve left these images out. OK?

pompeii herculaneum erotic art brothel

This fresco is on the wall at the lupanar, the largest brothel unearthed in Pompeii.

When we visited Pompeii, without doubt the most popular of the buildings for visitors was the lupanar, or brothel. Lupanar in Latin literally means “wolf’s den,” and lupa, she-wolf. was the common term for a prostitute. Not surprisingly, the walls of the small rooms of the lupanar were decorated with erotic art.

Here are two more examples from the lupanar.

pompeii lupanar herculaneum erotic art 2

Another suggestion from a lupanar wall.

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And another. Note that the woman is wearing the Roman equivalent of a bra.

If you want to see the lupanar–and who doesn’t?–chances are good you’ll be standing in a crowd like this one before pushing your way in. Believe me, it’s not pretty.

When you consider this sort of art in Pompeii and Herculaneum, it should also be kept in mind that these two cities and others around them were often summer residences of the Roman elite. In addition to catching some cool sea breezes in the hot Italian summer, the visitors could also get a respite from the official prudery of Augustan Rome. Since the late First Century B.C., adultery was a public and private crime in Rome and could be punished by exile. Consequently, it’s believed that amorous Romans probably preferred to practice their dalliances further away from the eyes of the emperor.

Italy pompeii Lupanar queue

You’ll be waiting in a crowd like this to get in to see the First Century equivalent of internet porn.

Another repository of the erotic art of Pompeii was the public bath outside the city walls, the so called Suburban Baths. The bath was entered by a long hall which led to a dressing room were the walls were covered with the erotic art. Roman baths were not generally used as a brothels, so it’s a little unusual to see this sort of erotica in this location. Each scene is located above a numbered box, and some scholars speculate the art may have been a means of remembering which locker was yours. It’s fair to also speculate that art like this in a public bath means that overt displays of sex acts were not regarded as offensive by the Romans.

Each illustration is of a different sex act, presumably to differentiate the lockers from each other.

pompeii erotic art herculaneum suburban baths 1

This is one way to remember where you left your clothes.

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Does a threesome mean this was locker number three?

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I’m out of clever descriptions for the various positions. However, I’m a little disturbed by whatever that is in her left hand.

Herculaneum, Pompeii’s neighbor, was also buried by Vesuvius in the same eruption, but was victim to a different facet of volcanic violence. While Pompeii was buried by ash and pumice raining down from the sky, Herculaneum was flash fried by multiple pyroclastic flows which buried the city is what was, in effect, a hot ash mud slide.

The best preserved of Herculaneum’s art and artifacts have mostly made their way into the National Archeological Museum in Naples. There you can see not only magnificent mosaics and frescoes lifted from the two cities, but a rather randy collection of erotic objects.

The erotic art of Pompeii and Herculaneum is housed in a special room at the Museum called the Gabinetto Secreto, or Secret Cabinet. It’s sort of fruitless to try to give information about the opening times of either the main museum or the Secret Cabinet, because, well, it’s Italy. We had to go back to Naples from Pompeii more than once to see the museum because many rooms were closed due to budget and staff shortages. Of course that was a few years ago, but I’ve since read that things weren’t much better recently. My advice is call ahead, because the web site isn’t accurate either. (Your hotel should be able to do that for you if you don’t speak Italian.)

All that said, here are a couple examples of the Secret Cabinet’s collection. Keep in mind that despite the irregular hours, we’re lucky that it is open at all. For a long time, due to “public morality” concerns, it wasn’t. Or it was only open by appointment. Or, it was only open if you knew someone. It has been open to the general public only since 2000. And those under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

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Not so much erotica as the representation of the god Pan and abstract fertility.

pompeii herculaneum erotic art naples priapus

Again, more of a fertility symbol than erotica.

pompeii herculaneum erotic art naples archeological museum

A bas relief from a Herculaneum home.

erotic art pompeii herculaneum naples archeological museum

And something a little more delicate, from a home, not a brothel.

The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum are part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Archaeological Areas of Pompei, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata. For a complete list of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy and the ones we’ve visited, click the link.

Where to stay in Pompeii

If you go to Pompeii, btw, we highly recommend the Hotel Diana. A very nice family owned hotel in the middle of the town. A short walk to the entrance of the ruins, and they’ll help you with a guide, and entrance to the Suburban Baths, which require an advance ticket. Or, you can click here for a lot more options for hotels in Pompeii. If you book a hotel using these links, Travel Past 50 will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Tours of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Below are some links to tours of Pompeii and Herculaneum. If you’re not as versed in Roman history and culture as you’d like to be, we highly recommend a guide. If you book a tour using one of these links, Travel Past 50 will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.


  1. Doreen Pendgracs February 27, 2018 at 4:42 pm - Reply

    Wowza! That The erotic art of Pompeii and Herculaneum is quite surprising! ( I had lots of other clever words run through my head, but thought I’d best stick with something neutral.) Thx for the look without the lineup!

    • Tom Bartel February 27, 2018 at 5:09 pm - Reply

      Doreen, clever is always good. Unless you were too distracted.

  2. Jackie Smith February 27, 2018 at 11:21 pm - Reply

    Fascinating look at Pompeii-Herculaneum. We’ve been near a couple of times, but have yet to visit it. Your photo of the crowds remind me of why we haven’t yet been there, but your photos of the frescos remind me of why we should go there!

    • Tom Bartel February 28, 2018 at 4:12 pm - Reply

      Jackie, the crowds weren’t too bad in most spots. It’s just that these sorts of paintings draw everyone. And the line moves slowly because everyone wants to stop and giggle and take photos. I suggest making time for the Suburban Baths. You have to have an advance ticket for them, as they’re actually outside the formal archeological area. Not so many crowds there, and the Roman baths are inherently interesting. And lots of lovely mosaics there that have nothing to do with sex, too.

  3. Marilyn Jones March 2, 2018 at 4:30 am - Reply

    I was rather astonished. I think, under the circumstances, you did an excellent job of presenting the erotic art as well as the history.

    • Tom Bartel March 2, 2018 at 10:30 pm - Reply

      Marilyn, at my age, the history is a lot more interesting than the prurience.

  4. Kemkem March 3, 2018 at 8:35 am - Reply

    Gives a whole new meaning to walking tall and carrying a big stick :-). We almost made it to Pompeii last visit to visit my husband’s family. Now, I really have to go. Off season of course as l don’t want to fight the crowds. My husband was young when he visited, I have a feeling he doesn’t remember seeing all this erotic art. Either that, or his parents made sure they didn’t see them.

    • Tom Bartel March 3, 2018 at 8:40 am - Reply

      Kemkem, you gave me my first laugh of the day with that comment. Thanks. BTW, there was a time in the not too distant past when even adult women were not allowed to see these paintings or enter the Secret Cabinet in Naples. Including women archeologists and other scholars. Men…

  5. Cathy Sweeney March 3, 2018 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    Ooh la la! I’m bookmarking this post. 🙂 I actually visited Pompeii in November and was quite surprised by the erotica as well as many of the non-erotic treasures to see there. Fascinating place. I didn’t get to Herculaneum, so thanks for all the info.

    • Tom Bartel March 4, 2018 at 3:42 pm - Reply

      Cathy, Herculaneum is probably in better condition than Pompeii, and the Villa Poppea at Oplontis is better still. My advice is take three days and see them all. And leave time for the Archeology Museum in Naples where all the best artifacts were taken, including lots that weren’t obscene (by current standards.)

  6. Karen Warren March 5, 2018 at 1:12 am - Reply

    I was told that the pictures of different positions showed the”speciality” of each prostitute. When I visited I was struck by the contrast between the opulent pictures and the bare stone benches on which the prostitutes had to do their work. I remember feeling rather sorry for them.

    • Tom Bartel March 5, 2018 at 7:42 am - Reply

      Yeah, I heard that, too. But I doubt it. There’s certainly no evidence of that, and it sure would be a chore to repaint the wall every time a customer wanted something else. As for the stone benches, there were mattresses, no doubt.

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