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  • Facilis hic futuit: Graffiti and Masculinity in Pompeii's 'Purpose-Built' Brothel
  • Sarah Levin-Richardson (bio)

Phoebus / bonus futor (Phoebus is a good fukr, CIL IV 2248, Add. 215); Froto plane / lingit cun/num (Froto openly licks cunt, CIL IV 2257); Murtis · felatris (Murtis is a blow-job babe, CIL IV 2292). Long overlooked by scholarship as obscene recordings of sexual encounters, the 135 graffiti of the 'purpose-built' brothel at Pompeii (VII 12 18-20; CIL IV 2173-96 and 3101a; Add. 215-6 and Add. 465) form a rich corpus that illuminates daily interactions among clients and prostitutes in the Roman world. 1 In this paper, I demonstrate through these graffiti the multiple ways in which male clients, individually and collectively, negotiated male sexuality. Specifically, I analyze how male clients both created a hierarchy among themselves and solidified communal, normative masculinity in opposition to nonnormative males and marginalized females.

I. Introduction

In the past fifteen years, the graffiti of the 'purpose-built' brothel (hereafter referred to simply as the brothel) have entered the scholarly arena, usually as part of works devoted to surveying or analyzing erotic graffiti at Pompeii. For example, some of the brothel's sexual graffiti were treated by Antonio Varone's Erotica pompeiana: Iscrizioni d'amore sui muri di Pompei (1994; translated into English in 2002 as Erotica pompeiana: Love Inscriptions on theWalls of Pompeii). Varone surveys a wide range of erotic and love graffiti from all over Pompeii, grouping them into motifs like "Preghiere d'amore" and "L'arma d'amore." Through this typology, Varone draws out common themes in a diverse body of material. Francesco Paolo Maulucci Vivolo's Pompei: I graffiti d'amore (1995) presents samples of erotic graffiti from Pompeii, including some from the brothel, evoking how prolific this type of graffiti was. Taking a more analytic approach, Matthew Panciera's dissertation, "Sexual Practice and Invective in Martial and Pompeian Inscriptions" (2001), compares the different meanings and implications of sexual practices in the corpus of Martial's epigrams and Pompeii's graffiti. [End Page 59]

These scholars have shed light on various features of erotic graffiti at Pompeii, but do not address how these graffiti may have worked in each specific locale or in concert with nonerotic graffiti. Varone's article, "Nella Pompei a luci rosse: Castrensis e l'organizzazione della prostituzione e dei suoi spazi" (2005), however, adds a new perspective to the study of the brothel's graffiti. Varone analyzes the status and sexual practices of the individuals in the brothel through close reading of its graffiti, demonstrating the potential gains of a contextual or locus-specific approach. 2 In this article, I follow Varone in exploring the brothel's graffiti together as a corpus, but ask different questions of the material. Specifically, I seek to illuminate the underlying structure of the corpus's rhetoric. The graffiti, I argue, are more than just records of sexual liaisons or advertisements of the services of prostitutes; they represent an interactive discourse concerning masculinity. Clients and prostitutes could and did add their thoughts to the corpus over time, which encouraged multiple viewings. In addition, even illiterate viewers could be exposed to the graffiti through someone else's recitation. 3 It may not be surprising that boasts and defamation are constituent elements of this dialogue; but as I will show, the ways in which boasts and defamation are deployed and against whom, and the implications this has for a rhetoric of masculinity, reveal a discourse far different from the intra-elite masculine invective seen in the poetry of Catullus and Martial.

II. Contextualizing the Brothel and its Graffiti

At the intersection of the north-south Vicolo del Lupanare and the east-west Vicolo del Balcone Pensile, located to the east of Pompeii's forum, lies a modest, two-story structure. 4 The bottom floor contains five small rooms, each with a masonry bed, opening off a central hallway. Erotic frescoes, most showing a male-female pair engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse, line the register above the doorways in the hallway. 5 The graffiti, on the other hand, are found mostly (88%) within the small cubicula. The terminus post quem of both the graffiti...


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