It’s like the lunchtime queue outside the baker’s at home, only worse. But we are not outside Modestum’s bakery now: we are outside the brothel. Was it like this then, I wonder? Did the punters, as Milton didn’t quite write centuries later, stand and wait to be served in a queue as long as this? Most of the streets in Pompeii are built in a grid design (another thing we got from the Romans) but this brothel is on one of the few twisty streets in Pompeii. Marco says it’s so people couldn’t see where you were making for. As if they wouldn’t have guessed if they saw you on that street!
Never mind the goings-on inside, the building itself is very interesting. It’s a two-storey affair and shaped like the prow of a ship, the upper storey hanging over the ground floor and extending so far as to overshadow the narrow pavement. I bet this place was high on the list for restoration after the earthquake of 62 and by the looks of it, appears to have been given a lot of attention since the disaster of 79. It looks the newest building in Pompeii, as if the restorers knew this is what would draw the crowds. There must be something about brothels which intrigue us; even the baths were not as busy as this, and everyone has been to the baths.
When we eventually get inside, our time is regrettably all too short as we are processed along a conveyer belt of humanity along the ground floor only. There isn’t time to stop and look properly into a room unless you want to be trampled underfoot by the perpetual motion of the stream pushing to get in from behind, so to speak.
Above each door is an erotic fresco. Here is one of a woman with very small breasts sitting astride her client. Unfortunately, or fortunately as far as Iona is concerned, the fresco is badly damaged in the vital area. He has his right hand raised as if in a cheery greeting to someone who has just come into the room but more likely he is saying Hold! Enough! only in Latin of course.
It’s a windowless and cramped cell and although that unappealing hard stone bed (like something out of The Flintstones) would have had a palliasse on it, it looks far from inviting. Had these walls ears, what sounds of ecstasy would they have heard? Had they eyes, what sights would they have witnessed?
In and out, done and dusted and before we know it, we are back out into the baking sun and off for a more cultured place of entertainment. We are off to the theatres. Yes, theatres. Pompeii had two, side by side and a porticoed quadrangle behind them (later turned into a gladiators’ barracks) where patrons could take a stroll during intermissions. The big theatre, seating about 5000, staged dramas, whilst the smaller Odeon, seating about 1200, was used for musical concerts and poetry readings. How cultured were the ancient Romans!
And how modern too! They had fast-food shops, so close to the road that you could purchase a snack without getting out of your cart if you didn’t feel like it. And to think I was misguided enough to once believe that it was the Americans who had dreamed up the notion of drive-in takeaways! You can see the marble counters in which are set the amphorae which once held the hot food but which now contain the killer ash. Marco says they did that as tourists were using the amphorae as rubbish bins. I take out a lump and put it in my pocket to take home as a souvenir. It’s not as if I’m taking rubbish out and they’ve got plenty more where that came from.
And if the Romans were advanced in the matter of take-away restaurants, when it comes to the matter of housing, theirs make mine look like a slum. The basic structure consists of an entrance hallway which they called the vestibulum, which leads to the atrium, a porticoed area open to the elements with its impluvium to catch the rainwater. Then there is the peristilium which would have been my favourite part of the house. This is an open courtyard area, a sort of inner garden from which the other rooms opened off. What a grand design to have a garden inside your house and how cool to have a water feature too, but of course, totally impractical in Scotland.
As we pass “The House of The Tragic Poet,” so called because of a mosaic in the tablinum, or main room, used for receiving guests, I notice a black and white mosaic behind another of those grilles like at the House of The Vettii. It depicts a fierce dog with teeth bared, straining against his chain. At the bottom is written: Cave Canem. I know it well from my Latin textbook and it sends a shiver down my spine to see it for real.
Next we visit “The House of The Faun” so called because there is a diminutive bronze statue of a naked bearded bloke prancing about in the middle of the impluvium. Bizarrely, he has a ponytail sprouting from the middle of his back. Fortunately there is a transparency in the book and I can see just how sumptuous the house is. What’s special about it is that it contains not one, but two peristyles and an exedra, a recess with seats, where lofty conversation could take place in the peace and tranquillity of pleasant surroundings.
It anticipates Wordsworth by a few centuries but in its day must have seemed a million miles from the Via della Fortuna which is the main thoroughfare on which it stands. I adore its open spaciousness and when you think of all the mosaics and frescoes which would have surrounded you, it must have seemed like paradise.
These Romans knew how to live all right: wonderful houses, public baths, theatres and plumbing better than in French campsites today. But of course you would have to have been rich and I bet I would have been one of those poor slaves pushing the grindstone at the bakery or a porter tripping over the stepping stones with a heavy load and not enough sesterces to go to the lupanar at the end of the week – so there’s no point in feeling jealous, especially if you were here in August 79 AD.
On the way to our exit through the badly damaged Temple of Venus, Marco points out a public drinking fountain (another idea we adopted but no doubt due to the advent of the canned drink, you see less frequently these days) and embedded in the pavement, a sign. It is a phallus with its blunt tip pointing to the left to indicate to visitors that the way to the brothel is the first street on the left. How thoughtful! Avoids the embarrassment of tramping around aimlessly looking for it and eventually, in desperation, of having to ask directions from someone whom you think is not going to be morally outraged. What a great thing it is to be able to keep your head down (just in case you bump into someone who might recognise you) and keep an eye out for the signs. These Romans think of everything!
Marco hands his book with the transparencies back to the vendor from whom he borrowed it. Ah, so this is how it works! The vendor tells us that we can buy this book for less than the marked price. Damn! Why didn’t we wait? But it’s all right. It’s the same price as we paid. They mark it up then reduce the price and everyone’s happy: the tourists think they’ve got a bargain, the vendors get a sale and all they agree on the same price, so it doesn’t matter where you buy it.
It’s time to say ciao to Marco – our trip to Pompeii is over. But we haven’t seen half of it! It should have been a whole-day excursion. Only we couldn’t anyway because of the strike. Having said that, my feet are loupin’ as we say in Scotland. We must have walked for miles and on unforgiving hard surfaces too, but more tiring still was when we were standing listening to Marco, not because what he said was boring, far from it, but because I was more conscious of the weight on my legs.
I watch as his slim, lanky frame with the lampshade hat on the top disappears down the street, for all the world like a walking standard lamp. There he goes, as Burns said of Holy Willie, “a burning and a shining light,” having illuminated for me some of the fascinating history of Pompeii.