At Your Service: Occupation as Identity and Agency for Pompeiian Prostitutes

Lily Vining (Franklin & Marshall College)

For the working class in ancient Rome, one’s occupation was a major factor in how one
would perceive oneself and present their identity to the community. In the ancient ruins of
Pompeii, scholars have uncovered wall paintings and graffiti that illustrate workers
performing their craft within various workspaces like bakeries, fulleries, and shops (Clarke
2006). However, scholars have not considered the depictions of sex workers in Pompeii’s
brothel through the same lens. Recent work led by Levin-Richardson focused on the
humanization of Pompeiian prostitutes through the reexamination of archaeological evidence
within the Lupanar, Pompeii’s only purpose-built brothel (2021), only begins to scratch the
surface of the identities of its workers. 

Frescos excavated from the walls of the Lupanar are widely classified as erotic imagery, and
many are held in the Secret Cabinet in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli to
remove them from public view. However, in addition to their value as ancient portrayals of
sexual practice and identity, these images also illustrate the working and economic lives of
prostitutes. As such, these images might be considered alongside frescos from the fullery at
VI.8.20, where female workers wash clothing, and the textile shop of Verecundus, where his
wife controls the sales counter (Clarke 2006). Utilizing this perspective on prostitutes’ lives in
tandem with existing scholarship on identity and occupation from Rome, the Bay of Naples,
and beyond, I reexamine the graffiti and frescos within the Lupanar as advertisements,
positive customer reviews, and candid workplace vignettes, not solely pornography.
Iconography of working women had intended audiences that included customers, passersby,
and notably, the workers themselves; they were a presentation of their craft and identity. By
augmenting the perspective with which scholars contextualize these artifacts, the ancient sex
workers shift from passive objects to active agents engaged in task-oriented, skillful work
within the greater social and economic landscape of Pompeii; their hard work on display for
their own eyes as much as their customers.