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Pompeii's Lupanar today

Lupanar. In Latin, the word means both 'brothel' and 'den of wolves'. Just as a lupa could be either a she-wolf or a prostitute. A hint of danger to go with a disreputable life.

View of the Lupanar as dusk approaches. The brothel was on the ground floor.

Today, Pompeii's Lupanar is the first stop on guided tours, constantly rammed with tourists. It's not hard to see why. The brothel is a marvel of preservation: so much of the building that would have been familiar to the women who worked there still survives.

In Juvenal's Satires, prostitutes stand in the doorways of their cubicles, bodies gilded, waiting for customers. The cells in Pompeii present a darker picture, more like cells than softly lit booths. There are signs the masonry beds would once have been brightly painted, but there's no escaping the fact this would have been a cramped, claustrophobic space. Even more so when you consider the women were almost certainly enslaved.

But it's not the cells that draw the crowds. That falls to the erotic frescos. Women are painted entertaining their clients above the doorways and a man with a double phallus stands guard. The explicit phallic imagery plastered all over Pompeii is one of the most curious aspects of the town to modern eyes. It's represented in everyday objects - like lamps - and even carved into walls. This can partly be explained as symbols of good luck, or protection from the evil eye, but it also represents the obvious: male sexual aggression.

If the women had no control over how they were represented in the paintings, the same is less true of the graffiti which covers the walls. Much is explicit bragging by customers, but at times hints of the women slip through. There is Victoria who frequently describes herself as a conqueror Victoria Victrix and then there are the doodles - a ship, a face, a bird. It's hard not to imagine these were drawn by the women, waiting in their cells. A glimpse of an interior life - and a reminder that the women here would have had their loves, hopes and ambitions, just like everyone else.

The corridor seen from the main door, two cells on the left, three on the right, the latrine at the end.

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