A road sign pointing the way to a brothel in Pompeii, 79 AD

March 25, 2024

Roman carvings depicting a disembodied phallus can be found in settlements from the centre of Italy to the frontiers of the Empire. There are certainly many phallic carvings in situ in Pompeii and there is, quite notably, at least one brothel: The Vicolo del Lupanare, a two-story building with ten rooms, each with a stone bed and often accompanied by graphic frescoes depicting sexual acts.

File:Another explicit sign pointing the way to the brothel at the corner of  Reg VII Ins 13 Pompeii Prowalk.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

BROTHEL ADVERTISING?

The “Pompeii brothel phallus” claim seems to be particularly associated with a stone carving at ground level on a large cobblestone on the Decumanus Maximus, Via Abbondonza (Regio VII, insula 13) (Moser 2006, p. 54, fig. 44). Circumstantially, it remains part of the interpretation of the site for tourists.

There are several problems with the idea that a carved stone might euphemistically be a sort of signpost to point towards a brothel. Firstly, there is the palimpsest trap: Pompeii has a clear terminus post quem of the eruption of AD 79 and, whilst we can readily accept that the excavated buildings and infrastructure existed together at this time, there is nothing to say which came first.

Did Roman phallic carvings “point” towards brothels? - Bad Ancient

Phallic carvings are traditionally very difficult to date and thus assuming that any two structures are contemporary with each other because of a circumstantial relationship is problematic. Ancient towns were constantly under reconstruction and existed as places of change. Thus, we can’t be sure which came first, the phallic carving or the brothel.

Secondly, advertising in Pompeii was primarily written onto walls rather than carved into streets underfoot. Graffiti was very popular, inside and outside of buildings, and was used for everything from political slogans to jokes to recommending prostitutes. The Lupanare has several examples of this, but it is not unique. For example, a graffito above a bench outside the marine gate read:

History of advertising: No. 142: The Pompeii penis

If anyone sits here, let him read this first of all: if anyone wants a screw, he should look for Attice; she costs 4 sesterii.

This argument doesn’t wholly remove the need for visual advertising – if, for example, a visitor could not read Latin they may have needed other cues to find a brothel, but euphemistic imagery hidden underfoot on a street that would have been covered in the detritus of human life was unlikely to do the trick.

Thirdly, and most importantly, all phallic carvings were neither handily “arrow shaped” or pointing in a specific direction at all. Various carvings point towards every conceivable direction, or – thanks to the popular, polyphallic beasts – to more than one point at once. They could not all have pointed to a brothel. As to whether this particular phallus on the floor pointed towards a brothel, this is rather in the eye of the beholder.

Circumstantially, if you consider a phallus as an arrow then yes it might have pointed in the vague direction of the Lunpanare (and thus there is a grain of truth in this claim), but as will be explained this was not their function.

PHALLIC CARVINGS AND THE EVIL EYE

Ancient sources do not tell us a huge amount about the use of phallic imagery, but when they do it is to describe a protective or ritual function: Aristophanes (Acharnians 241-4); Varro (De Lingua Latina 7.97); Pliny the Elder (Natural History 28.7). Archaeological evidence from elsewhere in the Roman Empire tells us a great deal more because phallic carvings have been found in many different places.

A particularly famous example from Leptis Magna (modern Libya) depicts a large, erect phallus with animal legs and a curly tail; it has a secondary, but still large, phallus between its legs which it uses to ejaculate onto a disembodied eye. The eye in this image is the Evil Eye, the Roman embodiment of bad luck and inauspicious circumstances. Humans, gods, and demons could cast the Evil Eye, sometimes without knowing it.

Phallus On Wall Image & Photo (Free Trial) | Bigstock

If an individual caught the gaze of the Eye, they might suffer bad luck, but the Eye was fickle and its gaze could be caught and deflected by certain objects and images. There were a great many amulets, gestures, prayers, and other apotropaic devices dedicated to the purpose of warding it away, of which phallic imagery was one. Broadly speaking, the Evil Eye could become “fascinated” by wondrous, bizarre, and bawdy images and thus distracted from harming people.

For this reason, phallic imagery was ubiquitous in the ancient world and especially prevalent across the Roman Empire. It was most often used on pendants and mounts to be worn on the body, but was also used on finger rings, seal box lids, cosmetic grinders, lamps, tintinnabula and in all sorts of other places (Parker 2020).

An experimental study by Whitmore (2017) used a replica of a phallic pendant from Britain and subjected it to different physical experiences (walking, running, playing cards) and subsequently concluded that the design of the pendant meant that, even when jostled, it returned to a resting position on the chest in which the phallus prominently pointed outwards. This study chimed well with the assertion of Merrifield (1969) that phallic imagery acted as a sort of “lightning conductor for bad luck”. It worked by pointing towards supernatural danger and deflecting it away from its bearer.

They were designed to be conspicuous objects that would fascinate the gaze of the Eye and not a subtle message to brothel patrons.

THE WIDER PICTURE

Recent studies of the carvings in the north of Roman Britain have highlighted their positioning in liminal or transitional places such as doorways, gateways, and other thresholds like on the curtain wall of Hadrian’s Wall itself (Parker 2017; Collins 2020).

And this is also true of Pompeii – mostly they are above building entrances or near cross-roads. There are no known brothels in Roman Britain and yet more than 92 phallic carvings. Most of these are from places that simply could not have housed a brothel (the centre of forts and fortresses, amphitheatres etc.).

Other beliefs may have also informed the shape and positioning of the phallic carvings; it is not universally true but a large number of these point to the left. The left side, or sinistro in Latin, was inauspicious in the ancient world (and also the root of the English word “sinister”). Thus, phallic carvings could be pointing towards a source of supernatural danger.

There is a different danger here of automatically assuming that all phallic drawings were protective symbols, which also may not have been the case. There are numerous graffiti doodles of phalli, or men in a state of arousal, and some of these were undoubtedly for comic effect and/or simply because the drawer was bored. That said, the sound of laughter may also have been able to dispel the negative effects of the Evil Eye so this is a complex issue.