- ‘Eutychis, a Greek lass with sweet ways, 2 asses.’ This pithy graffito advertising sex for sale comes from the walls of Pompeii.
- Graffiti is one of the most exciting kinds of evidence preserved for us by the destruction of Pompeii, because it comes not from the literature of the elite, or the inscriptions of the powerful, but from a wider cross-section of society. The Eutychis graffito gives us a woman’s name, an ethnicity, a price, the hint of a good time to be had – and suggests a seamy side to the ruined town now frequented by inquisitive tourists and keen culture-vultures. It was written on the vestibule wall of a well-to-do house owned by two freedmen, the Vettii, which is perhaps best known to the world for its painting of the well-endowed Priapus weighing his member on a balance against a bag of coins. While brief and to the point, this announcement, calling out to us from nearly 2,000 years ago, can set us on a journey to understanding more about the life of Pompeii’s haves and have-nots. At the same time, it may well leave us with more questions than answers about Eutychis herself and the prostitutes of Pompeii.
- Pompeii, often seen under the bright sun with hordes of other visitors, does not hide its darker side – in fact, the single purpose-built brothel identified in the city, known as the Lupanar, is one of its most popular attractions. The sexy frescoes are one highlight. Eight can be seen above the doorways of the little cubicles with their masonry ‘beds’. Five or six are female-male sex scenes, another shows a woman standing next to a reclining man as she points at an erotic picture, and the last depicts the god Priapus with two erect phalluses. These show something very basic and timeless that we have in common with ancient Pompeiians – sex – but they also titillate the visitor and sometimes prompt dirty jokes from both guides and visitors. The frescoes presumably indicate the kind of activities that were available to customers, and helped in creating an erotically charged atmosphere.
- So who was Eutychis? Was she a prostitute, an enslaved woman, both or neither? Was she forced into selling herself? Let us think first of her name. Eutychis is a Greek name that roughly translates to ‘fortunate’, and was in use throughout the Greek-speaking world. Although the graffito surely refers to a real person, we don’t know whether it was her real name, or a slave name, or a working name. If she was a free woman working as a prostitute, she may have chosen Eutychis as her pseudonym; if she was a slave, the name may have been given to her by her owner. Renaming a slave with something cheerful and Greek was a common practice of the Romans.
- We should also consider what the location of the graffito adds to the story. The text was written on the left wall of the vestibule of the House of the Vettii. The Vettii are usually thought of as brothers, Aulus Vettius Conviva and Aulus Vettius Restitutus, who were freed slaves who took on the name of their former master, Aulus Vettius.
- Was Eutychis a house-slave of the Vettii? It is possible. One clue from that graffito itself is that it may first have read ‘verna’ rather than ‘Graeca’ – that is ‘homeborn slave’ rather than ‘Greek lass’. If she was, it is not unlikely that she would have been a target of sexual advances by the Vettii and their friends. ... The house may have been home to Eutychis, but it was no brothel like the Lupanar.
- The single graffito we began with has taken us on a journey through some of the darker aspects of life in Pompeii: the grittiness of the Lupanar, the ever-present threat for the enslaved of sexual assault and violence, being chained to the floor of a basement in pain and terror, being owned and being used. It is difficult to conjure these horrors while visiting the sun-baked town with its busloads of bright-shirted and good-natured tourists, or marvelling at the beautiful art and architecture in glossy books. We will never really know for sure about Eutychis, beyond the fact that there was a woman attached to the name. We may never know what life in the House of the Vettii was really like for its inhabitants, either. But we can keep trying to read the evidence to find the stories that bring the lives of Pompeii’s less fortunate into the light.
- Guy D Middleton is a visiting fellow in the school of history, Classics and archaeology at Newcastle University, Newcastle. His books include Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths (2017), Collapse and Transformation: The Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age in the Aegean (2020) and Women in the Ancient Mediterranean World: From the Palaeolithic to the Byzantines (2023).
- This is an interesting account of some of the less pleasant aspects of life in Pompeii and throughout the Roman Empire.
- It includes some accounts of slavery as an institution. We're referred to a couple of chapters in
→ The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Vol. 1,
→ Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family
Both of which I've downloaded from Cambridge Core.
- I also downloaded two of the author's books:-
→ Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths (2017)
→ Women in the Ancient Mediterranean World: From the Palaeolithic to the Byzantines (2023).
- While this paper has nothing to do with Race, I've tagged it thereto as that's where I deal with Slavery.
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