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Jewish Graffiti in Pompeii

Southern wall of room 43 (Cubiculum) in the Casa del Centenario (IX 8,3) in Pompeii, 1st Century. Fresco of couple in bed. - John R. Clarke: Ars Erotica. Darmstadt: Primus 2009

The IsraelandYou Blog is usually centered on our only Jewish State (unless you consider the Igbo Jews of Biafra, Nigeria as the second Jewish state). Having just returned from a lovely vacation in Sorrento, Italy, I must share with you, dear readers, the existence of Jewish graffiti in reaction to the erotic frescos in the ruins of ancient Pompeii. [Please note that photos of the erotic frescos of Pompeii have not been posted, however if you are curious there is a YouTube link.]

Where is Pompeii?

Pompeii was an ancient Roman city near modern Naples in the Campania region of Italy – home to approximately 11,500 people . The city began to serve as a safe port as early as Greek and Phoenician sailors arrived. In time, the town became an important passage for goods that arrived by sea and had to be sent toward Rome or southern Italy along the nearby Appian Way.

Pompeii – a city of tragedies

On 5 February 62 CE a severe earthquake severely damaged the bay of Sorrento and particularly to Pompeii. That the earthquake would have registered between about 5 and 6 on the Richter magnitude scale.

A wall painting in the House of the Centenary features the earliest known representation of Vesuvius
A wall painting in the House of the Centenary features the earliest known representation of Vesuvius – Public Domain

Only 17 years later, Pompeii, along with Herculaneum (Ercolano), was buried under 4 to 6 m (in an area of 688,000 square meters) of volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Pompeii is about 8 km  from Mount Vesuvius. There were 250 °C hot surges (pyroclastic flows) at a distance of 10 kilometres from the vent which were sufficient to cause instant death, even if people were sheltered within buildings. Many structures were being restored at the time of the eruption (presumably damaged during the earthquake of 62). The site was eventually lost until its rediscovery by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1748. The city has been largely preserved because of lack of air and moisture.

Plaster Casts of Pompeii

Many of the inhabitants were also buried before they could escape. During excavations liquid plaster was used to fill the voids in the ash that once held human and animal bodies, giving often gruesome images of their last moments.

Prostitution in Pompeii

Didn’t I mention that Pompeii was a sea port? What do sailors look for after a long voyage? You guessed it. A modern visitor to Pompeii doesn’t have to look very hard to see evidence of the moral climate of the city. Up to several dozen buildings have been identified as likely houses of prostitution. Some, due to the explicit wall paintings and graffiti found in them, leave no doubt as to their purpose. Voyeurism has help fuel the tourist industry here for hundreds of years.

Erotic Frescos from Pompeii:

Even in private homes, wall paintings (frescos/murals) and mosaics depict all kinds of sexual activity, and many common household objects such as lamps, dishes, vases and fountains have been found with sexual motifs. Recent excavations at one of Pompeii’s public baths indicate that one floor of the structure may have been a brothel.

Secluded rooms were decorated with explicit scenes of female-male intercourse, functioned as a private “sex club.” Guests would have entered the smaller, more private atrium, then passed down a corridor and through a triclinium and antechamber to reach it. A few similar rooms in Pompeiian houses suggest that the intention was to create the ambience of a brothel in a home, for parties at which participants played the roles of prostitute or client, or for which actual prostitutes were hired to entertain guests. A small opening oddly positioned in the wall may have been an aperture for voyeurism.

There was an early discovery of erotic art in a brothel at Pompeii. In the late nineteenth century a fresco depicting Priapus, the Greek god of fertility, complete with enlarged phallus was unearthed in the foyer of a villa belonging to two freedmen.

Oversized representations of sex organs can be found built into the walls facing some streets, and in at least one case carved right in the street itself.

Sodom and Gomorrah in Pompeii – Jewish Graffiti

One Jewish visitor or citizen of ancient Pompeii scribbled “Sodom and Gomorrah” on one of the city’s buried walls in a house in an area of Pompeii designated today as Region 9, Insula 1, House 26. On the wall of House 26, an ancient observer, viewing the aftermath of the eruption (or describing local prostitution before the eruption), scratched the words “Sodom and Gomor[rah]”—a poignant Biblical reference to God’s vengeance on the two sinful cities of Genesis 19. The barely visible inscription, which is now in the Naples Archaeological Museum, is also evidence the it is almost certain there were some Jewish individuals, perhaps a fully fledged Jewish community in Pompeii, that perished along with the city’s gentiles. A vase with what some believe is an ancient kashrut stamp has been found in the famous ruins.

For Jews, it is easy to imagine how news of the catastrophe at Pompeii would have been greeted with joy in light of the devastating defeat they had suffered only a few years earlier. Jews have been labelling the disaster divine justice for nearly two millennia. Only nine years before the eruption of Vesuvius, the Romans had sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. For some Jews, Vesuvius was divine justice.

So did Jews regard the Vesuvius eruption as the Hand of God punishing those who dared destroy His house in Jerusalem?

Hershel Shanks, the editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, believes Jews indeed made the connection. In a paper titled “The Destruction of Pompeii – God’s revenge?” in the July/August edition of the magazine, Shanks cited ancient evidence to support his thesis.

Where there Christians in Pompeii?

There is some evidence for Christians in Pompeii, including some rather lewd bathroom graffiti about a woman named Mary, but nothing conclusive. The presence of Christians would be a remarkable discovery because it would provide material the existence of Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism in the late 70s. But so far the idea is just artistic invention, such as Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii, which casts Christians as a small moral minority that survived the disaster precisely because they were so pious.

Pompeii Erotic Art in the Naples Archaeological Museum

The inscription “Sodom and Gomorrah”wall engraving itself is in the stores of the Naples Archaeological Museum. Unfortunately, it is nearly illegible at this time.

However a large number of erotic artefacts from the buried cities are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. It is almost humorous to learn that in 1819, King Francis visited the Pompeii exhibition with his wife and daughter. He was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a so-called “secret cabinet” (gabinetto segreto), accessible only to “people of mature age and respected morals”. The secret cabinet was re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, the Naples “Secret Museum”. It was briefly made accessible again at the time of the sexual revolution toward the end of the 1960s.  The secret cabinet was finally re-opened for viewing in 2000. Minors are still allowed entry only in the presence of a guardian or with written permission.

Explicit Graffiti from Pompeii

To view ״Explicit Graffiti from Pompeii״



The Destruction of Pompeii – G-D’s Revenge

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