What Happens In Pompeii Stays In Pompeii: The Story Of Ancient Rome’s Las Vegas

Pompeii is mostly famous now for being buried under ash in a massive volcanic eruption, which we’ll see on screens in Pompeii this February. But back in its heyday, Pompeii was a popular tourist destination spot for Romans, and that meant hedonism on a scale that would offend the most hardened Vegas traveler. Here’s a look at the seedy underbelly of Pompeii.

Go See A Show

First, no city has ever loved sports, or barely organized violence, quite as much as Pompeii. Pompeii’s stadium is possibly the crown jewel of the city’s architecture, in more ways than one. Pompeii’s stadium is considered by crowd control experts one of the best in the world about packing them in and packing them out safely. That was because much of modern life in Pompeii revolved around the games to one degree or another… so much so that the city was actually banned from staging games for a decade after a fight broke out between the Pompeii natives and residents of the neighboring town of Nuceria. By all accounts, it was the Nucerians that got their asses handed to them, although Nuceria wasn’t the town that died in a fire, so we guess there’s that.

Gambling, Gambling, Gambling

To be fair, the Romans loved gambling, so much so that any Roman excavation turns up at least some sign of gaming tables or gambling pieces. But it’s Pompeii that gave us among our closest understanding of just how deeply integrated into Roman life gambling actually was. It’s one thing to live in a society with cockfights: It’s quite another to live in one where somebody puts it on their wall as a decoration.

And gladiators were even more popular. Aside from dongs, as we mentioned last week, gladiators are one of the most popular artistic motifs in the city, in frescoes, painted on walls, mentioned in graffiti, and that aforementioned theater saw plenty of money put down on bloodsport. So if you wanted to stake some money on something, anything, Pompeii was more than happy to take it.

And, Of Course, Sex

To give you an idea of just how much Pompeii’s citizens loved to go at it, there are sections of the city you have to sign a permission slip to get your children into. It’s widely believed that when Pompeii was first rediscovered in 1594, they found erotic art, immediately covered up, and tried to forget all about it. In fact, so much of the stuff has been unearthed, studied and stored that the art museum at Naples, near Pompeii, has what’s called “The Secret Museum”, a separate collection displaying all the strange stuff they’ve found. Back in the day, it was so offensive it was hard to even find scholarly literature about it.

Pretty much everywhere you go in Pompeii, there’s something about sex somewhere. Maybe it’s Priapus, the god of sex, weighing his penis in a painting. Maybe it’s the erotic art they had on the walls of the public baths, which some scholars believed was so people would remember where they put their clothes. Or maybe it’s a paintings on the wall of a brothel more or less getting straight to the point in the most direct form of advertising ever invented; the Lupanar, the biggest brothel in Pompeii, was covered with erotic artwork. One of the most infamous pieces of graffiti states:

If anyone is looking for some tender love in this town, keep in mind that here all the girls are very friendly.

Pompeii is also an extensive source of graffiti, and you get one guess what the main topic of discussion was. Yeah, you probably can’t trust the claims of some guy bored enough to write on a wall, but when you see people sad they only got laid six times in two days, or a guy more or less admitting he enjoys sex with male prostitutes more, it tells you these people liked to get down.

So, yes, Pompeii was a lot like Vegas in many respects. But in some ways, the Vegas city fathers were wiser; you’ll notice Vegas isn’t next to an active volcano. It’s going to be a while before we have an Ash Yourself app for Las Vegas. Or so we hope, anyway.