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The Price of Love in the City of the Dead

Pompeii is dirtier than you think

By Ryan FrawleyPublished 3 years ago 6 min read
Street in Pompeii. Photo by author.

It was as hot as they told me it would be.

The sun sat directly overhead, a golden ball that made the air heavy and drew convict’s sweat from under my arms.

I looked anything but elegant. Out of shape, sweating, my face already red with heat under a baseball cap with a camo pattern I wear only in dire need. I also carried a camera slung around my neck. All I needed was a pair of cargo shorts and rubber sandals over grimy white socks to complete the ghastly tourist ensemble.

But this wasn’t Paris. It wasn’t Milan. In Pompeii, the dead don’t care what you wear.

And while I bought tickets, my 16-year-old niece J peered through grimy glass at the plaster casts of bodies pulled from the ruins.

“I don’t think I’d like to get looked at for eternity like this,” she said as I returned, the tickets already damp with sweat in my fist.

“Don’t die in an interesting way then,” I said.

Everything was different two thousand years ago.

Even the mountain that looms over the doomed city was taller before the eruption. The sea used to lap at the base of the stone walls, and the villas of the rich looked out over the ocean just as celebrity-owned Campanian villas do today. But after the eruption, even the sea turned its back on Pompeii, the coast moving away as the restless volcanic land rose toward the sky.

No one expected the volcano to blow. The people of Pompeii were still making wine and eating fish and gossiping at the bathhouse. Political sloganeers and crude graffiti artists were still scrawling on the walls. Gladiators fought in the amphitheater.

Merchants sold clothes and bread and children’s toys. Dogs fought over scraps. In the lupanar, the brothel, sad-eyed slaves sold their bodies for a few coins.

A patron could choose between Athenais or Sabina, either of whom could be had for two copper coins. Maritimus, as a specialist, charged twice as much to use his mouth on women, including virgins. His exorbitant fee was enough to buy two loaves of bread.

And the same sun beat down on the iron streets, casting hard-edged shadows of temple columns and picking out strands of straw like veins of gold in the ubiquitous horse dung.

J was laughing as she held up her phone.

I cringed as I turned away. One thing I had forgotten about Pompeii was all the dicks. They’re everywhere. Penises carved in stone stand on the walls of houses, pointing the way to the brothel. Winged phalluses with leonine legs hurry across bedroom walls. Lusty gods with improbable appendages pursue fleeing maidens atop restored marble fountains. And the child I used to sing to sleep as a baby was photographing it all.

“Stop taking dick pics,” I ordered with all the flimsy avuncular authority I could muster. It didn’t work. Not even a little bit.

Pompeii was less PG friendly than I’d thought. But as a coastal resort and a major port, the city didn’t try to hide its seamy side. Even on the walls of the Basilica, a kind of town hall, an inscription boasts of the friendliness of the local girls. Even long after the girls are all gone.

I’m young for an uncle.

When I was born, I wasn’t much older than J was when we went to Pompeii. I’ve never been comfortable with children. It was only when she got into her teens, old enough to have proper conversations, that I was able to connect with my niece on a personal level.

But it’s different with family. I see traces of my brother in her, traces of my father, her share of the heritage gifted to me by genetics and environment, the old pieces and parts reharvested and reused. The grave robbers of Pompeii building the modern one-eyed town on the grinding bones of their ancestors.

You want to protect your family from the filth. But even though less than two decades separate my birthdate from hers, J and I grew up in completely different worlds. Pornography is free and abundant now. You can pirate movies more easily than you can buy them. Hookups have replaced relationships, and Netflix-and-chilling has replaced dating.

The fathers and uncles of Pompeii probably said the same thing, shaking bearded heads sadly as they went to purchase Sabina’s services. Their wives, meanwhile, might be in the next room with talented Maritimus. Roman culture was a strange combination of licentiousness and prudery, and while the ratios are different, the ingredients are the same today.

The brothel in Pompeii is still the most popular building, with long lines of tour groups waiting to get in and gawk at the explicit frescoes. You can always rely on prurience to draw a crowd. Then and now.

Julius Polybius had a house on the main street of Pompeii.

When the volcano ruptured, the fearsome explosion was seen long minutes before its deafening roar reached the city. Many residents ran for their lives. A hail of rock and ash killed them as they fled.

But in Julius’s house, a small group stayed behind. Three men, three women, six children, moving toward the back of the house as the front of the building collapsed under falling rocks. One of the women, roughly J’s age, was eight months pregnant.

After the rain of rock, a superheated flow of ash and gas poured over the sides of the shattered mountain. Julius and his family suffocated where they hid.

The heat gets to you.

With the stony streets sunken below modern ground level and no trees in sight, the ruins of Pompeii quickly turn into an oven. Water faucets provide temporary relief. I ducked my head under one, letting my ball cap soak up the cool liquid.

“Oh God,” J said, rolling her eyes in embarrassment.

Downhill, sand between the paving stones had turned to mud, and fat-bodied red hornets had excavated burrows in the cracks. Tragedy never stops being tragic, but time softens its sting. For those who survived it, Pompeii’s destruction was a defining event, a catastrophe never to be forgotten.

But it was forgotten. Eventually, even Rome fell, and Pompeii was lost until an 18th-century construction project brought it to light. Now the dead lie in glass cages, their featureless faces frozen by plaster poured into the cavities of hardened ash their vanished corpses left behind.

“Where are the bodies?” an American woman asked as J and I passed by. Bright jewels of water dripped from the brim of my cap as I bent over her map to point the way. How Pompeiians had sex and how they died. That’s what we most want to know.

And life goes on, emerging bright and angry even from the cracked pavement of a dead city. Cities and civilizations, just like people, have their time to bloom and to die. The people of Pompeii worried about their elections, the price of bread, the price of sex, and the vagaries of commerce. Until one bright day, a shattering convulsion of the earth swept all of that away.

Outside the ruins, I bought a couple of granite, flavored ice treats that work wonders against the Mediterranean heat, at least for a while. An endless procession of tour groups was still filing through the turnstiles as J and I left, making our way to the train station that hung like a mirage in the heat haze rising from the stones of modern Pompei. In the mercifully air-conditioned train carriage, we were both quiet, worn out by heat and miles of walking.

And something else. The fragility of it all, maybe. The haunting frailty of life that Pompeii is a monument to. The visceral reminder that everything that seems so secure can be swept away in a moment.

When that happens, all you can do is seek what shelter you can and try to protect the ones you love. Me and Julius Polybius and everyone else on this unpredictable, chaotic, hauntingly beautiful and occasionally violent planet.

Because the truth is, we can’t love what we can’t lose. Our faltering and heat-swollen hearts are reserved only for the fragile and the doomed.


About the Creator

Ryan Frawley

Towers, Temples, Palaces: Essays From Europe out now!

Novelist, entomologist and cat owner. Ryan Frawley is the author of many articles and stories and one novel, Scar, available from online bookstores everywhere.


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    Ryan FrawleyWritten by Ryan Frawley

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