By Natasha Sheldon
Evidence from Asellina's Caupona shows that even the bar staff of a caupona interested themselves in local politics. But were they also involved in prostitution?
The Location of Asellina’s Tavern.
Asellina’s Caupona or tavern is found in the ninth region of Pompeii. It is situated in the second insula, on the left hand side of the Road of Abundance, not far from the triangular forum. The area is a mix of industries , residences and businesses. Nearby are Stephanous’s fullery and a felting workshop, as well as several villas such as the houses of Octavius Quartio and Julia Felix.
The Layout of the Tavern.
Being a caupona, Asellina’s tavern served not only food and drink but also offered cheap accommodation. Left of the entrance were stairs to an upper floor that could have accommodated overnight guests overhead.
The upper story does not survive but the ground floor does. The façade of the exterior was plastered and covered in red and black graffiti. On the right door post of the entrance is a drawing of the god Mercury. Inside, the caupona consisted of a small room with a counter, inset with four large pottery doliae. These serving pots were found intact and in situ, as was a brazier and a lidded pot for warming wine.
79 AD was an election year in Pompeii and the graffiti on Asellina’s tavern consists mainly of electoral posters on its façade. These posters tell us the names of the candidates for election and the offices they were standing for as well as which locals supported them. Indirectly, the graffiti also provides useful evidence regarding the tavern itself.
The tavern’s owner is indicated by references made in the electoral posters. Four women associated with the tavern are named as supporting local politicians: Smyrna, whose name suggests she came from the near east, Aegle, a Greek name and Maria who could have been a Jew and Asellina. As Asellina is the only roman name, it has been assumed that she was the owner whilst the others were barmaids who were slaves or low class free workers.
Was theTavern a Brothel?
Various pieces of evidence found in the tavern have been used to interpret it as a caupona brothel. Phallic pottery lamps have been found as well as an inscription ‘here dwells happiness’ on the doorpost . There is also a tiny piece of graffiti inscribed within the letter ‘O’ of one of the words of the electoral notices which makes reference to a patron having sexual intercourse with one of the barmaids.
This evidence does not mean necessarily mean that Asellina’s tavern was a venue for prostitution. Phallic symbols were not necessary lewd symbols to the Romans. They were common good luck charms, often found inscribed on street corners. The doorpost inscription was also possibly a charm used to ward off bad luck. Whilst patrons may well have had sexual relationships with female staff, they could simply have been free and easy relationships rather than paying ones.
Pompeii: archaeological Guide. Instituto Geografico de Agostini
The world of Pompeii. 2002.Ed John j Dobbins and Pedar w Foss. Routledge: London and New York