Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.33

John DeFelice, Roman Hospitality: The Professional Women of Pompeii; Marco Polo Monographs, 6.   Warren Center, PA:  Shangri-La Publications, 2001.  Pp. 306.  ISBN 0-9677201-7-6.  $39.50.  

Reviewed by John R. Clarke, University of Texas at Austin (
Word count: 2980 words

This monograph is a revised version of the author's dissertation, "The Women of Pompeian Inns: A Study of Law, Occupation, and Status (Roman Empire)" (Miami University of Ohio, 1998). The author challenges the notion, stemming from the study of Roman law and literature, that women associated with hospitality businesses were all prostitutes. In addition to reexamining Roman law and literature, DeFelice studies the material remains of inns and taverns, principally at Pompeii. Following the text and a select bibliography (157-175), he provides an Appendix, called "Master List of Hospitality Businesses in Pompeii," consisting of catalogue entries (176-306).

DeFelice begins with a rapid survey of modern scholars (from Ludwig Friedländer to Jane F. Gardner), who all insist that the female staff of thermopolia and cauponae were prostitutes. He rightly criticizes the impressionistic nature of their claims. Some authors accept as truth elite texts that indicate that such women shared the infamia of prostitutes; others make them into sex-workers by misreading archaeological evidence. In effect, most modern literature on the subject tells us more about the sexual imagination of modern scholars than it does about the work of these ancient Pompeian women.

DeFelice reasons that if Pompeii had a population of 10,000 inhabitants, and that his 151 inns, taverns, and/or snack shops each employed four women, there would have been one "waitress-prostitute" for every seven adult men at Pompeii. This figure is even more preposterous than the ratio of one prostitute for every 71 men based on the assumption that there are 35 brothels at Pompeii. He goes on to demonstrate, quite sensibly and following Wallace-Hadrill, how unreliable both the archaeology and nomenclature of hospitality establishments are. Archaeologists have used the labels popina, taberna, caupona, hospitium, and deversorium capriciously. In effect, the most important distinction is whether establishments provided just food and drink (tabernae and popinae) or were able to provide overnight accommodations (hospitia, cauponae, stabula). DeFelice also reviews some of the evidence from graffiti and well-known texts for the low quality of lodging and the low social status of lodgers. In his quick survey of "representative remains" at Pompeii, the author provides no plans of the buildings, so that the reader must either accept his interpretation of the spaces described or sift through standard sources for corroboration.

In his introduction to Roman women in taverns and inns (34-38), DeFelice correctly criticizes Della Corte's unfounded contention that IX, 9, 2, the so-called Tavern of Asellina, was a caupona-lupanar. DeFelice cites Horace (Epistles 1.14.18-25) as evidence that taverns were sometimes associated with prostitution, but also Ulpian's definition of a prostitute from the third century A.D. (Digesta

In chapter 3 DeFelice examines Roman marriage law in an effort to define the status of women who worked in taverns and inns. His review of the problems of trying to reconstruct first century A.D. law from Justinian's sixth-century Digest brings him to state that "..., a clearly delineated concept of infamia did not exist until Pompeii was long covered in ashes," (40). It is unlikely that women in the hospitality industry were legally eligible for legal marriage (conubium), for they were unlikely to be Roman citizens (either freeborn or freed). This chapter is particularly useful in demonstrating the difficulties of determining how Roman law functioned in the first century when the major sources are much later. He then argues that although tavern workers could not have conubium, that is, the right to engage in legal marriage, he theorizes that they could have been married in the relationship of concubinatus, a union, sometime long-term, that could not produce legitimate children.

DeFelice analyzes the relationship between Niceros and Melissa in Niceros' story of the werewolf Satyricon61-63 to examine the long-term relationship known as contubernium, questioning the status of Melissa's relationship with Terentius, the innkeeper who dies. In a somewhat circular fashion, the author concludes that "there was the potential of at least some forms of non-legal and legal marriage or concubinage in the lives of a copa or popinaria" (68). In the final section of the chapter the author asks whether the contubernium of a woman in the hospitality trades could have developed into what he calls ius matrimonium (see below). On the basis of Susan Treggiari, "Contubernales in CIL VI," Phoenix 35 (1981): 59-81, he plots a possible trajectory for a woman in the hospitality industry, a slave in contubernium, who wishes to progress to marriage. She would have to be manumitted and have a child who survived one year; if she continued working in the inn, she would be manager (institor) and not have the direct contact with the customers that gave her the status of infamia.

In arguing for the possibilities of relationships other than that of prostitute and client for the personnel of taverns and inns, DeFelice argues for upward mobility like that of the immigrant to America (76). He also assumes that what these women wanted was legal, "bourgeois" marriage--a position that strikes me as anachronistic. Left out, of course, are the male hospitality workers, who may have had marriage-like arrangements with female workers, or with their male or female owners/employers -- all this in addition to sexual relations with customers. Such relationships were outside the concerns of the law.

Since I am not an expert on Roman law, I requested my colleague, Professor Andrew Riggsby, to comment on this chapter. With his permission, I include his remarks in this and the following paragraph. Riggsby notes that, given his thesis, DeFelice underestimates the availability of marriage in several ways. He claims (46) that free persons cannot marry famosae; the rule likely applies to the free-born only (Tit. Ulp. 13.2, though cf. 16.2). As for his concerns (e.g. 72-73) about the Augustan requirement that slaves be 30 to receive full citizenship on manumission, there are various exceptions. The most salient one is in the case of female slaves freed for the purpose of marriage (Gaius 1.18). DeFelice rightly points out that aliens could not marry Romans and that it was hard, in any individual case, to determine whether a person of foreign descent was "slave, freed, or peregrina" (46, cf. 58 and 69). This omits an important possibility. Descendants of slaves could be free-born Romans yet ethnically distinct. References to "foreigners" in electoral contexts suggest that this group made up a substantial part of the urban population of Rome already by the end of the Republic. At the other end of the spectrum, freeborn peregrines could not marry Romans, but Roman law did not prevent them from marrying each other. So, for instance, Roman law would not in theory deny the validity of the marriage of two Jewish immigrants; it would just have nothing to say in the matter. (In practice, Roman law might actually go further and give some legal consequences to such marriages; see Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage [Oxford, 1991] 49-51.) Despite DeFelice's long disquisition on the difficulties of extracting earlier Roman law from our generally late sources, he leans very heavily on two demonstrably late imperial constitutions (3 Non. Feb. 326; actually one enactment preserved in two sources CTh 9.7.1 = Just. C. 9.9.28). This is the earliest text that even suggests (and the point is not entirely clear even here) that waitresses as such were infames, yet he takes that point as generally valid in much of his subsequent discussion (e.g. 58, 76).

Riggsby notes many incidental problems with the technicalities of law and of Latin. "Ius matrimonium" is not a legal term, nor, indeed Latin; he must mean iustum matrimonium, (as on p. 60). Contubernales (passim) is not singular. Stuprum, even as a legal concept, is not an Augustan invention (47). For the Republican evidence, see Elaine Fantham, "Stuprum: Public Attitudes and Penalties for Sexual Offences in Republican Rome," CV 35 (1991) 267-91. Conubium is not, under normal circumstances, "granted" (passim) but simply falls out from personal status. This is important because the burden is not on a person to show that she is not infamis (see esp. 74). "Concubinatus" is somewhat more common than DeFelice claims (53), but perhaps more importantly "concubina" is quite common in the legal sources.

In Chapter 4, "From amicae to puella II as: Exploring Informal Sexual Relations in Pompeii," the author revisits the 151 structures that he believes are inns or taverns and analyses the graffiti for evidence about the relationships the women working in these establishments had. These relationships include slave-master relationships, short-term romantic relationships (among slaves), and prostitution. The section on short-term romantic relationships includes a discussion of the well-known graffiti documenting the competition of Successus and Severus for the tavern-maid Iris (CIL IV.8258, 8259), and a long excursus on the poor reputation of inns among elite writers, especially Ovid. DeFelice's definition of prostitution follows that of Thomas A. J. McGinn: prostitution includes payment for sexual service, sex with random partners with no allowance for preference, and lack of emotional bond between partners. Using this working definition, the author attempts to identify buildings at Pompeii specifically used as brothels (100-128). He rightly criticizes Ray Laurence's characterization of "deviant zones" at Pompeii, based principally on the location of inns, brothels, and suspected rooms where prostitutes operated (cellae meretriciae,.1 Even Wallace-Hadrill's reasonable criteria for defining a space as a brothel (a room set aside and furnished with a masonry bed; erotic paintings over the door or in the room; sexual graffiti) are, admittedly, subject to modern misinterpretation. Under the heading "Exploring Sex in Brothels and Taverns," DeFelice examines the thirteen hospitality establishments that Hans Eschebach, in his 1970 publication, designated caupona-lupanar or taberna-lupanar.2 He demonstrates that there is little evidence to support the hypothesis that there was prostitution on the premises. For Eschebach, the usual reason for making an inn into a brothel is that the excavator found graffiti of the "hic bene futui" variety in the building. Yet DeFelice, on the basis of the graffiti recorded to date in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, points out that with rare exceptions, the inscriptions found in 84 of the 151 structures identified as inns have no sexual content. Those that do are often problematic. For instance, the caupona at I, 2, 20-21 has the greatest concentration of "futuo" graffiti, yet it has neither images of people engaging in sex nor any rooms with masonry beds. DeFelice suggests that rather than being a dedicated brothel, it was a place where the sexual trysts recorded in the graffiti occurred.

Just as sexual graffiti do not mean that an inn was a brothel, neither do explicit paintings of sexual intercourse. DeFelice's analysis of the paintings in room b of the Inn on the Street of Mercury (VI, 10, 1.19) follows my own and agrees with my conclusion that if the three drawings by Henri Roux accurately record the now-destroyed erotic pictures they allude to sexual acrobatics of the theater rather than advertising services available to clients.3 The famous painting with the caption "lente impelle," taken from the tavern at VII, 9, 33 and now in the Naples Archaeological Museum, but found in a room without masonry bed, does not, the author contends, make the room a cella meretricia. The room nicely decorated with six (five surviving) paintings of male-female intercourse in the so-called "Casa del Ristorante" (IX, 5, 16), was unlikely to have been a dedicated brothel, as I attempt to establish through analysis of all remaining evidence and the published excavation reports. De Felice's three paragraphs on this structure conclude that "Clarke . . . is not completely convinced it is a lupanar" (119). In another case, a room next to VII, 11, 11.14 (located at 12 under the stairs) may have been a cella meretricia, but as DeFelice rightly points out, the fact that there is a carved tufa phallus by the entrance has nothing to do with the sex business and everything to do with the apotropaic powers of the phallus.

In the end, I am not sure that application of Wallace-Hadrill's three criteria for brothels proves very much; more convincing is a full analysis of all the material evidence, and without plans, photographs, and -- above all -- extensive analysis of urban context, DeFelice's conclusions remain tentative. What is more, under the heading "Exploring Additional Locations," the author goes even farther out on a limb than had Eschebach, Della Corte, or Fiorelli, suggesting on the basis of graffiti found in other inns that prostitutes frequented them looking for business (123-127). Even so, he concludes: "The assumption that tavern worker equals prostitute, though echoed in several places in the Roman law of late antiquity is not supported by the evidence found presently in Pompeii." (128)

DeFelice's concluding chapter is a critique of the "moral geography of place" (129-156). He examines the fifth chapter of Laurence (cited above, note 1) and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, "Public Honor and Private Shame: The Urban Texture in Pompeii," in Kathryn Lomas, ed., Urban Society in Roman Italy (London, 1995), 39-63. He rightly points out the difficulties of applying a contemporary virtue-vice opposition to Pompeii in order to differentiate "positive" from "negative" (or "deviant") spaces in the city. Wallace-Hadrill uses Seneca's identification of virtue with the forum as opposed to "lowly pleasure" with the eating house (Seneca De vita beata 7.3 ); for DeFelice, Seneca's categorizing reflects the philosopher's Stoic morality but not the moral geography of Pompeii. What is more, "deviant" behavior is a movable feast, if PlautusCurculio 461-485 is any gauge. Any area of the Roman city could be the background for vices such as prostitution and gambling.

DeFelice concludes, on the basis of further textual analysis (especially Juvenal Satires 8.146-185), that the concept of moral geography applies only to the movements of the Roman elites. Attacks on the "immorality" of elites served to enforce at least the appearance of self-control and financial responsibility of their own class. If an elite frequented inns and taverns, he crossed an elite social boundary and risked moral criticism and the ability to justify his moral and social superiority.

In his catalogue, DeFelice updates the works of Tönnes Kleberg, Hotels, restaurants et cabarets dans l'antiquité romain (Uppsala, 1957), Sharon A. Ruddell, "The Inn, Restaurant and Tavern Business in Ancient Pompeii," (M.A. thesis, University of Maryland, 1964), and Eschebach (1970). His principal tool is Halsted B. Van der Poel's unfinished cartography project, RICA (Researches in Campanian Archaeology), published in the volumes of the Corpus Topographicum Pompeianum (Part V, 1981; Part IIIA, 1986). Most entries begin with a quotation from Ruddell's catalogue, with additions from other published sources and references to bibliography, plans, and inscriptions recorded in the CIL. The catalogue entries proceed by Regio and Insula (from I, 1, 1 to IX (15). D/E), and they number more than 151, for, when the author has grounds for doubting that a building was a tavern or inn, he enters the address but does not assign it a catalogue number. I found DeFelice's catalogue quite useful, both in publishing Ruddell's catalogue and in updating structures excavated but officially unpublished or published incompletely. It is a compilation of secondary sources, but a useful one nonetheless. Among other virtues, it provides the reader with a history (often quite checkered) of the excavation and identification of these structures at Pompeii and a guide to the locations of the graffiti found on them.

Despite its many virtues, the book is very poorly edited. Typos and grammatical errors abound. An early warning is the fact that the author's name is misspelled (in gold letters) on the cover and also on the title page (hand-corrected with whiteout on my review copy). The use of fancy first letters for the first word of the first sentence of a subheading results in the typographical nightmare "Pumerous" for "Numerous" (30). Content is often in dire need of editing. On page 30, the author writes: "As previously stated, popinae were suited for a quick sit down meal. This was usually on stools at a table, a feature, which Martial found to be both ill-mannered and distasteful." On page 32 we find: "Customers often had to eat sitting at tables in many of the lower class ones, and not recline. This habit Martial found low class, boorish, and offensive."

The author (or editor) provides no figure call-out numbers in the text, so that the reader must determine the purpose of the illustrations, all fuzzy line drawings digitized from existing publications (including my own). The captions are confusing and inaccurate. For instance, Fig. 4:11, a drawing from Pompeii VII, 9, 33 confuses this image (the famous scene of male-female intercourse with the words LENTE IMPELLE) with the so-called "tightrope walkers" known from Barrè, Herculaneum et Pompei (1827), pl. 35. The author adds: "Most recently used in Clarke, p. 210"; in fact I reproduce an original photograph of the LENTE IMPELLE painting (Naples inv. 27690) on p. 259, Fig. 100 of Looking at Lovemaking. There are some errors of fact as well, and again I provide but one example as a caveat. Within his discussion of the liberty of a man to have sex with a variety of women outside of marriage without legal consequences, DeFelice gets the story of Cato wrong, claiming that he praised two young citizens emerging from a brothel. All the relevant texts are in the singular.4

If the reader is patient with the rough editing and typos, Roman Hospitality presents useful and sometimes provocative observations on Roman attitudes toward taverns and inns and the women who worked in them. He puts Pompeian hospitality establishments into perspective principally through his updating of Ruddell's catalogue and his selective study of the graffiti. Speaking as an art historian, I find that DeFelice's use of visual representation falls quite short of the needed contextual reevaluation. I repeatedly wished that the author had sent his manuscript to expert colleagues and then submitted it to a university press where it would have gotten the careful editing and vetting it deserves.


1.   Ray Laurence, Roman Pompeii: Space and Society (New York, 1994), 70-87.
2.   Hans Eschebach, Die städtbauliche Entwicklung des antiken Pompeji . Römische Mitteilungen, Supplement 17 (1970); but see now Liselotte Eschebach, ed., Gebäudeverzeichnis und Stadtplan der antiken Stadt Pompeji (Cologne, 1993).
3.   John R. Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking (Berkeley, 1998), 206-212.
4.   Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, 196-199, notes 7-9.

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:27:59, Friday, 03 April 2009