What ancient Roman hospitality workers can teach us about this moment in history

When I visited the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, I had a long list of things I wanted to see, but at the top were the workplaces of two women: Julia Felix and Murtis. Julia Felix, whose palatial property took up an entire city block in a busy part of town, was a star of the hospitality industry. She owned a private bathhouse, basically the modern equivalent of a fancy men’s club, as well as restaurants; she even rented out upscale rooms to wealthy visitors. Murtis was also a hospitality worker. She plied her wares across town at the city’s lupanar (brothel), offering customers everything from lunch and a shave, to sex and companionship.

Both women left their names on the city’s walls, which is why we know about them. Julia’s appears on a “for rent” sign that was preserved outside her property when Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii under a thick layer of volcanic ash. Murtis carved her name elegantly on one wall in the cramped lupanar hallway. “MURTIS * FELATRIS” she wrote, imitating the way Roman politicians’ names were engraved on the walls of the Forum, a single dot between their names and lofty titles like Rector provinciae (governor). Murtis’ chosen title translates roughly as “queen of the cocksuckers.”

It’s me, crossing the street in Pompeii. Crosswalks were elevated so high because streets were often flowing with water runoff from the sewer system and rainfall. So I’m trying to imagine jumping over a stream of poop-filled water.

Murtis vs. Cicero 

Pompeii was a resort town for the rich and pleasure-seeking people of the Roman Empire at the turn of the first millennium CE. Women were integral to its economy and cultural life -- indeed, one of the city’s most sumptuous temples was dedicated to the African goddess Isis, whose cult leaders were all women. Venus was the city’s patron deity; her temple looked out over the beaches that made this place so attractive to tourists.

And yet before starting my research on Pompeii, I knew almost nothing about what women did in ancient Rome. In my college Latin class, we learned about only one real-life Roman woman: Clodia, a major figure in Cicero’s Pro Caelio, where the famous orator accuses her at great length of being a slut. Cicero, a reactionary politician, often opined about the nasty lifestyles of young people who preferred sex to war and he remains a conservative icon to this day. He had a huge vacation house in the suburbs of Pompeii, more than a century before Murtis lived there, but nobody is certain exactly where it was. Still, archaeologists talk about Cicero’s absent house more than they talk about Murtis’ visible signature on the walls of a still-standing lupanar.

The halls of Pompeii’s lupanar, punctuated by doors to the sex workers’ rooms. All the way in the back, behind the low wall, was a public restroom for clientele. Back in Murtis’ day, the place would have been painted, decorated with wall hangings and pillows, and had a second floor where clients could get shaves and hang around gossiping.

Of course scholars talk about Cicero, you might say. He was a famous lawyer and politician whose great oratory in the Forum has been preserved for two thousand years. And Murtis? She was just a lowly sex worker. What’s important about that?

Quite a lot, actually -- at least, if you care about history. To understand how this ancient civilization actually worked, you can’t learn about it exclusively from a conservative pundit like Cicero. You have to consider all the evidence we have about ancient Roman life. That includes the built environment, covered in graffiti and smeared with the remains of food and wine.

The writing that Murtis and her friends left at the lupanar is evidence that women from the Roman Empire’s lower classes -- many of them freed slaves -- could live and work independently. University of Washington archaeologist Sarah Levin-Richardson chronicles this in her incredible book The Brothel of Pompeii, full of amazing translations of smutty graffiti and various trinkets that excavators found in the lupanar. She also offers new interpretations of lupanar life in ancient Rome as no different from working in a restaurant, or perhaps a spa, where the point is to be waited on and fussed over as much as it is to get some hot felatris action. Romans didn’t have the same taboos around sex work as people did later in the Christian world.

Murtis was a service worker in the same industry as Julia Felix, though independent women from elite classes tended to be widows who had borne several children. Roman laws granted property rights to such women, which is why Julia was able to run her own hospitality empire. Julia and Murtis’ lives teach us something that’s more important than Cicero’s slut-shaming speeches. They left behind a record of how ancient Romans spent their time and money, as well as how they survived the challenges of urban life in periods of turmoil.

Make dinner, not war

If we want to learn from our history, reading the classics is a good start. But Cicero and his ilk rarely divulge facts most of us could really use right now, like how ordinary people make it through social upheavals like the fall of the Republic -- or natural disasters like the eruption of Vesuvius. To get at these facts, it’s important to realize that written records are extremely biased. They’re written by people, after all! That’s why we also need material evidence about how people lived from their actual homes and possessions.

The door to Julia Felix’s property, with fancy stairs for people arriving by carriage. Through this gate were her gardens, baths, and restaurants. Rooms to let were on the upper floors.

Furniture, food remains, trash, broken plates, jewelry, cosmetics, shreds of clothing, worn cobblestones, home decor, receipts and shopping lists -- all of these things tell us about the small interactions that make a civilization “alive.” Cities and towns are not just a bunch of rich dudes yelling about sluts. They are, in fact, built on the hard work of those so-called sluts, and their patrons, and all the other people whose livelihoods are tied to the land they share.

And what we can discover from looking at those remains is that despite what’s written down, the Roman Empire was mostly made up of service workers and slaves who didn’t give a crap about oratory and lost Republican values. They just wanted decent jobs -- maybe at the baker’s or the textile manufacturer’s warehouse -- and a good evening meal at the local taberna. They wanted to escape into stories at one of Pompeii’s two theaters -- or to cheer their favorite gladiators over at the amphitheater near Julia Felix’s restaurants. 

As archaeologists excavate the remains of Pompeii’s bars, bakeries, baths, and brothels, we see a distinct pattern. People like Murtis and Julia -- who gained their freedom from slavery and wifery -- didn’t want to squander their liberty on war. As we can see from their homes and businesses, they wanted domestic comforts. University of Cincinnati classicist Steven Ellis suggests that the Roman economy during this period largely depended on trade and services rather than the bloody military engagements and civil wars of Cicero’s beloved Republic. 

Ultimately that’s why I care far more about the fates of Julia Felix and Murtis than I do about the rich guys in the Forum, who never worked a day in their lives. What’s the point of remembering history, if it’s not as a template for planning our survival in the present?

See you soon!

This musing was brought to you thanks to some of the research I did for my forthcoming book Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. It’s coming out Feb. 2, and you can join me on my book tour at any time because it’s all very online! If you’re especially interested in the Roman economy, I recommend joining me and Brad DeLong on Feb. 3 at (virtual) Watermark Books, for a discussion of both. Brad is a UC Berkeley economist, author, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Treasury under President Clinton.

But wait — there are actually four cities in this book! That’s right, you can collect them all. On Feb. 2, I’ll be talking to Charles C. Mann (author of 1491) about the Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük at Green Apple Books; on Feb. 4, I’ll be talking to Rebecca Roanhorse (author of Black Sun and Trail of Lightning) at Left Bank Books about the indigenous city Cahokia near today’s St. Louis; and on Feb. 5. I’ll be at Politics & Prose discussing Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire, with Arielle Duhaime-Ross (science reporter and host of VICE News Reports).

You can find information and ordering links for my other books on my website, helpfully organized into science fiction and journalism. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram — or listen to Our Opinions Are Correct, the fortnightly podcast I co-host with Charlie Jane Anders. If someone forwarded this email to you, you can subscribe to it here.