From phallic signposts to quirky personal hygiene, here are five facts which your high school textbook never revealed…
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (volcanic or otherwise), you will have certainly heard of Pompeii.
I’m referring not to the widely-panned eponymous film release with Kit “Jon Snow” Harrington, which even the actors probably hope you’ll soon forget, but to the ill-fated Italian city which was covered with up to 20 feet of ash and pumice when Mt. Vesuvius blew its lid in 79 AD. An estimated 16,000 people died in the cataclysmic eruption.
Every year, 2.5 million tourists make the pilgrimage to walk among the ruins north of Naples.
Last week, I joined the throngs, treading the same cobbled streets as this city’s ancient denizens, touching the two-thousand year-old bricks and marveling at the wealth of recovered artifacts, including casts of many of the volcano’s victims, frozen in time as they drew their last breaths.
The man who really made the city come to life for me was my guide, Salvatore Spano, who has been leading tours of Pompeii for 42 of his 66 years.
He’s a walking Wikipedia, a master of historical minutia, but I’ve boiled down his wealth of knowledge to a wee list of “Top Five Entertaining Facts,” which you can whip out at your next cocktail party to amaze and delight your friends…or bore them into a hasty retreat if they overstay their welcome and threaten to empty your liquor cabinet.
I’ll let you be the judge.
1. THE OLDEST PROFESSION THRIVED IN POMPEII
There were approximately 25 brothels in Pompeii, and phalluses mounted on walls and in the street helped to point the way. Lots of these still exist, providing numerous photo opportunities, in case you’re interested in updating your Facebook profile pic.
Visitors can even tour one of the brothels, which features the original stone beds (hey, nobody was there to catch up on a good night’s sleep) and paintings of various sexual positions which “guests” could request.
“Original Kama Sutra menu,” Salvatore notes with a sly smile.
2. THE CITIZENS OF POMPEII DIDN’T USE TOILET PAPER
Most folks did their business in a big public loo, where they used (and…ACK…reused) a sponge on a stick to tend to their nether regions. “Papyrus was not so soft,” Salvatore explained…not that I had asked.
3. URINE WAS EMPLOYED TO CLEAN CLOTHES
Yep. It was some poor soul’s job to collect jars of urine and take them to the laundry, where it was used to bleach wool and wash clothes. I am 100 percent not making this up.
I’ll wait right here while you go and hug your washing machine and kiss your bottle of detergent.
4. EELS CAN WARD OFF MALARIA
Pompeii’s residents kept eels in their underground water tanks. The slippery critters would eat insects, like mosquitoes, which breed in the water, helping to prevent outbreaks of malaria.
Cue my craving for a tall, icy-cold gin and tonic–or a limoncello.
5. THE ANCIENT ITALIANS INVENTED LEGO
If you’ve learned nothing else, my friends, I hope you’ll remember these two things:
1. Be glad you live in the 21st Century, with toilet paper, tap water, and detergent.
2. Don’t build your house under a volcano.
IF YOU GO: