The ancient Roman town of Pompeii has been under excavation since the 18th century, yet about one-third of the town remains unexplored. That means more archaeological discoveries will be made – among them, evidently, graffiti. A lot of it.
Pompeian walls have become a laboratory of archaeological investigation, reconstructing some of the most intimate moments from the lives of its inhabitants up to the 1st century C.E.. More than 11,000 wall writings have been revealed in the ruins, making it the largest collection of wall writings ever discovered.
The team of 50 researchers under the auspices of the Ancient Graffiti Project, run by Dr. Rebecca Benefiel of Washington and Lee University in Virginia has developed the first digital database of graffiti finds in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Smyrna in the modern-day Turkey.
Happy, ironic, witty, angry, or passionate, they bear witness to some ephemeral moments, marking time and space.
Ancient literary sources remain mostly silent on graffiti. There appears to have been no specific term in ancient Greek and Latin that we could interpret as “writing on the wall”.
Mostly scratched into wall plaster using sharp implements, some graffiti was made using more ephemeral means, such as charcoal. The sheer extent of the phenomenon and the wide range of inscriptions indicates that they were not regarded as vandal or illicit (especially in the case of the electoral programmata – campaigning for votes), possibly excepting sensitive locations.
Their presence suggests that they were fully integrated into accepted social patterns. “In our mind, graffiti has taken on this idea of something that’s done under the cover of darkness in urban settings, but this is not what it seems to be in the ancient world,” says Benefiel.
- Lukios Woz 'Ere: Personalized Seats Found in Pergamon, Turkey
- Byzantine Basilica With Female Ministers and Baffling Burials Found in Israel
- Imperfect Carvings in Egyptian Tomb May Indicate: Interns Messed Up Here
- Ancestor of Checkers Found in Old City of Jerusalem
Many signed their texts and drawings; others simply registered their presence, such as “Rufio painted this” or “Satura was here on September 3rd”.
Possibly because the wall-writers were drunk or just unimaginative, most inscriptions seem to have been influenced by the already existing material, rendering the spaces “appropriate” locations for that form of communication, even contributing to the existing creations.
Scratched on the walls of houses or public buildings, the graffiti were mostly small, and the reader was invited to come close to read them. “If you know where to look you can find them but it’s also very easy to pass right by and not notice them,” Benefiel warns.
Handle with care. No, really
Usually short, direct and emotionally charged, they speak for a personal impulse such as the one asking “Cruel Lalagus, why do you not love me?” or another one declaring that if one doesn’t believe in Venus he should “gaze at my girlfriend.”
April 19th seems to have been the official day for baking bread, as almost 2000 years ago, someone proudly declared: “I made bread on April 19th” (Happy April 19th!).
Being frank illustrations of life, graffiti artists do not cavil at jokes and comments, so it comes as no surprise to discover inscriptions such as “handle with care” next to a drawing of a phallus, at a bar at Herculaneum.
Many of the graffiti address the reader, directly trying to engage with him, such as the one declaring: “if anyone sits here, let him read this before everything else”.
Other inscriptions rely on the Roman habit of reading aloud, and ridicule the reader: “and I who read this am a prick”. Some were created as an opening salvo, awaiting an answer like the one: “Hectice, baby, Mercator says hello to you”.
This kind of interaction was very popular. Others were made of names such as “Antiochus hung out here with his girlfriend Cithera” (an alternative date at the gladiator barracks).
The ‘tagging’ of names can be compared to today’s realities of social media. Ancient graffiti allowed people to ‘exhibit’ their existence through the messages they left, the places and people they ‘tagged’ under the images or texts on the ‘wall’ (turns out that Facebook had an antique ingenuity). So why not let your frustrations hang out, such as the one griping: “Sarra, you are not being very nice, leaving me all alone like this”.
Being stuck on a bad date is rarely gratifying (turns out that dating disappointments are as old as humanity) so why not leave a message on the wall like the one inscribed by a repulsed bachelorette? : “The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian” (a Visigoth or just a brute?).
Designed to reach a broad audience, they encouraged the recipient to engage in an open discussion. The dialogues range from greetings, love messages to accusations and insults, such as “Ampliatus Pedania is a thief!” or “Phileros is a eunuch!”
Defamation isn’t new either, nor incitement to suicide as the one advising: “Samius to Cornelius: go hang yourself!” (a location-based exhortation, written right where a basilica was used for the administration of justice).
‘The food here is poison’: A 2,000-year-old food critic
All that said, Benefiel explains that unlike modern graffiti, the Roman inscriptions were mostly about sending positive wishes (it turns out that the ancient were way less bitter than we are).
“Writing on the wall seemed to be an incredibly friendly medium. We find expressions such as salutem meaning health, vale, implying- be strong, be well, and then we have this amazing greeting that doesn’t exist in English: feliciter, meaning ‘happily.’ (e.g. May things go happily for all the Pompeians!’) Nasty comments were a minority among ancient graffiti,” Benefiel tells Haaretz.
We discover recommendations similar to the ones on Trip Advisor on where to eat or drink. “(…) Traveler, you eat bread in Pompeii but you go to Nuceria to drink. At Nuceria, the drinking is better”.
Notwithstanding Benefiel’s opinion of their bonhomie, there are also complaints: “would that you pay for all your tricks, innkeeper. You sell us water and keep the good wine for yourself” or “the finance officer of the emperor Nero says the food here is poison” (a 2000-year-old food critic).
There are also property listings similar to today’s ones, yet with one “tiny difference”: “The city block (…) is available to rent from July 1st. A person interested in renting this property should contact Primus, the slave of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius” – far from being an early businessman, it turns out that the aforementioned real-estate agent was a slave.
I hereby commemorate me
Somewhat like stone monuments, which were usually erected to celebrate merits and/or historical events, graffiti shaped social memories but in a more adaptable, less rigid manner. Thus leaving one’s imprint on a wall could be regarded as a “poor man’s self-commemoration,” as Prof. Henrik Mouritsen from King’s College London puts it.
Inscribed by people of different status and origins, the graffiti in the ancient Roman world reveals the universal character of wall writing, which cannot be attributed to one social group. They reflect the minds, feelings and urges of the people that created them, allowing them to manifest, advertise or proclaim their status, individuality and success.
We find testosterone-soaked creations such as the one by a Thracian gladiator who called himself “the delight of all the girls”, while Crescens, a retiarius was convinced that he had the power to seduce women “at day or night”.
Similarly to today’s graffiti adorning the walls of public bathrooms, the Pompeian wall writings seemed to be the perfect environment for sharing dirty jokes and remarks on the pleasures experienced in the company of both women and men. The standard boasting assortment focuses on proclaiming one’s conquests or abilities – some things never change. For instance, Floronius, a “privileged” soldier from the 7th legion stated that the women of Pompeii were not informed of his presence, apart from only six lucky ones that “came to know, too few for such a stallion” (who said that self-praise is no praise at all?).
Would you sign my wall
Pompeii stands out for a widespread graffiti culture inside wealthy residences as well.
The notion of privacy was very different from ours, and the expression of quasi-public space evoked by the author Vitruvius played an important role in domestic Roman life. Their houses were not planned around the concept of privacy as we understand it today.
Houses served as business cards and their walls were regarded as guest books. Given that most of the inscriptions are found within the most public spheres of the houses, it is hard to regard them as inappropriate. Writing wherever and whatever was surely unacceptable (there must have been some kind of etiquette). Yet of course, we find exceptions through the rare yet refreshingly erotic and obscene scrawlings sabotaging the overall inscription patterns of domestic walls.
What graffiti often tend to conceal is the gender of their authors.
For a long time graffiti were associated only with men, however, by now archaeologists have uncovered many inscriptions that indicate that women were also involved in their making.
“We find more male names, which makes sense as men would be interacting more in the public spheres but there are also a significant number of women who are named in the graffiti,” Benefiel says.
We discover unusual love inscriptions by women such as the one declaring: “I don’t want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world”, worried mothers inquiring: “my lusty son, with how many women have you had sexual relations?” or strangely revealing ones, such as “Atimetus got me pregnant” (oops).
Yet the most surprisingly revealing and Benefiel’s all-time favorite is a genuine prayer: “Methe of Atella, slave of Cominia, loves Chrestus. May Venus Pompeiana smile favorably on their hearts and let them always live in harmony.”
“I love that Methe identifies herself and knows how to participate in this act of writing publicly despite being a slave and female,” Benefiel says. The discovery is crucial as it raises new facts on women’s literacy, covering even the lowest social class in the ancient world. Women were much more involved in the act of writing and reading than previously thought and graffiti are one of the rare cultural artefacts contributing to the study of literacy.
This is only one of the new perspectives that ancient inscriptions are opening. The graffiti will have many more life stories to tell us, and we should not be surprised if the history of Pompeii is rewritten.