To be on the safe side, I’m putting an adult content warning on this particular entry, so viewer discretion is advised for the meek. Just be glad I didn’t write an entry on Pompeian frescoes.
Since the dawn of art, graffiti has been all around us. Ancient pictographs and cave art can be interpreted as a form of graffiti. Upon the advent of literacy, words helped give rise to what we know as graffiti today: images and/or lettering scratched or drawn onto walls and edifices. Many call it art that reflects the culture of a time and place; many others call it vandalism and desecration. Whatever it is, it’s been with us from the beginning. From Ephesus and Tikal, through Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser crossing North America, to ‘Kilroy was here’, ‘Clapton is God’, Basquiat and Banksy, people have always left little slices of their psyche illicitly scrawled for the world to see. Graffiti always pops up to entertain, intrigue and inform or distract, annoy and ruin, never to be fully erased from the public consciousness (even if it gets erased by the public works department).
One of the world’s richest and most eye-opening troves of graffiti is known to us today because of a great catastrophe. When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in ash, it also preserved a disproportionate amount of graffiti that would have normally been covered up or slowly decayed over the centuries. The amount and breadth of messages left behind is staggering – everything from ‘so-and-so was here’ to political statements to poetry to caricatures to lewd bathroom humour to clever word play and riddles. In other words, just like the graffiti we see today. And it was everywhere – houses, bakeries, bathhouses, brothels. Every walk of life is reflected in the various inscriptions and drawings left throughout the ancient town.
Electoral propaganda along Via Abundancia. Source: Amadaalvarez, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pompeia-ViaAbundancia-propagandaElectoral-5445.jpg. Licensed under theCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
‘Hic habitat felicitas’ (‘Here lies happiness’ or ‘Here lies good fortune’). Amazingly, this was on the wall of a bakery in Pompeii as a good-look charm. Source: W. Sauber, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bible_Museum_-_Bordellzeichen.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
As you can see just from the three examples above, it was a varied group of inscriptions indeed, and those just scratch the surface. Thanks to the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum at the Berlin-Brandenberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, we have a comprehensive list of graffiti and inscriptions from not just Pompeii but the entire Latin world (for example, 134 graffito from the Lupanar of Pompeii, including such gems as Hic ego puellas multas futui (‘Here I f**ked many girls’). The most comprehensive list can be found here, where we get details on:
- puppy love (‘Secundus says hello to his Prima, wherever she is. I ask, my mistress, that you love me.’)
- boredom (‘On April 19th, I made bread.’ ‘It took 640 paces to walk back and forth between here and there ten times.’)
- unethical business practices (‘What a lot of tricks you use to deceive, innkeeper. You sell water but drink unmixed wine’) and unethical customers (‘We have wet the bed, host. I confess we have done wrong. If you want to know why, there was no chamber pot.’)
- rewards for information on crimes (‘A copper pot went missing from my shop. Anyone who returns it to me will be given 65 bronze coins (sestertii). 20 more will be given for information leading to the capture of the thief.’)
- anger and rejection (‘Let everyone one in love come and see. I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins. If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club?’)
- bathroom humour (‘The one who buggers a fire burns his penis’, ‘Secundus defecated here’, ‘Restitutus says: “Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates”.’)
- memorials to fallen friends (‘Pyrrhus to his colleague Chius: I grieve because I hear you have died; and so farewell.)
- insults (‘Samius to Cornelius: go hang yourself!’, ‘Virgula to her friend Tertius: you are disgusting!’, ‘Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they ever have before!’, ‘Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog.’)
- sage wisdom (‘A small problem gets larger if you ignore it.’ ‘Remove lustful expressions and flirtatious tender eyes from another man’s wife; may there be modesty in your expression.’)
- the first-century equivalent of ‘For a good time, call…’ (‘At Nuceria, look for Novellia Primigenia near the Roman gate in the prostitute’s district.’ ‘If anyone sits here, let him read this first of all: if anyone wants a f**k, he should look for Attice; she costs 4sestertii.’)
- braggadocio (‘Celadus the Thracier makes the girls moan!’)
- outing (‘Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous feminity!’)
Franklin Jr., J.L. (1986). Games and a Lupanar: Prosopography of a Neighborhood in Ancient Pompeii. The Classical Journal 81(4): 319-328.
Harvey, B.K. (2001). Graffiti from Pompeii. Pompeiana.org. Available at http://www.pompeiana.org/Resources/Ancient/Graffiti%20from%20Pompeii.htm. Accessed 30 October 2010.
Ohlson, K. (2010). Reading the Writing on Pompeii’s Walls. Smithsonian.com, 27 July 2010. Available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Reading-the-Writing-on-Pompeiis-Walls.html. Accessed 30 October 2010.
Tschiggfrie, S. (2009). Uncovering the Graffiti of Pompeii. News @ Washington & Lee, 30 August 2009. Available at http://www.wlu.edu/x34628.xml. Accessed 30 October 2010.
Von Joel, M. (2006). Urbane Guerrillas: Street art, graffiti & other vandalism. State of Art 4, January/February 2006. Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20070628221849/http://www.state-of-art.org/state-of-art/ISSUE+FOUR/urbane4.html. Accessed 30 October 2010.
Wallace, R.E. (2005). Graffiti from Pompeii. In An Introduction to Wall Inscriptions from Pompeii and Herculaneum, 42-88. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci.
Wuyts, A. (2009). Roman Graffiti: From Pompeii with Love. Heritage Key, 7 December 2009. Available at http://heritage-key.com/blogs/ann/roman-graffiti-pompeii-love. Accessed 30 October 2010.