Why ancient Roman graffiti is so important to archaeologists

Pompeii’s graffiti is the world’s most frustrating goldmine.

When it comes to ancient Rome, the vast majority of insights into their world we have are from one group: Wealthy (or patronized) free men. According to Charles Freeman[1], in all of the surviving works from Rome, only one author speaks of his life as a former slave—a philosopher named Epicetus. Meanwhile, every female Roman voice has been lost to time.

But there is one place on Earth that may yet hold their stories: The Bay of Naples, where in 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius buried the two seaside towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum under feet of lava and ash. These places weren’t necessarily vast repositories of lost literature, but the eruption froze them nearly perfectly in time, preserving them for nearly 2,000 years—and preserving thousands of pieces of graffiti along with them.

Now, in modern times, graffiti bears the notions of vandalism and illegality, usually resulting in small, hasty scribbles of “Joanie loves Chachi” or some anatomically-puzzling genitalia (which was actually pretty true for Pompeii, too). But, unlike today, Roman graffiti was not forbidden—and it was practically everywhere, from the private dining rooms of wealthy homes (domi, where friends sometimes left messages for the hosts) to the public forum. In fact, according to Kristina Milnor[2], more 11,000 graffiti images have been found in Pompeii—which is just about the size of the population at the height of the town.

ancient roman graffiti

Poetry graffito from the stairwell of the House of Maius Castricius, Pompeii. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The evidence of lack of restriction is probably best demonstrated by the fact that there doesn’t seem to have been a Latin word for graffiti—the words typically associated with it were those of writing or drawing*, like pictor (painter). Reading between the lines, it seems ancient graffiti was much less seen as destruction of public property and more as a public and acceptable form of self-expression and advertisement.

The text of the everyman

Without this threat of punishment, it seems that graffiti was readily practiced by people at all strata of society, making it perhaps the most valuable text we have from the ancient world. Man, woman, child, slave, poor, rich, illiterate—it did not matter, so long as there was an empty spot on a wall. Which means that, through graffiti, we are able to hear the voices of those who have been traditionally voiceless, granting us the possibility of astounding insights into lives and minds we’ve never been able to access.

And the variety of what has been found is astonishing. There is graffiti from foreigners passing through Pompeii, often scratched near the gates (“Feliciter Pompeii” was a common way to wish the city well). Or little drawings of gladiators, animals, and the like:

ancient roman graffiti

Graffito of gladiators, from the House of Fabia and Tyrannus, Pompeii. The inscription reads, “Oceanus, of free status, victorious 13 times, won. Aracintus, of free status, victorious 4 times, earned a reprieve.” (Credit: ©Jackie and Bob Dunn, www.pompeiiinpictures.com. Su concessione del Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo – Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia.)

There was crude (by modern standards) sexual humor, such as, “Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion.” And there was plenty more: advertisements for apartments for rent, prostitutes, and political campaigns; poems seemingly composed on the fly; records of debt; love letters; mockery; puns; poems found scratched on doorways by rejected lovers standing outside; quotes from great works of Roman literature; alphabets; words and phrases in other languages, like Greek or Safaitic (a sort of pre-Arabic).

Seeds of change

Naturally, all of these works have slowly changed ideas on what Roman life was like at the time.

One interesting example has to do with the extremely disliked Nero—the infamous Christian persecutor who was suspected of burning Rome down and who had his own mother murdered. Amazingly, according to the graffiti around Pompeii, Nero actually wasn’t as disliked by Romans as historians have believed. In fact, it’s estimated that more than half of the graffiti found praising emperors lauds Nero.

His popularity apparently only took a sharp, permanent downturn when he kicked his pregnant wife, Poppaea, to death. Yet, when his memory was condemned by the Senate following his death, and his statues were effaced, it appears that the people of Pompeii did not destroy the graffiti praising him—perhaps indicating that, despite everything, he still was in favor.

Functionally literate

Another long-held belief was that very few members of Roman society were literate, especially in the case of the lower classes. However, the graffiti found in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum seem to tell otherwise.

For example, a common aspect of campaigning for political office involved painting an advertisement (programmata) on the wall of a building in a busy area. This required one to hire (literate) men to grab a ladder, some torches, and a whitewasher to paint a well-worded vote of confidence in the middle of the night. Which begs the question: Why would one bother to hire men to paint an advertisement if so few people could read it?

ancient roman graffiti

From the exterior of the House of the Sarno Lararium, Pompeii: “We the town’s citizens and resident aliens ask for Gaius Ateius Capito as aedile [a low-level public official].” (Credit: ©Jackie and Bob Dunn, www.pompeiiinpictures.com. Su concessione del Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo – Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia.)

The same goes for other advertisements as well, like for goods, apartments for rent, or prostitutes, such as this one found on the Street of the Theatres: “A copper pot went missing from my shop. Anyone who returns it to me will be given 65 bronze coins [roughly 26 days of wages for a soldier]. 20 more will be given for information leading to the capture of the thief.”

A rich man is less likely to care about such a small amount of money, and would likely own his own domus (house) in lieu of living in the working-class apartment buildings known as insulae. So who was expected to read and care about such things?

Moreover, in graffiti scratched into the soft plaster walls of various buildings, there seems to be examples of what some call “recreational literacy”. As in: There are what appear to be many attempts of people practicing writing alphabets and practice sentences, likely in an attempt to boost their ability to read and write. Paper was expensive, but walls were free and easy to scratch—and thus were the perfect place to drill oneself.

There are also a large number of references to Roman literature, especially Virgil’s Aeneid, which suggests that such works were widely-known throughout society. This of course doesn’t necessarily indicate literacy, but the first few words of the Aeneid, “Arma virumque cano” (I sing of arms and the man”) are so prevalent, it seems that they were widely memorized at all levels of society. In fact, those words were so famous that it seems a clever pictor painted this for a political campaign:

ancient roman graffiti

Progamma in grey, with pictor’s “arma virumque” below. Author added representative drawings based on other images. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The programma here is written in the boldest black, and the same paint is used to write the first words of the Aeneid—meaning the pictor wrote both of them. Such a practice wasn’t unusual; sign writers often filled in space around a programma with unrelated words or phrases.

Here, however, the pictor got clever. A previous programma had the letters DIDOVF in it; the new programma used the first four letters, DIDO, to make a sort of wordplay by writing the Aeneid quote under it—as Queen Dido was the great tragic love of the Aeneid’s protagonist, Aeneas. Thus, this not only demonstrated the pictor’s skills and sign writing abilities, but also added a sort of “learned” joke that could have scored his candidate some bonus points.

In short, it seems that ancient Romans, as a whole, were much more literature (and steeped in works of literature) than previously guessed—which would only make sense. At the very least, functional literacy, or knowing how to read key things like prices, seems like it would have been much more common than absolute illiteracy.

A woman speaks (finally)

As for voices of the voiceless, Pompeii may house some extraordinary pieces of graffiti—in theory, lost written works from the past could be somewhere there on the walls. Better yet, though, is a definite lost voice: Pompeii contains what seems to be the only female homoerotic love poem in the entire empire.

Not only are women typically nonexistent in terms of authoring Roman literature, but female homosexuality was (according to male sources) viewed as an abomination. (Male homosexuality, however, was widely accepted for the majority of the empire, until Christianity grew in strength. There are many extant male homoerotic love poems.)

ancient roman graffiti

The poem. Found in a small alley in Region IX of Pompeii. (Credit: ©Jackie and Bob Dunn, www.pompeiiinpictures.com. Su concessione del Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo – Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia.)

Which translates as:

Oh, would that it were permitted to grasp with my neck your little arms

as they entwine [it] and to give kisses to your delicate little lips.

Come now, my little darling, entrust your pleasures to the winds.

(En)trust me, the nature of men is insubstantial.

Often as I have been awake, lovesick, at midnight,

you think on these things with me: many are they whom Fortune lifted high;

these, suddenly thrown down headlong, she now oppresses.

Thus, just as Venus suddenly joined the bodies of lovers,

daylight divides them and if…

However, this is a hotly debated work of poetry. Like all of Latin, the sex of the people involved derives from the endings of the nouns and adjectives. The case ending for the person addressed, “my little darling” (pupula), is feminine. Meanwhile, the person who is talking to their darling describes themselves as perdita, or the feminine form of lovesick. However, perdita could also be referring to another aspect of the story (the night, nocte, in the ablative case) instead of a human person, making the speaker of an unlisted sex and most likely a man.

However, ancient Roman women often spoke to each other using baby talk (blanditiae)—so the language here could simply be that as well, since many of the nouns are in diminutive forms, like pupula (making “my darling” “my little darling”). All in all, the jury is currently out (but hopeful).

Clueless context

There are several other enormous issues that come along with graffiti. Namely: context.

For archaeology, it is the most important thing you need for an object. Where was an object found? A well? A grave shaft? What layer of dirt was it in? Was it found in Sicily? Athens? What was found with it? And it goes on and on.

Without context, it’s pretty hard to figure anything out about an object aside from the medium and style, and can make it impossible to tell if a work is a forgery—part of the reason why looting is such a huge problem for archaeologists and museums. And unfortunately, a lot of the graffiti from Pompeii lacks context.

Because of the 11,000 graffiti found, roughly 90% have disappeared thanks to weathering or destruction caused by bombs dropped in World War II. Of course, each graffito was recorded—but often, the location of the graffito is missing. Or, the graffito was copied down wrong, and we have no way of knowing the true inscription.

For example, in aforementioned female homoerotic love poem, copying down just two letters wrong, like perdita instead of perditus, means that the speaker was actually a male. Or, if there were, say, a drawing of a gladiator with the words “Trimalchio is the best,” knowing it came from the house of a wealthy man named Trimalchio who had hosted public gladiator battles would add much more meaning than just knowing that, at one point, such a graffito existed somewhere in Pompeii—which is sadly the case for a lot of the graffiti.

Another problem with context is not knowing who drew or painted a graffito, nor when they did it. With rare exception, the graffiti of Pompeii isn’t dated. And when it is, it very rarely gives the year. (Somewhat puzzlingly, the graffiti with written years only date up until the year 62 CE, when a major earthquake rocked the area and destroyed an enormous portion of the city. It’s suspected that such an event may have dampened the spirit of the Pompeii, to the point where it quelled creative expression—and thus the production of graffiti past that point.)

Too much anonymity

Further, in all of the 11,000 pieces of graffiti, classicists have only recognized one man as a true “author” of any work: Loreius Tiburtinus. He is credited with 11 separate graffiti poems or fragments, the majority of which were found outside a gate leading into one of the small theaters of the city.

Tiburtinus was credited with these poems because, like many other people, he signed his work: Tiburtinus epoese, which is an interesting mix of Ancient Greek and Latin. “Epoese” is a transliterated form of the Greek verb ποιέω, to make. So roughly, it reads, “Tiburtinus made this.” Which, unfortunately, is problematic again. In what way did Tiburtinus make these poems? Did he compose them, or did he simply make the graffiti marks, thereby copying down someone else’s work?

In sum, graffiti was the text of the everyman in ancient Rome, granting us unique insight into how everyone lived—not just wealthy free men. But for everything we learn, there seems to be a tantalizing mystery we have no way of resolving, making graffiti both our greatest aid and our most frustrating foe.


Feature Image: Thinkstock

*Though, there was a specific word for the person who whitewashed a wall so an advertisement or political campaign could be drawn on a clean slate: dealbator.

[1] Freeman, Charles. Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

[2] Milnor, Kristina. Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.

Milnor was also the source for all non-cited information.

[3] http://www.pompeiana.org/Resources/Ancient/Graffiti%20from%20Pompeii.htm has a hilarious, probably NSFW list of graffiti from across Pompeii that is worth a read-through. My favorite, from the basilica inside Region VIII: “Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they ever have before!”