Pompei (Italie): ancient Roman graffiti


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.)

Image005 2 617x239The 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.)
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.

*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!”