Reading the writings on Pompeii’s Walls

Contemporary scholars have been drawn to the study of graffiti, interested to hear the voices of the non-elite and marginal groups that earlier scholars spurned and then surprised to learn that the practice of graffiti was widespread among all groups across the ancient world. Today, graffiti is valued for the nuance it adds to our understanding of historical periods.

In the past four years, there have been four international conferences devoted to ancient and historic graffiti. One, at England’s University of Leicester organized by scholars Claire Taylor and Jennifer Baird in 2008, drew so many participants that there wasn’t space for all of them. Taylor and Baird have edited a book that sprang from that conference called Ancient Graffiti in Context, which will be published in September. On the book’s introductory page, an epigram taken from a wall in Pompeii speaks to the multitude of graffiti in the ancient world: “I’m amazed, O wall, that you have not fallen in ruins, you who support the tediousness of so many writers.”

“Graffiti is often produced very spontaneously, with less thought than Virgil or the epic poetry,” says Taylor, a lecturer in Greek history at Trinity College in Dublin. “It gives us a different picture of ancient society.”

Pablo Ozcáriz, a lecturer in ancient history at Madrid’s Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, has found thousands of medieval graffiti in the Cathedral of Pamplona and at the Abbey of La Olivia in Navarre. Taken as a whole, they often offer a more realistic underpinning to official histories. “It’s as if someone asks us to write two diaries,” Ozcáriz explains. “One will be published as a very important book and the other will be just for me. The first may be more beautiful, but the second will be more sincere.”

Benefiel’s study of Pompeii’s graffiti has revealed a number of surprises. Based on the graffiti found on both exterior walls and in kitchens and servant rooms, she surmises that the emperor Nero was much more popular than we tend to think (but not so much after he kicked his pregnant wife). She’s found that declarations of love were every bit as common then as they are today and that it was acceptable for visitors to carve their opinions about the city into its walls. She’s discovered that the people of Pompeii loved displaying their cleverness via graffiti, from poetry contests to playful recombinations of the letters that form Roman numerals.

And she’s found that Pompeians expressed far more goodwill than ill will. “They were much nicer in their graffiti than we are,” she says. “There are lots of pairings with the word ‘felicter,’ which means ‘happily.’ When you pair it with someone’s name, it means you’re hoping things go well for that person. There are lots of graffiti that say ‘Felicter Pompeii,’ wishing the whole town well.”


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