Writing and pictures on the walls and tombs of Pompeii are a rich source of evidence for life in the town.
Graffiti in modern life is seen by many as an unsightly nuisance. In Pompeii, it is one of the richest sources of archaeological evidence for everyday life in the town.
Graffiti, which includes public notices or casual scrawl tells us about local politics and politicians, favorite pastimes, the effect of war and unrest-even the cost of food and drink. Graffiti also preserves the names of the ordinary people of Pompeii. It provides a link between past and present, showing us that despite the time gap, people aren’t so different today.
‘I admire you wall, for not having collapsed at having carry the tedious scribblings of so many writers.’
As the quote suggests, graffiti was prolific in Pompeii. It many ways, it had much in common with the modern variety. Pompeian’s also scrawled ‘I was here’ on buildings lining the town’s streets-but in charcoal rather than spray paint. They drew amusing cartoon-like pictures, wrote rhymes and poetry and messages to lovers and friends.
Some of those messages were less than friendly. One piece of graffiti consists of an argument between Severus and Successus, two rivals in love for a barmaid, Iris. Similarly, one ill-wisher of a certain Chois, scrawled on the town basilica ‘I hope your piles again become sore.’
Graffiti also gave the people information. As a result, it enables archaeologists and historians to learn obscure everyday details not available elsewhere. Recommendations were made for prostitutes, telling interested parties how much they cost and what they offered. A casual notice for market dates is the only evidence that tells us Pompeii was a regional market. Even the cost of food and drink, survive because menus and messages were written on tavern walls or the internal walls of houses .
Graffiti even covered the irritation of graffiti itself. One disgruntled householder wrote a warning on his wall to any would be scribblers warning ‘whoever writes anything here let him rot and be nameless.’
War and Conflict.
‘Go by this route between the twelfth tower and the salt gate, where Marcus Atrius, son of Vibius gives instructions.’
Other graffiti had a more serious purpose. The piece of graffiti quoted above is part of a series of messages written at strategic points around the town at the time of the Social War of the first century BC when Pompeii was at war with Rome. The graffiti details mustering points for citizens in times of attack. We also indirectly learn about the original names for parts of the city. The Salt Gate, for instance, is the original name for the Herculaneum Gate.
Historical events were also recorded by casual scrawlers. Within the entrance of one house is a picture of two mounted men fighting two others on foot. One of the men is named ‘Spartacus’ in Oscan. Spartacus and his rebels were at one time encamped nearby on the slopes of Vesuvius. One householder at least wanted to commemorate the event.
Gladiators and Actors.
‘The gladiatorial troop of Aulus Suettius Certus, aedile, will fight at Pompeii on the 31 May. There will be a hunt and awnings’ ( From a wall of the Eumachia Building, Street of Abundance, Pompeii).
Graffiti about gladiators and gladiator fights were found all over the city of Pompeii. They mention the successes and failures of the fighters, as well as their popularity. They also provide us with evidence about the losers of the games. Graffiti tells us that not every loser was killed and many lived to fight another day.
The example quoted is a typical example of graffiti advertising a fight. Written by special sign writers, these notices tell who owned or was paying for the gladiators, what the programme would involve, when they would take place (and where) and any additional attractions for the spectator’s comfort.
The games were perhaps the most popular form of popular entertainment. But the theatre was a close second. Many touring troops of actors played in Pompeii’s theatre. One belonged to Actius Anicetus who is recorded in various places around the city. So too were popular actors such as ‘Paris, pearl of the stage’ who was celebrated on street walls and tombs across the town.
Politics Pompeii Style.
‘I ask you to elect Claudius Versus duumvir with judicial power, an honest young man’
Some of these entertainments were paid for by prospective local politician as part of their election campaigns who may also have commissioned election notices like the one quoted above. This ‘election graffiti’ was painted on the walls of buildings around the town. Often, they named the politician’s supporter. Crucially they always included the candidate and the office. As above, they often named the qualities that they believed qualified the candidate for office.
Election graffiti also worked against candidates. They could make ironic recommendations designed to put people off, as in the case of a candidate called Vatia whose election campaign was probably well and truly scuppered by signs saying ‘The little thieves ask for Vatia as aedile.’
Election notices also give us information about how often elections took place in Pompeii. Archaeologists have discovered that election notices were whitewashed over once the campaign was over, creating layers. We know that elections took place every year in March. But this series of notices also gives us the names of the candidates for office over the last ten years of Pompeii’s life.
The People of Pompeii.
Besides politicians, graffiti gives us the names of the town’s ordinary citizens, those who otherwise would be lost to us. We know the names of some of the very lowest members of Pompeii’s society, such as gladiators and slaves. Tombs outside the city walls near the Nucerian gate record gladiators called ‘princeps’ or ‘the chief’ and Hilarus’ ( from the Latin for merry).
These nicknames indicate the individuals were slaves. But not every gladiator in Pompeii was servile. Marcus Attilius’s name indicates he was freeborn and therefore probably a volunteer. This popular gladiator appears in graffiti about the city which details his career from his first fights to his victories.
We can learn about the names and occupations of people. Sign writers such as Aemilius Celer are preserved for posterity by the signatures they put against the notices they painted. Local tradesmen are also known through graffiti. Stephanus’s fullery is so called because the owners name is mentioned in election graffiti outside. Likewise, a tannery near a shop at I V 2 is identifiable as belonging to Xulmus because a sign directing people to his workshop was written on a nearby wall.
Cooley, A. E and Cooley M. G . L (2005) ‘Pompeii: A Sourcebook’. London: Routledge.