“Fortunatus loves Amplianda. Ianuarius loves Veneria. We ask mistress Venus that you keep us in mind.”
“Oh, Epaphras, thou art bald.”
“Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here.”
Any of those look familiar? The language of the wall etchings found among the ruins of the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum—famously destroyed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD—might be more flowery than we’re used to seeing in the public spaces of our cities, but the motivations still hit home.
This person and I are in love.
This guy’s a jerk.
I was here.
“The innate desire to put some sort of artistic expression in a place where people can see it, that’s baseline human,” says Caleb Neelon, an artist and historian of the graffiti movement in America. “We were making art as essentially a public declaration.”
The residents of the ancient world probably didn’t have lofty aesthetic aspirations in mind as they etched vignettes of their daily lives into the walls around them—names, well-wishes, trash talk, pictures of animals, grocery lists—but they were fulfilling an impulse shared by the graffiti artists of modern times.
Make your mark. Be remembered.
A Window into the Ancient World
In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the titular character, a commoner in the Roman-occupied province of Judea during biblical times, paints the message “Romans Go Home” on a palace wall to prove his revolutionary bona fides.
He is caught in the act by a centurion, who engages in more intellectual than corporal punishment. First, he corrects Brian’s atrocious Latin. Then, he makes him write the corrected message 100 times on the wall.
Rebecca Benefiel, PhD, professor of classics at Washington and Lee University, says that satirical scene of ancient graffiti has at least some basis in truth. Visitors who toured the ruins of well-preserved ancient cities such as Pompeii and Herculaneum in the early 20th century would have been able to see big, boldly painted notices on the walls around town, advertising chariot races or promoting political candidates for office.
After taking heavy shelling during World War II, though, most of the original plaster was destroyed. That leaves current graffiti-seekers looking for messages in etchings on the brick and stone that made up the foundation of the ancient structures.
That’s still quite a fruitful pursuit.
“It really explodes our ideas on literacy,” Benefiel says. “We’ve got thousands more pieces of writing than we could’ve ever imagined, and they’re not being done by professionals. They’re being done by regular people. It shows us what life was like for 99 percent of the people in the ancient world.”
Benefiel has been studying ancient Roman graffiti for nearly 20 years, ever since she started her dissertation at Harvard. She has made numerous trips to Herculaneum and Pompeii and, during a 2008 expedition, found more than 20 graffiti that had never been recorded in the house of a Pompeiian named Maius Castricius.
To her, the extraordinary thing about these messages is just how ordinary most of them seem.
“On this one section of wall, there was a ton of poetry people were writing back and forth. They were quoting things in kind of a competitive spirit, maybe,” Benefiel says. “We have another section where there is a man and a woman, and they write greetings to each other at one end of the block, and the other writes back at the other end of the block. There is very much a sense of these being a way to express oneself, not with a huge voice, but with a clever voice. They are the chance for someone to put something personal up there, where other people, if they knew how to read, could appreciate it.”
Much of it is site-specific. Writings on the walls of homes are pretty tame: shopping lists, reminders, messages between the servants. Ones found in venues such as taverns or brothels, however, tend to be a little racier.
Benefiel keeps and curates a growing online database of more than 500 inscriptions from Pompeii and Herculaneum through the Ancient Graffiti Project. She finds that many messages include the word “feliciter,” which translates to, “May it go happily for you.” There is also a fair sampling of quotes from popular poems of the day, much like we would tag a wall—literally or on social media—with song lyrics today.
Virgil’s The Aeneid is a popular choice for quotation. One enterprising owner of a dry-cleaning service even tried to cash in on the epic poem’s name recognition by modifying its opening line—“I sing of arms and the man who sailed from the shore below”—to fit his branding: “I sing of [dry cleaners] and an owl, not armed, and a man,” next to an etching of his business’ owl mascot.
Most of these messages gave their writers a way to be seen, a way to be heard.
“There’s a fantastic piece where you’ve got this female slave expressing her love for someone else, who is probably another slave. She’s praying to Pompeiian Venus, the goddess of the town, asking that they just be happy together,” Benefiel says. “It’s amazing to get that sort of glimpse of everything. Of the religious feel, the fact that a female slave could write and would do so in a public place, just the sweetness of their relationship. They were written by everyday, regular people, and they’re using their regular, everyday language.”
Lord Byron, the legendary Romantic poet, could have written almost anything on the columns at Cape Sounion to commemorate his trip through Greece in 1810. He had a way with words, you know.
Yet, when it came time to put chiseling instrument to marble, he settled on one word: Byron. He was fulfilling an instinct as old as the written word.
“Where do you begin? You begin with yourself: I’m the person who was here,” Benefiel says. “There is a sense of I am happy to have been in this place. I want to express myself. There is this sense that writing, and especially writing on something that is immobile, provides you with a way to echo for a longer time than you can by saying something aloud.”
When the modern American graffiti movement started in the 1960s and ’70s, Neelon says, its pioneers were teenagers acting on that impulse as well.
They painted their name in a public place to be noticed. Then they tried to top themselves—and each other—by painting their name bigger. Then multiple times. Then fancier.
Soon, a new art form was born.
“A gallery show, a museum show, these are things that are viewed by hundreds of people, maybe thousands,” Neelon says. “But you can go look at, like, the Department of Transportation site and look at certain roadways where your mural is, where your piece is, and see how many car trips go by it each year. You can be talking millions. Another thing is you actually get real people. You get everybody. If you want to [reach] people, you’ve got to go to them.”
From its roots in petty vandalism, American graffiti has grown into a hot, pop-art commodity that gets gallery shows of its own. It made household names out of artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s or Banksy and Shepard Fairey more recently.
The person who wrote “Corydon is a country bumpkin” on a wall in Pompeii would seem to have little relation to the one who mass-produced Andre the Giant’s face and the message, “OBEY.” But they’re coming from the same place.
“That’s the first visual art people had made in the same way the first song was [sung] to quiet a fussy baby. It’s just primal, primal stuff,” Neelon says.
“A canvas did not come before graffiti. Obviously, what goes on today, what went on 40,000 years ago in a cave in Indonesia … are different critters. But the impulse is the same. We’re still human beings.”
How We Live
Think about your social media presence. What is it that drives you to tweet out an especially thoughtful quotation or snap a picture of an especially scrumptious molten lava cake and add some fire emojis to the description or take a short video from the balcony of your hotel at the street—or beach—below during an especially enjoyable vacation?
It’s a way to let those in your orbit know how you’re living, what things are important to you, and what makes you happy. It’s a way to connect with friends and strangers alike, to share in the human experience.
It’s basically what the residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum were doing, albeit in more concrete media, almost 2,000 years ago.
“We came here desiring,” reads one graffito in the house of Telephus in Herculaneum. “Much more do we desire to go.”