Gossip from Pompeii: A Brief Excursus

I know I have not written anything in a while, partly because I have been so busy with working on a new collection of essays I am putting together with Bob Price and partly because I have been working on articles for another collection of essays I am contributing to, that I have not had the time to blog (even though I really, really want to).   In between drilling myself silly with book proposals, abstracts, and contacting contributors, I have managed to start working on the article concerning ancient literature, literacy and model use in antiquity that I promised a few months ago.

During my research for the article, I have been very interested in Pompeii as a possible example for one of the points I make throughout.  In Pompeii, there are some 11,000 instances of the written word.  Some of these instances show signs of bilingual semi-literates (where something is written in Latin, but in the Greek alphabet), which belay the influence of Greek culture on the region prior to the war which later brought that region of Italy into the Roman empire.  Other instances are far more elaborate (like official inscriptions) or less than fascinating (like who is in love with who).

The questions that I feel are important concerning literacy rely primarily on the banal.  Much of this will be covered in the main article, however the question must be asked; if the common man or woman (much less frequently) could write graffiti on the side of a building, or could even write their name, what does that imply about their level of literacy?  Who would be able to read the graffiti anyway?  What purpose would literacy even have in the commoners life?  These questions aside (like I said, answered in the main article I am working on), while reading through some of the graffiti, I had more than my share of chuckles.  I thought as a quick blog post I would share some of them with you.  You might see similar graffiti above urinals in a public restroom. (The Complete Pompeii, p. 102)

  • Samius to Cornelius: go hand yourself!
  • Chios, I hope your piles irritate you so they burn like they’ve never burned before!
  • Lucilla was making money from her body.
  • I hate poor people.  Anyone who asks for anything free is a fool; he should hand over his money and take the goods.
  • At Nuceria, look for Novema Prumgenia near the Roman gate in the prostitute district.
  • Virgula to her broke Tertius: you’re a dirty old man.

3 Responses

  1. Tom,

    There is also at least one Hebrew graffito at Pompeii, along with a Latin reference to Sodom & Gomorrah. Check out Mary Beard’s new book on this.

  2. I saw that! Very compelling, indeed. The wall painting that depicts a scene from the temple is also compelling. Is it slanderous towards the Jewish community in Pompeii or friendly towards them?

  3. Funny how things never really change, isn’t it? I think sometimes people don’t think of the ancients as “real people.” Hell, I bet some of the earliest cave inscriptions are dirty jokes, and we just haven’t figured it out yet.

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