By Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
Graffiti is ephemeral in nature. It is exposed to the elements, is often defaced or written over by later or rival artists, and the walls or surfaces on which graffiti is scribbled are typically actively sought out and erased or painted over by the annoying figures of authority. Hence, it’s incredible that an entire body of graffiti has improbably survived from the Roman era, and with it gave voice to the ordinary Roman.
The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius
Throughout history, Italians have been drawn to the scenic beauty of the Bay of Naples, whose curving shore is given a majestic backdrop by the tall cone of Mount Vesuvius. During the sweltering summer, many wealthy ancient Romans escaped the city of Rome and moved to luxurious villas along the Bay of Naples, where the cool sea breeze provided relief from the heat.
However, in the early afternoon of August 24, 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted. According to the eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger, who survived the eruption, a massive dirty-white, tree-shaped cloud rose above the mountain while lava flowed from its sides. Over the next several days, material spewed from Vesuvius, covering surrounding regions under a thick layer of pumice.
The devastated areas included the prosperous cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were entombed beneath a blanket of volcanic ash over four meters thick. The volcanic flows which destroyed these cities paradoxically also preserved many fragile items that would otherwise have been lost, such as wooden objects, papyrus scrolls, wall paintings, and even the graffiti on the walls. The accidental preservation of this highly perishable evidence of everyday life has done much to fill out our understanding of Roman civilization.
Learn more about the burial and tombstone epitaphs from ancient Rome.
Graffiti Lining the Streets of Pompeii
As a source of information, graffiti is intriguing because it does not represent the views of one group, but rather tends to be written by a broad range of individuals.
The walls lining the streets of Pompeii were typically plastered and whitewashed. To discourage burglars, most houses lacked large ground-level windows, resulting in long tempting stretches of white surfaces. These walls were exploited by a wide spectrum of people who painted or incised messages ranging from the political to the personal. Much of this graffiti was drawn in block letters using red paint, while other examples were simply scratched into the plastered wall.
The density of graffiti along Pompeii’s streets has been carefully studied, and it is perhaps no surprise that the most heavily traveled roads also possessed the thickest concentrations of graffiti.
The most densely written upon walls were those along the thoroughfares that traversed the entire width of the city and led directly to the gates in the city’s fortified walls. These would have been the roads most used by the Pompeiians themselves, but also by visitors to the city and those simply passing through.
The writers of graffiti clearly preferred to leave their messages in places where the greatest numbers of people would read them.
Learn more about Roman art and architecture.
Aemilius Celer: The Professional Graffiti Writer
Pompeian graffiti is so pervasive that the city’s inhabitants clearly seem to have viewed the walls lining the streets as a kind of public advertisement space. Indeed, one large category of graffiti is composed of the type of slogans that we might find today on advertising billboards.
This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, Wondrium.
There was even a class of professional sign painters who could be hired to inscribe commercial or political messages on walls; their work is usually larger in size and more grammatically correct than the other writings on the walls.
One such professional graffiti writer was a man named Aemilius Celer, who apparently took such pride in his work that he often signed it. His writings show that he was hired to advertise events and businesses, as well as to scrawl political slogans and exhortations to elect a particular candidate.
One famous inscription of his is an advertisement for some upcoming gladiator games:
Twenty pairs of gladiators sponsored by Decimus Lucretius Satrius Valens, priest of Nero Caesar, and ten pairs of gladiators sponsored by his son, Decimus Lucretius Valens, will fight on April 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. A wild animal hunt will additionally be offered. The awnings will be employed. Aemilius Celer, alone in the moonlight, wrote this.
Celer even marked his own home with the simple inscription, Aemilius Celer lives here.
This industrious painter also took an interest in local politics, as evidenced by the following testimonial:
The neighbors of Lucius Statius Receptus urge you to elect him duovir with judicial power. He is a worthy candidate. Aemilius Celer, his neighbor, wrote this. If you maliciously deface this sign, may you fall seriously ill.
Pompeii Graffiti for Commercial Use
Much of the graffiti lining the streets of Pompeii was related to commercial activity. It appears to have been common practice to advertise rooms for rent by painting a sign on the wall. One example of upscale property states:
For Rent: The Arrius Pollio apartment building owned by Gnaeus Allius Nigidius Maius. Street-front shops with counter space, luxury second-story apartments, and a townhouse available beginning July 1. Interested parties should contact Primus, the slave of Gnaeus Allius Nigidius Maius.
Hotels boasted of their facilities to passers-by, as did one inn in Pompeii whose exterior wall bore the inscription:
To Rent: rooms including a triclinium, three couches, and all amenities.
In taverns, the available drinks might be listed on the walls:
Hedone declares: You can get a drink here for one as [a type of coin]. You can get a better drink for 2 asses. With 4 asses you can drink Falernian wine [that’s a wine famous for its quality].
Customer Complaints in Pompeii Graffiti
Those who imbibed at such establishments were not always pleased with the quality of the fare that they were served, and some disgruntled guests recorded their displeasure on the walls:
Oh Innkeeper, I hope that your cheating ways will catch up with you. You sell us water, and drink the pure wine yourself.
An unhappy hotel guest left this message:
Dear Innkeeper—We have pissed in the bed. If you ask ‘why,’ it is because you did not equip the room with a chamberpot.
In addition to this prominent and highly public form of graffiti, the eruption of Vesuvius also preserved more intimate messages on interior walls, a practice that seems to have been especially common in latrines, inns, and brothels.
The graffiti of Pompeii constitutes an incredibly valuable resource to historians that offer otherwise unknowable information about day-to-day life. It gives us a window into the lives of ordinary people and helps to compensate for the bias of the literary sources towards the rich and influential. Through graffiti, we can learn about the attitudes, fears, and hopes of the average Roman, who is able to speak to us directly via his or her impromptu scribblings.
Common Questions about Pompeii Graffiti
Yes, more than 11,000 samples of graffiti were discovered during the excavations of the city of Pompeii. The first set of graffiti was discovered back in the 1800s and archaeologists have been studying them since then. In fact, these documented records of graffiti from the 1800s are primary sources for present-day historians, because most of the graffiti has been lost due to natural degradation.
Romans were drawn to the scenic beauty of the Bay of Naples and the city of Pompeii. The curving shoreline with the majestic backdrop of Mount Vesuvius made Pompeii the top summer destination for many wealthy ancient Romans, who escaped the city of Rome and moved to luxurious villas along the Bay of Naples, where the cool sea breeze provided relief from the heat.
The volcanic ash produced by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. covered Pompeii under a blanket of volcanic ash, up to four meters thick. Pompeii was effectively entombed. Hence, the city was perfectly preserved. This allowed archaeologists and historians to excavate the city and study it and gain insights into the life of ancient Romans.
The Pompeii graffiti suggests that the primary languages of the people living in the city were Greek and Oscan. Hebrew and Latin were the secondary languages.