Roman Graffitt

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ROMAN GRAFFITI

Rude Romans - Latin as she was written in graffiti

Because classics has been the persevere of public schools, and the Catholic Church for centuries, it’s easy to forget that people actually spoke Latin.  They swore in Latin, they told each other jokes in Latin, and they put bets on Ben Hur in the 3.30 at the Colosseum in Latin.

If you want know how everyday Romans – not Virgil, Tacitus or Julius Caesar, actually talked, then look at Roman graffiti.  It still survives in great quantities, scrawled above the bar in Pompeii taverns, scribbled on walls of houses in Rome.  It’s often in very good condition, although it can be quite hard to make out – with no divisions between the words, and the letters in a recognisable, but hard to decipher, ancient font.

Once you work it out, you’ll find that just like school boys today, the Romans loved their graffiti to be rude.  In the basilica in Pompeii is written the line, Lucilla ex corpore lucrum faciebat – ‘Lucilla made money from her body.’  On a nearby wall, someone has written:  Sum Tua aeris assibus II – ‘I’m yours for two bronze coins.’  

It wasn’t jus rude words they liked to write plenty of lovelorn graffiti survive, including this example, found in the house of Pinarius Cerialis in Pompeii:

Marcellus Praenestinam amat et non curatur.
‘Marcellus loves Praenestina but she doesn’t care for him.’

Some of the writing is less graffiti, and more advertisement.  In Herculaneum, in a taverna’s kitchen, the proprietor wrote, XI Kalendas panem factum – ‘ Bread is made on the eleventh of the month.’

As in modern Italy, political graffiti was also popular. In Via Mola a, Pompeii, you ca. See the slogan, C. Iulium Polybium aedilem pro vow faciatis.  Panem bonum fert – ‘I beg you to make C. Julius Polybiua aedile [a magistrate] . He makes good bread.’

Plenty of lovelorn graffiti survive, including this example, found in the house of Pinarius Cerialis in Pompeii:

Marcellus Praenestinam amat et non curatur.
‘Marcellus loves Praenestina but she doesn’t care for him.’

Some of the writing is less graffiti, and more advertisement.  In Herculaneum, in a taverna’s kitchen, the proprietor wrote, XI Kalendas panem factum – ‘ Bread is made on the eleventh of the month.’

As in modern Italy, political graffiti was also popular. In Via Mola a, Pompeii, you ca. See the slogan, C. Iulium Polybium aedilem pro vow faciatis.  Panem bonum fert – ‘I beg you to make C. Julius Polybiua aedile [a magistrate] . He makes good bread.’

Lovers of Roman civilisation will be relieved to discover that the graffiti can get pretty high minded, too. Some graffiti writers cleverly referenced the great Roman authors, as Fabius Ululiremulus did in his Pompeii laundry: 

Fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumque.  ‘I sing of launderers and howling, not arms and a man.’

Fabius was quoting – what was then, as now – the most famous line in Roman poetry, the opening of Virgil’s Aeneid: Arma virumque cano – ‘I sing of arms and a man’.

In Balbus’s house in Pompeii, there’s the simple line, Militat omnes, a borrowing from Ovid’s line, Militat omnis amans – ‘Every lover fights.’

People who struggled with their gerundives and subjunctives at school will be pleased that the Romans also found their language difficult.  The graffiti writer in Balbus’s house should have said omnis in the singular, not omnes in the plural.

The walls of Rome and Pompeii are littered with mistakes by writers, just like Graham Chapman’s Brian in The Life of Brian whose graffiti – Romanes eunt domus – is corrected by John Cleese’s centurion: 

Centurion: ‘Romans, go home!’ is an order, so you must use the…?

Brian: The…imperative.

Centurion: Which is?

Brian: Um, oh, oh, ‘I’, ‘I’!

Centurion: How many Romans?

Brian: Plural, plural! ‘ITE’

Some of the mistakes in Roman graffiti are comfortingly basic.  One writer in Pompeii confuses his accusatives with this nominatives, writing pupa mea (‘my little girl’), when he should have said pupam meam.  In Sallust’s house in Pompeii, someone really mangles his Latin, turning quae bella es (‘you who are beautiful’) into que bela  is.  Bottom of the class, Sallust!

Let’s not quibble over schoolboy mistakes.  Let’s rejoice in the moving poetry of the best graffiti, like these lines found in the Pompeii house of Cecilius Secundus:

Quisquis amat valeat, pereat qui nescit amare, bis tanto pereat, quisquis amare vetat.

“Let whoever loves prosper; but let the person who doesn’t know how to love die.  And let him die twice who forbids love.”

Or what about these lovely words, scrawled onto the wall of a bar in Pompeii?

Nihil durare potest tempore perpetuo; 

Cum bene sol nituit, redditur oceano,

Decrescit Phoebe, quae modo plena fuit,

Ventorum feritas saepe fit aura levis.

‘Nothing can last for ever;

Once the sun has shone, it returns beneath the sea.

The moon, once full, eventually wanes.

The violence of the winds often turns into a light breeze.’

Not the sort of thing you find daubed in marker pen over the bogs in the Dog and Duck.  But, even when Roman graffiti does sink into the gutter, it has the same stirring effect as the high flown poetry – the hand that wrote it on a wall 2000 years ago reaches across the centuries and touches your heart.

Harry Mount is the author of Amo, Amas, Amat…and All That.

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