Roman Graffiti
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Roman Graffiti
Inscription on wall plaster

In archaeological terms, graffiti (plural of graffito) is a mark, image or writing scratched or engraved into a surface.[1] There have been numerous examples found on sites of the Roman Empire, including taverns and houses, as well as on pottery of the time. In many cases the graffiti tend toward the rude, with a line etched into the basilica in Pompeii reading "Lucilla made money from her body," phallic images, as well as erotic pictures.[2] Studying the graffiti left behind from the Roman Period can give a better understanding of the daily life and attitudes of the Roman people with conclusions drawn about how everyday Romans talked, where they spent their time, and their interactions within those spaces.

Graffiti samples

Inscriptions cover a range of topics from poems, advertisements, political statements, to greetings. There are two forms of graffiti: painted inscriptions (usually public notices) and inscribed inscriptions (spontaneous messages).


Over 11,000 graffiti samples have been uncovered in the excavations of Pompeii. Archaeologists have been studying and recording graffiti in Pompeii since the 1800s. These documentations remain the best evidence of over 90 percent of recorded graffiti from the area, which has not survived the elements.[3]

House of Maius Castricius

Sample of poetry from stairwell of House of Maius Castricius, Pompeii

This domestic residence shows that ancient graffiti was not limited to the public sphere, as graffiti is in modern day. This site, discovered in the 1960s, has benefited from preservation efforts, leaving the graffiti samples in their original context and remain legible. There is a unique feature of eleven graffiti containing multiple lines of poetry. For the most part, the poems are arranged vertically and respect the space of the others. This mix of original work and common phases are not a miscellaneous group because of the number and composition; instead, it appears that a conversation has formed.[4]

One passage on the staircase reads:

vasia quae rapui, quaeris formosa puella
accipe quae rapui non ego solus; ama.
quisquis amat valeat

Which translates to:

Beautiful girl, you seek the kisses that I stole.
Receive what I was not alone in taking; love.
Whoever loves, may she fare well.

Outside the shop of Fabius Ululitremulus

Three inscriptions referring to the opening line of the Aeneid

An example here demonstrates a familiarity with Virgil and hexameter verse. On the doorpost of the shop near pictures of Aeneas and Romulus is written:[5]

Fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumque.

Translating to:

I sing of cloth-launderers and an owl, not arms and a man.

The owl is a signifier of Minerva, the goddess who has been said to be protector over the profession of fullones.[2]

Mary Beard notes that there are more than fifty examples of graffiti referring to Virgil in Pompeii alone, but also notes that the majority of the references are to the opening lines of Book 1 or Book 2 of the Aeneid, suggesting that these lines may have been widely known in the fashion "To be, or not to be" is known today.[6]


Inscription diaologue

Graffiti is often meant to be seen and expects to be read. A dialogue is formed between the reader and the inscription and can be simple as they speak directly to the readers in forms such as "if anyone sits here, let him read this before everything else..." as well as "He who writes this is in love... and I who reads this am a prick."

There are also dialogues where one passage answers another. These responses take the forms of greetings, insults, prayers, etc.

Successus textor amat coponiaes ancilla(m)
nomine Hiredem quae quidem illum
non curat sed ille rogat illa com(m)iseretur
scribit rivalis vale

Translates to:

Successus the weaver is in love with the slave of the
Innkeeper, whose name is Iris. She doesn't care about
him at all, but he asks that she take pity on him.
A rival wrote this

A response to this translates to:[4]

You're so jealous you're bursting. Don't tear down
someone more handsome-
a guy who could beat you up and who is good-looking.

Games and riddles

Word squares (magic square) and riddles are also common forms of the culture of graffiti. These show a level of mental agility and flexibility of language.[7]


Examples of handwritten alphabets are common graffiti in Pompeii and could be evidence of children practicing their alphabet. This lends to the argument that children were responsible for much of the graffiti. However, the height of the inscriptions and location may contradict this.[7]


Writing around 100 AD, Plutarch wrote of graffiti: "There is nothing written in them which is either useful or pleasing - only so-and-so 'remembers' so-and-so, and 'wishes him the best', and is 'the best of his friends', and many things full of such ridiculousness".[8]

21st-century scholars have found more to study and enjoy in the visual art and intertextuality of Roman graffiti.[9]

More than simply text and thought, Roman graffiti give insight into the use of space and how people interacted within it. Studying the motivation behind the marks reveals a trend for the graffiti to be located where people spend time and pass most frequently as they move through a space. Common places for graffiti are staircases, central peristyle, and vestibule. The use of graffiti by Romans has been said to be very different from the defacing trends of modern day, with the text blending into the walls and rooms by respecting the frescoes and decoration with the use of small letters. In this way, the environment influences the graffiti by subject and organization, and the graffiti in turn changes and influences the environment.[4]

Studying graffiti

Typical techniques when studying graffiti include drawing each inscription and taking photographs if special attention is required. When only a shadow of the engravings are visible to the naked eye, other methods of observance are needed to decipher the engravings.

3D laser profilometry

Using 3D laser profilometry to analyze the roughness of a surface, archaeologists have been able to determine the tools used in engraving. This technique merged with photographs taken with oblique light, different lighting conditions, and results from electrostatic detection devices have increased the readability of illegible inscriptions.[10]

See also


  1. ^ Knapp, Robert C. (2011). Invisible Romans. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP.
  2. ^ a b Mount, Harry (1 October 2013). "What Can We Learn from Roman Graffiti?". The Telegraph'. Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 2015.
  3. ^ Ohlson, Kristin. "Reading the Writing on Pompeii's Walls." Smithsonian, 26 July 2010. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
  4. ^ a b c Benefiel, Rebecca R. "Dialogues of Ancient Graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii." American Journal of Archaeology 114.1 (2010): 59-101. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
  5. ^ Sander M. Goldberg (2005). Constructing Literature in the Roman Republic. Cambridge University. p. 20. ISBN 9780521854610.
  6. ^ Mary Beard (2015). SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 369-370. ISBN 9781631491252.
  7. ^ a b Benefiel, Rebecca R. "Magic Squares, Alphabet Jumbles, Riddles and More: The Culture of Word-Games among the Graffiti of Pompeii." The Muse at Play. Vol. 305. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2012. 65-80. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.
  8. ^ Emily Gowers (10 December 2014). "Ancient vandalism?". Times Literary Supplement. Retrieved .
  9. ^ Kristina Milnor (2014). Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780199684618.
  10. ^ Montani, Isabelle, et al. "Analysis of Roman Pottery Graffiti by High Resolution Capture and 3D Laser Profilometry." Journal of Archaeological Science 39.11 (2012): 3349.Web

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