The Writing’s on the Wall: Reading Roman Graffiti

Jerry Toner

You will probably know that scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the lead character dares to write graffiti on the palace wall. A centurion (John Cleese) catches him in the act.

Centurion: What’s this then? “Romanes eunt domus”? “People called Romanes, they go, the house”?!
Brian: It says, “Romans go home”.
Centurion: No it doesn’t! What’s Latin for Roman? Come on, come on!
Brian: Romanus?
Centurion: Goes like?
Brian: Annus?
Centurion: Vocative plural of annus is?
Brian: Anni?
Centurion: Ro-ma-ni.
     … and so the lesson continues!

Brian’s grammar might have been poor but he was not alone among ancient graffiti writers. And there were plenty of them. Approximately 13,000 pieces of graffiti survive in Pompeii, which equates to roughly one piece per member of the population. Clearly this was a popular activity. Indeed, one graffito self-consciously comments, “I admire you, wall, for not having collapsed at having to carry the tedious scribblings of so many writers” (admiror te paries non cecidisse qui tot scriptorum taedia sustineas, CIL 4.1904). Plutarch, in his work On Being a Busybody, complains about writings on tombs and walls that

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 such things full of such ridiculousness. (520E)

Was it all so useless or can these scribblings tell us something about the ordinary people of Ancient Rome?

Ancient men at work: fresco in the Catacomb of Via Latina, Rome, 4th cent. AD.

What is graffiti?

To begin with, we should distinguish between things which are scratched into a surface (graffiti) and those that are painted onto it (dipinti). There was no ancient term for graffiti, it was simply a category of writing. In the modern world, graffiti is – Banksy aside – seen as an antisocial and anti-establishment practice, which represents, in the UK at least, criminal damage to another’s property. For this reason, graffiti is mostly anonymous, or uses alternative identifiers known as “tags”. Mention graffiti to most people, and hoodies and gangs will spring to mind.

Ancient Rome was very different. The plethora of graffiti in Pompeii suggests that it was seen as completely acceptable, reflected in the many genuine author names that were attached to such writings. Not all graffiti comprised letters, with many containing figures or numbers. The graffiti often covers the front of grand houses, as if the public-facing side of a domestic wall was seen as belonging to the civic domain. Some graffiti is on the inside walls of houses, often in the reception rooms as if these too belonged to the visitors. I think we would be rather perplexed if our guests wrote on our dining-room walls, but not in Pompeii. Many dipinti are electoral notices and pledges of political support for individual candidates, some of which are painted over existing artworks. Pliny the Younger (AD 61–112) even mentions graffiti scratched onto a shrine at Clitumnus (Epistles 8.8.7).

Electoral graffiti promoting candidates on the Via dell’Abbondanza, the main thoroughfare of Pompeii, AD 79.

What was graffiti about?

It is certainly true that some Pompeian graffiti was as useless as Plutarch describes: “Lesbianus, you shit and you write ‘Hello, everyone!’” (Lesbiane, cacas, scribis salute, CIL 4.10070). But the content of the graffiti does not on the whole reflect this. Instead, graffiti served a wide range of purposes, such as intellectual display, a source of entertainment, and a form of social interaction.

Perhaps one of the most basic purposes of graffiti was to while away time. There are, for instance, mazes and puzzles.

Sketch of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, 1st cent. AD, reproduced from the wall of the House of the Lucretii, Pompeii (CIL 4.2331). The text reads: Labyrinthus. hic habitat Minotaurus (“The Labyrinth. Here lives the Minotaur.”).

Long periods of inactivity, especially on account of underemployment, were likely to have been commonplace for many of the non-elite, and perhaps graffiti helped fill that void. Whether it was the simple “Aufidus was here, goodbye,” (Aufidius hic fuit va(le), CIL 4.6702) or the more exact “Gaius Pumidius Dipilus was here on October 3rd” (C. Pumidius heic fuit ad V Nonas Octobreis, CIL 4.1842) these lines expressed a pleasure in the ability to assert oneself in the face of identity-destroying inactivity. Work provided a cornerstone of non-elite identity in a way that otium (the ideal of dignified leisure) did for the elite, so we can interpret the need to scratch surfaces as a kind of displacement activity for the work that it temporarily replaced. Or as one graffiti put it, “It took 640 paces to walk back and forth between here and there ten times” (itu reditu X passi DCXL, CIL 4.1714).

There is a pronounced element of courtesy in many graffiti. Simple greetings represent a significant portion of those in Pompeii, the kind of banal “best wishes” of which Plutarch fails to see the point. This simple politeness extended to a respect for each other’s text, with most graffiti being given their own space without being overwritten. But that is not to deny a strong competitive streak. Much of the graffiti employs an aggressive, mocking, but jocular tone towards its readers and interlocutors, treating them as semi-serious rivals in a textual-verbal competition – a kind of “banter”. For example, a prayer on a wall in Pompeii’s basilica begins as follows, “Agatho, the slave of Herennius, asks Venus…” but then halts in mid-sentence, before being finished by another hand who supplied the end of the request as, “I ask that he die” (Agatho Herenni servus rogat Venerem… ut periat rogo, CIL 4.1839). Not clever and not that funny but typical of the spirit of joking rivalry that pervaded much graffiti.

Caricature of Pereginus, 1st cent. BC, reproduced from a Pompeian wall (CIL 4.1810).

Taunts, tussles, trivia, and tabletalk:

Often there was an element of sexual machismo and swagger about these taunts: “Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here but the women did not come to know him, except for a few, who will be six in number” (Floronius benef(icarius) ac miles leg(ionis) VII hic fuit neque mulieres scierunt nisi paucae et ses erunt, CIL 4.8767).[1] Some of it is pretty crude. “Theophilus, you dog, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall,” advises one graffito on a street wall (Tiopilus, canis, cunnu(m) lingere noli puellis in muro, CIL 4.8898). Some of it was plain abusive: “Epaphra, you are bald!” (Epaphra glaber es, CIL 4.1816) said one; another “Chie, I hope your haemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than they ever have before!” (Chie, opto tibi ut refricent se ficus tuae ut peius ustulentur quam ustulatae sunt, CIL 4.1820). But some display a sense of camaraderie, such as this partially surviving elegiac couplet: “We two dear men, friends forever, were here. If (you want to know) the names, (they were Gaius and Aulus)” (hic fuimus cari duo nos sine fine sodales. / nomina si (quaeris, Caius et Aulus erant), CIL 4.8162).

One image that is recurrent in figurative Roman graffiti is that of the gladiator. It is possible to see this as a vicarious identification with the fighters who symbolised the ordinary person’s own struggle to make ends meet and even improve his status a little. Interestingly, this gladiator graffiti tends to contain lots of information in the form of facts and figures. Boiling down a gladiator’s existence to a series of hard numbers reflected the focus on practical outcomes that the ordinary people had. What mattered was results. It also suggests that numeracy was far more important in their outlook than we might otherwise imagine.

Two gladiators, a murmillo and secutor, fight to musical accompaniment, 1st cent. AD, reproduced from a Pompeian wall (CIL 4.10237). The Latin text reads Hilarus Ner(onianus) (pugnarum) XIV, c(oronarum) XII, v(icit). Creunus (pugnarum) VII, c(oronarum) V, m(issus). Pri(n)ceps Ner(onianus) (pugnarum) XII, c(oronarum) X(II?), v(icit). Munus Nolae de quadridu(o) M(arci) Comini Heredi(s). (“Hilarius, of Nero’s troupe, 14 fights, 12 crowns, won. Creunus, 7 fights, 5 wins, pardoned. Princeps, of Nero’s troupe, 12 fights, 12(?) crowns, won. Four-day competition at Nola put on by Marcus Cominius Heres.“)

Lots of graffiti are about love, such as this elegiac couplet: “Whoever loves, let him flourish. Let him die who doesn’t know love. Let him die twice over whoever forbids love” (quisquis amat valeat. pereat qui nescit amare. / bis tanto pereat quisquis amare vetat, CIL 4.4091). Sometimes, the male is established as a weak figure in the face of feminine power. Take the (again appropriately elegiac) verses: “Why do you put off our joy and kindle hope and tell me always to come back tomorrow. So, force me to die since you force me to live without you. Your gift will be to stop torturing me” (cur gaudia differs / spemque foves et cras usque redire iubes? (er)go coge mori quem sine te vivere coges. / munus erit certe non cruciasse boni, CIL 4.1837). Of course, such group self-mockery served merely to conceal the real imbalances of gender and status: “Take hold of your slave girl whenever you want to; it’s your right” (prehende servam cum voles utilicet, CIL 4.1863).

There is plenty of humour. One election graffito announces that “The petty thieves urge you to elect Vatia as aedile” (Vatiam aed(ilem) furunculi rog(ant), CIL 4.576), a candidate who also got support from “the late sleepers” (dormientes universi, CIL 4.575). In another, “Late Drinkers United” (seribibi universi, CIL 4.581) announced the same Vatia as their favoured candidate. Even the gods come in for mockery, such as in this poem: “Let everyone one in love come and see. I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins. If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club?” (quisquis amat veniat. Veneri volo frangere costas / fustibus et lumbos debilitare deae. / si potest illa mihi tenerum pertundere pectus / quit ego non possim caput i(ll)ae frangere fuste, CIL 4.1824). Clearly there was no fear that the goddess would punish such hubris. It was a shared joke among the weak at the expense of an immeasurably more powerful being.

Reproduction of a Pompeian graffito (CIL 4.4957). The elegiac couplet reads: miximus in lecto, fateor, peccavimus. hospes, / si dices quare, nulla matella fuit. (“We’ve pissed the bed; we’ve messed up, truth be told. Visitor, if you ask why, there was no pisspot.”)

What can we learn?

Some graffiti may reflect the role that gossip played in a relatively small, face-to-face society where people knew each other’s name. Graffiti such as “Ampliatus Pedania is a thief” (Ampliatus Pedania fur, CIL 4.4993) and “Restitutus has deceived many girls many times” (Restitutus multas decepit s(a)epe puellas, CIL 4.5251) served as a way to shame these miscreants in a public and accessible manner, irrespective of whether the named individual could read. Other graffiti represent a public request for help, in the face of theft for example: “A copper pot went missing from my shop. Anyone who returns it to me will be given 65 sestertii. 20 more will be given for information leading to the capture of the thief” (urna aenia pereit de taberna. seiquis rettulerit, dabuntur HS LXV. sei furem dabit, unde rem servare possimus, HS XX, CIL 4.64).

The sheer quantity of graffiti in Pompeii makes it clear that a not insignificant level of literacy could be found among the ordinary citizens. We can imagine that some basic literacy would have been as useful for the artisan class as numeracy. Some graffiti even display an awareness of what we may call ‘high culture’. One fuller showed his loyalty to his protecting deity, Minerva, by carving “I sing of owls not arms and men” (ululam ego cano non arma virumque, CIL 4.9131), in imitation of the famous first line of Virgil’s Aeneid (a work put in circulation around 16 BC). Whether this amounted to more than knowing a phrase such as Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” is impossible to say, but other Virgilian graffiti have been found in a wide range of places, such as a brothel, an ironmongers and gladiators’ barracks (CIL 4.1527; 4.9987; 4.4401). Was Plutarch right to see graffiti as useless? No: I think we can see that graffiti fulfilled a range of functions. As for its being ridiculous, well, sometimes to be sure, but most of the time graffiti represented a form of popular literacy that allowed for serious social interaction between the ordinary people of Pompeii.

Jerry Toner is Fellow and Director in Studies in Classics at Churchill College, Cambridge. His research interests focus on Roman cultural history and include leisure, popular culture, and mental health. Among his publications are Popular Culture in Ancient Rome (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2009), Leisure and Ancient Rome (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1995) and The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, MD, 2014). He is currently working on a project on risk in the Roman world, to be published by Cambridge University Press.

Further Reading

Mary Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (Profile, London, 2008).

Rebecca Benefiel, “Dialogues of Ancient Graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii,” American Journal of Archaeology 114 (2010) 59–101.

Rebecca Benefiel, “Magic Squares, Alphabet Jumbles, Riddles and More: the Culture of Word Games among the Graffiti of Pompeii,” in J. Kwapisz, D, Petrain, & M. Syzmanski (eds.), The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay in Greek and Latin Poetry (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2013) 65–80.

Peter Keegan, Graffiti in Antiquity (Routledge, London, 2014).

Kristina Milnor, Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii (Oxford UP, 2014).

See also Robert Knapp’s Antigone article, “Seeing the ordinary: uncovering Ancient Romans”.


1 Some think the second word is a calque of the Greek verb βινεῖν, either binet (“fucks”) or binet(as) (“the fucker”), which would make the inscription rather more pointed!