“I am amazed, Oh walls, that you have not collapsed in ruin from the weight of so much tedious scribbling” Pompeii graffiti. From the Wolf Den.
Pompeii is most famous for its death, after it was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, yet more remarkable is the abundant evidenc e of life that the disaster left behind. Walking the streets of the site today is akin to time travel: there are shops with sunken counters for serving stew, wheel ruts in the road, and even whole houses to explore, with their colourful frescoes and mosaics.
Nothing though, is perhaps as human as the graffiti that the town’s residents scrawled on its walls. Thousands of examples have been recorded, much of it now only surviving as copies after erosion by the elements. The messages contain details about daily life and are full of personality, ranging from reflective, “when you are dead you are nothing”, to insults, “Chios I hope your piles hurt again”, to hopeful, “Take me to Pompeii, where love is sweet!”
When I came to write my novel The Wolf Den, graffiti played a key role. The first in a historical trilogy, the book re-imagines the lives of women working in Pompeii’s infamous lupanar and the town’s vibrant street life. I mainly encountered ancient scribbles through secondary sources (Alison Cooley and Sarah Levin-Richardson’s work are invaluable in this regard) but also enjoyed spotting it when wandering the site. Easiest to see are the political slogans painted on the front of buildings. The tavern known as Asellina’s bar is a good example, with various women – possibly barmaids – urging people to vote for Cn Helvius Sabinus “worthy of public office.” Since women could not vote there has been some debate over whether the support of Maria and Aegle was genuine, or used as an attempt to discredit Helvius. This was certainly a playful theme in other electioneering, with some candidates being the choice of dicers or runaway slaves: “The little thieves ask for Vatia as aedile.”
The most evocative graffiti are the more personal examples. Much like today, many of the messages record love affairs, crushes and lust. We learn that “All the girls fancy Celadus, the Thracian gladiator!” and that “Resitutus has often deceived many girls.” One poetic scribbler declares “Lovers, like bees, lead a honeyed life” only to get the sarcastic reply “I wish!” We even witness a tavern row, with two men recording their love-rivalry in a bar (“Don’t try to muscle in on someone who’s better looking”). Other examples are poignant for their sincerity: “Methe, slave of Cominia, from Atella, loves Chrestus. May Pompeiian Venus be dear to both of them and may they always live in harmony.”
One of the most scribbled upon walls is, inevitably, the town brothel. Pompeii’s lupanar (which in Latin means both brothel and wolf den) is astonishingly well preserved. It’s possible to walk through its single corridor and see the five small cells, including their stone beds, where the women worked. Above the doorways are erotic frescoes showing a variety of sexual positions, a promise of what customers might expect. Much of the graffiti is unsurprising – explicit boasting by customers. But some examples are by the women, or give a glimpse into their lives. Sometimes it’s no more than names – Cressa or Beronice – but one woman, Victoria, seems to have been a more forceful personality, often referring to herself as a conqueress (Victoria Victrix). This is how I chose to portray her in my book. There are traces of humour too: one customer is referred to as “Mr GarlicFarticus.” Most poignant of all are the drawings – a face, a ship, a bird – which the women may have drawn as a distraction from their lives as slaves.
In building an imaginary world from the fragments of Pompeii, the graffiti gave me many details to work with – how people lent money, what food they bought, how they viewed love and sex – but it also provided something more intangible. There is a lightness and playfulness to so much of the writing. These were people deeply involved in life, its humour and heartbreak, giving voice to their fears and desires. In doing so, they shine a light both on their unfamiliar world and the humanity we share.
“Nothing can last for all time
When the sun has shone brightly it returns to the Ocean
The moon wanes, which recently was full.
Even so the fierceness of Venus often becomes a puff of wind.”