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Pompeii’s Graffiti Gives Us Insight Into Ancient Rome

From ancient walls to social media, humans have always had something to say.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Although a tragic historical event, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE is responsible for preserving the ancient city of Pompeii; from this we have been able to learn so much about ancient civilizations and capture a rare visual glimpse into what their lives were like. To this day, you can actually walk around Pompeii—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy—on the same streets and around the same buildings as its inhabitants did millennia ago. 

Just as the ash notoriosly preserved people's last moments, as well as beautiful artwork, buildings, and other historical artifacts, it also preserved the graffiti scrawled on the city’s walls. From hilarious insults to missing posters to thought-provoking quotes, it turns out the ancient Pompeiians were a lot like us.

We’ve rounded up some classic Pompeii graffiti that will show you the more things change, the more they stay the same. But be forewarned: given that a large amount of the graffiti was found outside of brothels and men’s bathhouses, some can be a little crude!

Leaving their mark

Graffiti wasn’t frowned upon in ancient Rome like it is today, and many were eager to leave their mark on the city. Additionally, literacy was a sign of wealth and status, so coming up with a clever line for all to see was a popular way to show off. This is also why much of the graffiti is signed by whoever wrote it. 

Even today, “so-and-so was here” is a common phrase anywhere you see graffiti; it was also one of the most common in Pompeian graffiti, too. In fact, the oldest known graffiti found in Pompeii, dating back to about 78 BCE, reads Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here.

Other examples of this type of graffiti include:

We, two dear men, friends forever, were here. If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus. 

Antiochs hung out here with his girlfriend Cithera. 

Publius Comicius Restitutus stood right here with his brother.

Airing complaints

There was no Yelp back in ancient times, so the Pompeians resorted to leaving their complaints on the city walls, typically directly outside of the establishments. If only we were so bold today!

Gaius Sabinus says a fond hello to Statius. Traveler, you eat bread in Pompeii but you go to Nuceria to drink. At Nuceria, the drinking is better. 

We have wet the bed, host. I confess we have done wrong. If you want to know why, there was no chamber pot. 

Would that you pay for all your tricks, innkeeper. You sell us water and keep the good wine for yourself!

The finances officer at Nero says this food is poison.

Roman insults

What better way to get under your rival’s skin than to publicly insult him? A large amount of the graffiti includes humorous jabs at other people. Funnily enough, many of the insults we see used back then are similar to ones we might use today. One example includes this argument between two men, found outside of an inn:

Successus the weaver loves the barmaid of the inn, called Iris, who doesn’t care for him, but he asks and she feels sorry for him. A rival wrote this. Farewell. (Severus)

You’re jealous. Don’t try to muscle in on someone who’s better looking and is a wicked and charming man. (Successus)

I have written and spoken. You love Iris, who doesn’t care for you. Severus to Successus. (Severus)

Two thousand years later, and society still knows it was Severus who got the last word. And there’s plenty of other examples that are just as hilarious!

Epaphra is not good at ball games. 

The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian. 

Epaphra, you are bald!

Confessions of love

Grand romantic gestures never go out of style. Whether showing off their girlfriends or lamenting heartbreak, the Pompeians’ affairs of the heart seem to be not so different to ours. 

Secundus says hello to his Prima, wherever she is. I ask, my mistress, that you love me.

Cruel Lalagus, why do you not love me?

If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girlfriend.

I don’t want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world. 

Pompeii's political campaigns

Graffiti was a common way to promote political campaigns. But instead of the usual graffiti scratched into the walls or scrawled with charcoal, it seems that some political campaigns were done by professional artists; much the same way as a politician today might pay for a professional ad.  

Additionally, although a majority of other graffiti was found outside of bars, brothels, and inns, political campaigns were typically found on the houses of the wealthy, according to a study done by Eeva-Maria Viitanen at the University of Helsinki. This is similar to purchasing high-value ad space today.

Her reasoning? “Bars were probably the most populated, but could their customers read and would they vote?”

Here are some examples of those political messages: 

Epidius with his household want and support Cn. Helvius Sabinus as aedile. 

If integrity through life is thought to be of any use, this man, Lucretius Fronto, is worthy of great honor. 

Locker room talk

It seems that even thousands of years ago, sex jokes were funny, and men bragged about their apparent sexual prowess.

Floronius, privileged soldier of the seventh legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion.