Death to him who doesn’t know how to love
Because classics has been the preserve 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, they bet on Ben Hur in the 3.30 at the Circus Maximus in Latin.
If you want to 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 Pompeian taverns, scribbled on the 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 written in a spidery, ancient script.
Once you do work it out, you’ll find that, just like schoolboys 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 bob.” ( Two asses was the price of the cheapest cucuma, or pitcher of wine, as advertised outside a bar in Herculaneum.)
It wasn’t just rude words they liked to write. In the Domus Tiberiana in Rome, there survives a crudely-drawn man with an oversized penis for a nose. Graffiti artists also liked drawing dogs, donkeys and horses, but they liked phalluses most. In a bar on Pompeii’s Via di Mercurio (so named by archaeologists - we don’t know what the streets were called in antiquity), there is an extremely graphic painting of a man and a semi-naked woman, making love while balancing on a tightrope. Hard enough to do when sober — but they’re both drinking huge glasses of wine at the time.
To be fair, the romantic old Romans did rise above pornography in the eternal search for love. Plenty of lovelorn graffiti survives, including this in the house of Pinarius Cerialis in Pompeii: “Marcellus Praenestinam amat et non curatur.” “Marcellus loves Praenestina, but she doesn’t care for him.”
Graffiti is inevitably a crude, reductive version of what people are thinking in any civilisation at any one time. You wouldn’t get a particularly accurate picture of late 20th century New York from its graffiti-caked subway trains. And, if you examined 21st century British graffiti — along with its modern bedfellow, Twitter — in 2000 years’ time, you might think we were obsessed with football, celebrities and random couplings in lavatory cubicles. Sex, by the way, is an eternal theme in graffiti — the earliest surviving graffito is thought to be an ancient Greek brothel advert in Ephesus, now on Turkey’s west coast.
Still, what we choose to write on walls in public does vary from civilisation to civilisation — and those differences shine a light on a particular era. I was astonished when I first went to Greece as a teenager to see the names of the two main political parties — Pasok and Nea Democratia — scrawled on walls from Athens to tiny villages on Mediterranean islands.
How uplifting it would be — I thought — if you saw British graffiti about Conservative monetary policy, rather than, say, “Jim loves Sarah.” It took a Greek friend to explain: “We only write political graffiti because our politics is so crooked. If it was all OK, we’d soon start writing about our girlfriends.”
You can see the same phenomenon at work in Britain when politics becomes allconsuming — and not just in the more political of Banksy’s stencils. When George Davis was convicted of armed robbery in 1975, graffiti saying “George Davis is innocent” spread across the country. Belfast’s loyalist and republican murals change subject as the peace process ebbs and flows. When the bombing stopped, non-violent murals, rich in doves of peace, appeared. It’s a sign of more worrying times that, this month, a picture of George Best in east Belfast has been replaced by one dedicated to the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Just as in modern Italy, political graffiti was also popular in ancient Rome. In Pompeii, you can see the slogan, “C. Iulium Polybium aedilem oro vos faciatis. Panem bonum fert” — “I beg you to make C. Julius Polybius aedile [a magistrate]. He makes good bread.” One of the best bits of graffiti in Pompeii is also political: “All the late-night drinkers are canvassing for Marcus Cerrinius Vatia to be aedile.”
Food and drink are popular subjects of ancient graffiti. Pompeii is covered with graffiti advertising “garum” — the kind of rotten fish stew the town specialised in manufacturing. Outside one shop, written on the wall in a mosaic, is the line, “Scaurus’s best garum, mackerel-based, from Scaurus’s manufacturer’s.”
One of the most important Pompeii survivals is a weekly shopping list, scratched onto the wall of one house. Next to each item is its price: eight asses for bread, two asses for bread for the slave; 40 asses for olive oil; sausage, cheese, leeks, whitebait and onions. Nothing that would look odd on a modern shopping list — except perhaps the slave.
Lovers of Roman civilisation will be relieved to discover that the graffiti can get pretty high-minded, too. On a doorway framed by frescoes of Aeneas and Romulus, Rome’s mythical founders, one Fabius Ululitremulus (“the owlfearer”) wrote: “Fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumque.” “I sing of laundrymen and an owl, not arms and a man.” This was a riff on the most famous line in Roman poetry, the opening to Virgil’s Aeneid, “Arma virumque cano” (“I sing of arms and a man.”), adapted to what we presume was Fabius’s profession (the owl was important to fullones because their job came under the protection of the goddess Minerva, whose familiar it was).
It’s in Roman graffiti that highminded Latin literature comes to life. Many classics undergraduates will have studied the peculiar kind of Roman love poem, which involves a boyfriend locked outside his lover’s house, pouring his heart out to the door that’s been shut in his face. In Pompeii, there’s a little love poem actually written on a door by one such lover:
“Would that I could wrap my arms around your neck/And cover your lovely lips with kisses.”
People who struggled with their gerundives and subjunctives at school will be pleased to find that the Romans also found their language difficult. 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.” The graffiti writer should have said “omnis” in the singular, or “omnia”, the neuter plural which, perplexingly, takes a singular verb – not “omnes”.
The walls of Rome and Pompeii are littered with such mistakes, just like Graham Chapman’s graffito in Life of Brian —“Romanes eunt domus” – which is corrected by John Cleese’s pedantic centurion: “Romans, go home!” is an order, so you must use the…?” “Imperative?” “Which is?” “Um, oh, oh, ‘ I’? ‘ I’!” “How many Romans?” “Plural, plural! ‘ ITE’!”
But let’s not quibble over schoolboy mistakes. Let’s rejoice in the moving poetry of the best graffiti, like these lines found in Pompeii: “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 the one who outlaws love die twice.”
Or what about these lovely words, scrawled onto the wall of a bar in Pompeii? “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 scribbled in marker pen over the bogs in the Dog and Duck. But the hand that wrote it 2,000 years ago still reaches out across the centuries, to touch your heart.
Taken from a new book on regional Italy, Tarantella, edited by Clive Aslet (Cumulus)
Python’s Latin primer: Graham Chapman does his lines in ‘Life of Brian’. Inset, a Pompeian fresco