Death to him who doesn’t know how to love

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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