The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Barbara Roberts
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I think that has to be Pompeian graffiti, particularly those from one place that seem to interact with each other – here are a few examples:
Successus textor amat copionaes ancilla(m) |nomine Hiredem quae quidem illum |non curat sed ille rogat illa com(m)iseretur |scribit rivalis vale ||invidiose quia rumperes se(ct)are noli formonsiorem| et qui est homo praevessimus et bellus.
Successus the weaver loves the innkeeper’s slave named Iris; however, she does not care for him. Yet he asks her to take pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.
Envious one, why do you burst in? Give way to someone handsomer, and a man who is both poorly treated and good-looking. (CIL IV 8259)
Dixe scripsi amas Hiredem| quae te non curat s[u]a Successo |ut su[p]ra [—–]s[—–]| Severus.
I have spoken, I have written. You love Iris but she does not care for you, Successus [….] Severus. (CIL IV 8258)
Pyrrhus Chio conlegae sal(utem). | Moleste fero quod audivi | te mortuom itaqe val(e).
Farewell, Chius, my companion. I, Pyrrhus, am desolate since I heard you were dead. And so, farewell. (CIL IV 1852, translation from Keegan, Peter. Graffiti in Antiquity. London: Routledge, 2014, p.1. Now at the Archaeological Museum of Naples (MANN) 18.4684).
Chie opto tibi ut refricent se ficus tuae| ut peius ustulentur quam| ustulatae sunt.
Chius, I hope that your piles rub again so that they burn more than they burned (before). (CIL IV 1820, translation from Keegan, Peter. Graffiti in Antiquity. London: Routledge, 2014, p.2. Now at the Archaeological Museum of Naples (MANN) 5.4696).
When did you first come across Pompeian graffiti?
I first encountered Pompeian graffiti when taking a course on epigraphy in the Roman world during my Masters. I was immediately enchanted with the openness, almost brashness, of the language I encountered. Like official inscriptions, political slogans, or epitaphs, these were texts meant to be seen, but graffiti also came with a dizzying variety of purposes and subject matters that often contradicted each other, all while clamouring for the viewer’s attention. I ended up deciding to write an essay on them, and they’ve stayed with me ever since.
Can you tell me a bit about these sources and their context?
The Campanian town of Pompeii was buried by ash in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, killing many of its inhabitants. Since it was so deeply buried and thus not subsequently occupied on that level, the city’s buildings preserve many aspects of life in the town that might otherwise have been ephemeral, from furniture to carbonised food. Among these aspects are the messages and drawings painted and scratched onto walls on the streets and inside buildings, recording disputes, greetings, announcements and sayings. They’re a fantastic record of popular culture at the time. Most of the graffiti discussed by modern scholars today is edited in the fourth volume of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum – you can find a number of them for free online by browsing the Ancient Graffiti Project at http://ancientgraffiti.org/Graffiti/, or at https://arachne.dainst.org/books/CILvIV1871. If you speak German, there’s also a lovely little paperback entitled Glücklich ist dieser Ort! 1000 Graffiti aus Pompeji, that collects a thousand of them with many illustrations.
The four graffiti I chose above come from two different buildings in Pompeii. The first set come from beside the entrance to a caupona or thermopolium, a sort of bar or takeaway food shop (I.10.2; see here for pictures of the building), whereas the second pair both come from Pompeii’s basilica.
The first set seems to record an argument over the affections of a slave woman, Iris, between two men, Successus and Severus. The wall it adorned might have been the caupona that Iris’ owner ran, so Iris might even have worked in sight of them. We don’t know if she was literate and she apparently didn’t choose to respond in any case. That means we don’t know what she thought of this dispute, and Severus and Successus give little impression of their caring about her opinion.
We also have no way of knowing for sure if the Chius addressed in both the graffiti in the second set of graffiti was the same person and sadly, both graffiti were removed wholesale for museum storage long before they could be edited or further context recorded. But the fact that they occupied the same building suggests they formed part of the same conversation, even if they had very different goals.
What is it about the graffiti that appeals to you most?
The juxtaposition of mean-spirited humour and genuine emotion in the two sets of graffiti I mentioned above, I think, epitomises the way graffiti and written texts in general might contradict each other. It might seem an odd choice, in that case, for a source to take comfort in. However, I find the social dynamics that these written conflicts and contradictions betray completely absorbing. For me, it’s simultaneously a comfort and a distraction to think about the complexities of these people’s lives, especially since they might have otherwise been forgotten.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I’m an expert at the long, aimless walk and have usually got a podcast playing in my headphones while I do so. I find it’s a really useful way to give my brain some new input to chew over if I’m feeling uninspired or just plain overwhelmed. In less unprecedented times, I like investigating obscure museums in London. Besides that, I’ve taught myself how to knit and crochet, I paint, I play Dungeons and Dragons as part of two different regular groups, and I read – mostly genre fiction and especially SF/fantasy. As with the Pompeian graffiti, it’s nice to live in other worlds and deal with other problems for a while!
Barbara Roberts is a full-time research student in Classical Studies at the Open University in her second year of study, working as part of the Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion. Her research is on amulets in late Roman Italy and Sicily and she has interests in epigraphy and late antique religion, medicine and magic. She Tweets sporadically at @barbaroberts.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.