LLR Books

Latin graffiti – the key that unlocks ancient Rome

By Harry Mount History

"Romanes eunt domus" – the joy of Latin graffiti
More than 1,600 years after the Romans fled this cold, damp island for the warm south, their secrets are still emerging, thanks to a new technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging, or RTI.
By firing a flash gun at worn-away ancient graffiti from dozens of different angles and photographing it, suddenly the ancient world comes to life. It's a related technique to seeing inscriptions just before sunset, when the letters fall into shadow. Thanks to RTI, new Latin inscriptions have emerged at Hadrian's Wall, and Greek ones on Athenian pots.
What a thrill! One of my secret pleasures is reading ancient graffiti, a reason in and of itself to learn Latin, on top of those given by the Latin master to that heroically lazy 1950s prep school boy, Nigel Molesworth.
Molesworth asks, "What is the use of latin sir?", with his characteristic difficulty with capital letters. And the master replies, "er well er quite simple molesworth. latin is er classics you kno and classics are – well they are er – they are the studies of the ancient peoples. er latin gives you not only the history of Rome but er (happy inspiration) its culture, it er tells you about interesting men like J Caesar, hannibal, livy, Romulus remus and er lars porsena of clusium."
Latin also makes a trip to Roman sites come alive when you visit Rome or Pompeii.  At Pompeii, you get to understand all the rude stuff, like this line in the basilica: “Lucilla ex corpore lucrum faciebat” — “Lucilla made money from her body.” On a wall nearby, another line reads, “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.)
The Romans didn't just do pornography. Who can't sympathise with this graffito in the house of Pinarius Cerialis in Pompeii: “Marcellus Praenestinam amat et non curatur.” “Marcellus loves Praenestina, but she doesn’t care for him."
Just as in Italy today, political graffiti was popular, too, in Pompeii; as seen in 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.” Or this graffito supporting the Nigel Farage of Pompeii: “All the late-night drinkers are canvassing for Marcus Cerrinius Vatia to be aedile."
There are graffiti gags, too. On a Pompeii doorway, Fabius Ululitremulus (“the owl-fearer”) wrote: “Fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumque.” “I sing of laundrymen and an owl, not arms and a man.”
This was a play 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 Fabius’s presumed profession (the owl was significant to fullones because they revered the goddess Minerva, often accompanied by an owl).
At its best, Latin graffiti is deeply moving, like these lines found in a Pompeii bar:
Nihil durare potest tempore perpetuo;
Cum bene sol nituit, redditur oceano,
Decrescit Phoebe, quae modo fuit,
Ventorum feritas saepe fit aura levis.
“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.”

Oh, to find more lines like this, thanks to the miracle of RTI.