Rock the (Female) Vote



One thing that has always been a bit of a pet peeve in my teaching of the ancient world is when students talk about both Greece and Rome as misogynist societies because women didn’t have the right to vote. Whilst I’m not denying that the ancient world was, for the most part, patriarchal by design, I’ve always found the enfranchisement of women as a rather daft piece of evidence considering that women couldn’t vote in the UK until 1918 (and even then only those over 30 with property qualifications) and in the US from 1919. It seems somewhat ridiculous to my mind to hold the ancient world to a standard that wasn’t met in modern life until the 20th century. Women in ancient Rome certainly couldn’t hold political office or vote, which we know from the laws collected by Justinian (D. 50.17.2), but there is ample evidence from Pompeii that women were very much engaged in the political process.

Amongst the electoral programmata that once covered the walls of Pompeii, there are fifty-four women supporting the candidacies of twenty-eight men. The majority of these women, thirty-three of them in fact, do so alone. That is, the dipiniti for which they are responsible is sponsored by them alone.

CIL IV 3479
Caecilium Capellam // d(uum)v(irum) i(ure) d(icundo) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / Cornelia rog(at).
‘Cornelia begs you to elect (Lucius) Caecilius Capella duovir with judicial powers.’

Perhaps surprisingly, (see above – patriarchal society), only thirteen women offer an electoral notice with a man.

CIL IV 207
M(arcum) Cerrinium Vatiam aed(ilem) / Nymphodotus cum Caprasia rog(at).
‘Nymphodotus with Caprasia asks you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia aedile.’

Four women sponsored dipinti with another woman, and two represent a larger group, as indicated by the word suis.

CIL IV 3294 = 3678
M(arcum) Casellium et L(ucium) Albucium aed(iles) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / Statia et Petronia rog(ant) tales cives in colonia in perpetuo.
‘Statia and Petronia beg you to elect Marcus Casellius and Lucius Albucius, excellent citizens for the perpetuity of the colony, aediles.’

CIL IV 1053
Polybium / IIvir(um) Lollia / cum suis.‘Lollia, with hers, (asks you to vote) for Polybius, duovir.’

What is particularly interesting, however, is that some of the candidates who are supported by female rogators have an incredibly high proportion of these notices. Gaius Iulius Polybius, for example, is supported by six different women: Cosseia (CIL IV 10051), Cuculla (CIL IV 7841 = AE 1913: 95), Fabia (CIL IV 7189), Specula (CIL IV 7167), Vatia (CIL IV 123), and Zmyrina (CIL IV 7864 = AE 1912: 238). Another candidate popular amongst the female population of Pompeii was Gnaeus Helvinius Sabinus. He is supported by nine women – although the data may be skewed in part because he has far more surviving notices – Aegle (CIL IV 7862 = AE 1912: 236), Biria (CIL IV 9885), Caprasia (CIL IV 923), Iunia (CIL IV 1168), Maria (CIL IV 7866), Parthope (CIL IV 3403), Poppaea (CIL IV 357), Primgenia (CIL IV 3410), and Recepta (CIL IV 1083). What made these particular men so popular and seen as worthy of a magisterial position remains, unfortunately, lost in history. The programmata written by women do not differ in format from those by men, and thus give no specific clues as to why these women chose to support these men.

The evidence for women participating in the electoral process in Pompeii despite not being able to vote or run for office themselves is one that has always intrigued me, and one, as I stated at the outset, that I think challenges the idea of  women accepting a non-civically minded role in the ancient world. In the final weeks leading up to the American presidential election, the idea of the impact of women voting (or actively campaigning for male candidates) has taken on a new importance. Polls have revealed that women alone may be responsible for the defeat of Donald Trump. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but the possibility, in conjunction with the ancient evidence, demonstrates how much women are interested in politics, and always have been.


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H.R. Fecit

Much to my chagrin, one of my most recent forays into finding graffiti included a supremely klutzy moment wherein, distracted by some scratchings in the stone wall, I completely missed a couple of steps in what was probably the most inelegant tumble ever,  and am still limping around Oxford with the resultant sprained ankle. Nevertheless, I was much intrigued by what I saw on the walls of Kenilworth Castle.

Kenilworth Castle is largely a ruin today, but has stood on a hill for nearly nine hundred years. Its ruinous state is largely down to Oliver Cromwell, who ordered the demolition of the castle after the Civil War. It remained the possession of a single family from the time of the Restoration until 1938, when it was given to the state, and later in the century, English Heritage. Despite private ownership, it became a tourist destination in the early nineteenth century, with a little help from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth (1821).

It should come as no surprise then, that the graffiti I stumbled upon (literally!) in the castle keep is not medieval, but fairly modern. The earliest date I found was 1835:



The latest was inscribed by Cindy and Guy in 1983. I expect, as the castle  passed into the hands of English Heritage in 1984, the area was better secured against would be graffitists as none have a date after this point.


The keep itself is a sort of reddish-greyish sandstone, so whilst not the easiest surface to carve into, isn’t as difficult as some other rocks. This, and the interest of time, is probably why most of the marks left behind are merely initials.


I was, naturally, thrilled to see that one tourist had traveled to the castle from my homeland – specifically – my home state:


W.A. came from New York in 1871. At that time crossing the ocean was a much more difficult endeavour than now, and thus I can understand that this individual felt some compunction to record where it was s/he had originated. It is the only graffito of its kind in the castle, as far as I was able to locate, making me conclude this may have been one of the only foreigners who chose to leave a mark.

And finally – the one that I found most exciting (pointing it out to my partner immediately preceded my tumble down the steps) is, in fact, in Latin:


Here we see some attempt to draw an artificial box around a collection of names (not unlike some Roman graffiti that present themselves as documents) and the date – 1901. This is likely a group of friends who decided to leave a substantial reminder of their visit. Although a cursory glance suggests there are a few different hands potentially at work here, it seems likely one is responsible – or at least claiming so. H.R. made this.


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I Predict a Riot

Earlier this week I had the great privilege to spend an hour in a room full of engaged and enthusiastic Year 9 students talking about Pompeian graffiti. These students are studying for a GCSE in Classical Civilsation after school as part of The Iris Project at Cheney School. During the paper, in which I was introducing them to various aspects of graffiti and dipinti and the ways historians use these inscriptions, I was asked a question that rather took me by surprise. It wasn’t about graffiti, but about a wall painting that I was using to illustrate an event in Pompeii’s history which is related to a number of graffiti.


This painting, found in the House of Anicetus, ( I.iii.23 ) famously depicts the riot that took place in the amphitheatre in AD 59. We know this is a real event because Tacitus tells us about it:

Tacitus Annals 14.17
‘At around the same time, there arose from a trifling beginning a terrible bloodbath among the inhabitants of the colonies of Nuceria and Pompeii at a gladiatorial show given by Livineius Regulus, whose expulsion from the senate I have recorded previously. Inter-town rivalry led to abuse, then stone-throwing, then the drawing of weapons. The Pompeians in whose town the show was being given came off the better. Therefore many of the Nucerians were carried to Rome having lost limbs, and many were bereaved of parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate; they passed it to the consuls. When their findings returned to the senators, the Pompeians were barred from holding any such gathering for ten years. Illegal associations in the town were dissolved, Livineius and the others who had instigated the trouble were exiled.’

In addition, there are a number of graffiti that illustrate the kind of animosity between neighbouring towns that may have contributed to, or resulted from, the event that Tacitus describes.

CIL IV 2183
Puteolanis Feliciter / omnibus Nuc{h}erinis / felicia et uncu(m) Pompeianis / Petecusanis.
Good fortune to the Puteolans; good luck to all Nucerians; the executioner’s hook to Pompeians.’

CIL IV 1329
Nucerinis / infelicia.
‘Ill luck to the Nucerians.’

One even accompanies a drawing depicting a gladiator holding a palm of victory:


CIL IV 1293
Campani victoria una / cum Nucerinis peristis.
Campanians, in our victory you perished with the Nucerians.’

The question that was asked, however, related not to the graffiti but to the painting itself, or more to the point, how unusual it was to have a painting in one’s house that depicted such violence. On most occasions when I have come across a reference to this painting in a scholarly work, if the oddness of it is mentioned at all, it is done in a very offhand way of wondering why someone would wish to commemorate such an event (even if the Pompeians were considered the victors). I have never come across a comparison to other wall paintings in terms of the nature of the violence illustrated. In the moment when the question was asked, I was racking my brain for a similar scene – and I couldn’t think of a single one. The closest may be the Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun, which depicts a military battle. Still, as detailed as it is in regards to fallen men and distressed looking horses, it does not depict seemingly dead bodies still on the ground as we can see in the painting from Anicetus’s house. The very nature of gladiatorial combat is a gruesome and bloody sport to which Romans were largely accustomed, but sitting in an arena watching a contest which may result in spilled blood (but, contrary to popular belief, rarely death) is quite a different thing than displaying images of the dead or dying on the wall of your house.

The question, as raised by this student, made me think about the painting in a different way, and really wonder about the mindset of the person who had it commissioned. (I am now extremely curious to see if I can find anything comparable on the wall of a Roman house. If anyone has any examples – do let me know.)  This has been on my mind for a number of days, not just because of the nature of the question, but because of who asked it. It was a timely (and to be honest, necessary) reminder that for as much as I know and continue to learn about the ancient world, there is always a new and interesting way to think about things. More to the point, it is more often than not our students who point us in a different direction, and that our research, without our students, is lacking something essential.

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No Shit

Not long before my trip to Italy last month, a friend asked me about a particular text in Herculaneum. Her question stirred a vague recollection, which of course piqued my curiosity. Not only did I look up the text before I went, but I went looking for it on site.

Little remains of the original painted notice, on the side of a water tower at the intersection of the decumanus and Cardo IV between Insulae V and VI:


Investigations by various scholars, including one using New Infrared Reflectography (NIRR), have revealed the existence of two notices, one painted on top of the other. The earliest, dated prior to AD 60, has been reconstructed thusly:

CIL IV 10489
M(arcus) Rufellius Robia A(ulus) Tetteius Se[verus] / IIvir[i iure] dic(undo) / b(onum) f(actum) ad laev[and – – -]pu[- – -]erte ut[- – -]ipe[- – -]e / [e]dicemus HS XX si [prim]os(?) t[- – -] praesent[- – -] HS n(ummum) servom verberibus coercueramus.
‘Marcus Rufellius Robia and Aulus Tetteius Severus, duovirs [for the administration of jusitice]. We declare a fine of 2o sesterces if free citizens […], we will punish slaves with […] lashes.

The lost portions of the text render it impossible to know what the punishment described is actually for. However, the overlaying text, dated to sometime in the years of the AD 60s to 70s, provides the missing information.

CIL IV 10488
M(arcus) [Alf]icius Pa[ul]lus / aedil(is) / is velit in hunc locum / stercus abicere nonetur n[on] / iacere si quis adver[sus ea] / i(u)dicium fecerit liberi dent / [dena]rium n(ummum) servi verberibus / [i]n sedibus admonentur.
‘Marcus Alficius Paulus, aedile, (declares): anyone who wants to throw excrement in this place is warned that it is not allowed. If someone shall denounce this action, freeborn will pay a fine of […] denarii, and slaves will be punished by […] lashes.’

In essence then, what we have is notices put up by local magistrates warning of the punishment to be meted out in any instances of dumping excrement in the vicinity of the water tower.

There are a number of things that I find really interesting about these dipinti. Whilst I am no expert on health and disease in the Roman world, my first thought was that it was potentially unusual to see a notice prohibiting the dumping of waste near a water supply. The only similar inscription that comes to mind was found on a cippi on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, dated to the first century BC:

CIL VI 31614
L(ucius) Sentius C(ai) f(ilius) pr(aetor?) / de sen(atus) sent(entia) loca / terminanda coeravit / b(onum) f(actum) nei quis intra / terminos propius / urbem ustrinam / fecisse velit neive / stercus cadaver / iniecisse velit.
‘Lucius Sentius, son of Gaius, praetor, by decree of the Senate, has ordered the fixing of this boundary. No burning (cremation) to be undertaken beyond the markers of the boundary in the direction of the city. No dumping of excrement or corpses.’

Added beneath this text in red paint, CIL VI 31615 provides an additional similarity to the text in Herculaneum, as someone added the line Stercus longe / aufer / ne malum habeas (‘Take a shit well away, if you don’t want trouble.’) The pestilent nature of the Esquiline Hill was described by Horace, who was pleased with the effort made to clean up the area, no doubt as a result of such prohibitions.

Horace Satire I.8.12-16
‘Here a pillar marked a width of a thousand feet for graves,
Three hundred deep, ground ‘not to be passed to the heirs’!
Now you can live on a healthier Esquiline and stroll
On the sunny Rampart, where sadly you used to gaze
At a grim landscape covered with whitened bones.’

The inscription from Rome, however, had nothing to do with water source, but was more in regards to the danger of fire and the stench of decaying corpses and rubbish (as well as human waste). The addition to the text suggests it was enforced. This still seems to make the notice from Herculaneum unique.

Three additional aspects of these dipinti are worth noting. First, the existence of two texts within roughly a twenty year span suggests that making the public aware of this prohibition was necessary on more than one occasion. True, the first notice could have faded to illegibility hence the idea of reissuing it, but if dumping waste by the water tower wasn’t a problem, there would have been no need. That in itself suggests this was at least a semi-regular occurrence. Second, there is the matter of the different punishments: beatings for slaves, a fine for freeborn. As callous as this sounds, it is quite logical. Freeborn offenders are more likely (in theory) to have cash available than a slave might. But the final point I wish to make goes back to the actual dumping of waste. The location of these notices on a water tower makes sense if the magistrates are interested in keeping the water source relatively clean. However, the physical location of the tower, the notice, and the topography of the immediate area makes the dumping of waste here seem like a rather odd choice. Just look:


The tower is at a crossroads between two insulae and the decumanus. The sidewalk that runs down either side of Cardo IV is quite a steep step down to the street itself, such that there is a ramp leading down to the street level (just visible behind the water tower in the photo). There isn’t actually a lot of room for dumping anything in this location. The only place that seems a likelihood is a small space at the base of the tower on the left side. This is, perhaps uncoincidentally, the only place from which the prohibition is actually visible. How or why this small space became so frequently used to dump waste that the town magistrates felt the need to post a notice outlawing it twice is, frankly, beyond me. Regardless, the repetition of the notice and the specificity of punishment makes it quite clear that the magistrates of Herculaneum took no shit. Literally.

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Civis Britannicus Sum

Today marks an odd sort of anniversary for me: sixteen years ago I arrived in the UK, with the intention of completing a MA and returning home to the US at the end of a year. Clearly, that didn’t quite go to plan, and here I remain. Earlier this month, I became a British citizen. In many ways this was a decision made for practical and legal issues rather than a sudden overwhelming desire to be British, but the ceremony itself, in conjunction with a number of other issues currently in the forefront of my native country, got me thinking about what it means to be a citizen of any place, at any time, and how the concepts of citizenship, nationalism, and patriotism can become so muddled.

In the defensive action that made Cicero’s career, In Verrem (II.5.162), Cicero described an event of a man being beaten who defends himself with the words ‘Civis Romanus sum.’ He believed his claim to Roman citizenship was enough to protect him from torture and death. This idea has resonated politically – it was quoted by Lord Palmerston in a speech to Parliament in 1850, is the basis of President Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, and was referenced by (unfortunately) fictional President Jed Bartlett in The West Wing. However, Cicero also said ‘But no one who had any acquaintance with our laws or our customs, who wished to retain his rights as a citizen of Rome, ever dedicated himself to another city.’ (Pro Balbo 30). I’ve not only dedicated myself to another country, but to another ruler and thus, in essence, form of government. As part of becoming a citizen of the UK, I had to swear the following oath:


This is interesting for a number of reasons.  It is asking naturalised citizens for an oath that is not demanded of the born citizenry. Not only is there no request for such an oath if born here, but there are many Brits of a pro-Republic leaning who would balk at promising allegiance to the monarchy, and thus wouldn’t be able to fulfill the same requirement asked of someone willingly choosing to become a citizen. More to the point, however, it reminded me of another oath, one sworn by citizens of Paphlagonia in 3 BC:

Paphlagonian Oath OGIS 532.
‘In the third year after the twelfth consulship of Imperator Caesar, son of the god, Augustus, on the day before the nones of March at Gangra in the market place, this oath was sworn by the inhabitant of Paphlagonia and the Romans who do business in the country.
I swear by Zeus, Hera, the Sun, and all the gods and goddesses, and Augustus himself, that I will be loyal to Caesar Augustus and his children and descendents all the time of my life by word and deed and thought, holding as friend whomsoever they so hold, and considering as enemies whomsoever they so judge, and for their interests I will spare neither body nor soul nor life nor children, but will endure every peril for their cause. If I see or hear anything being said or planned or done against them, I will lay information and I will be the enemy of such sayer or planner or doer; whomsoever they themselves judge to be their enemies, them I will pursue and resist by land and by sea, with arms and with iron. If I do anything contrary to this oath or not according as I have sworn, I invoke death and destruction upon myself and my body and soul and children and all my race and interests to the last generation of my children’s children, and may neither the earth nor the sea receive the bodies of my family and my descendants, nor bear crops for them.
The same oath was sworn by all the rural population at the shrines of Augustus in the districts beside the altars of Augustus.’

This was a remarkable thing at the time – wherein citizens of a province were required not to swear an oath to Rome – but to a single man, Augustus. Cicero’s concept of Roman citizenship seems to have been superseded by a notion of patriotism, that is, loyalty to country, fatherland, and etymologically, ultimately the father. Augustus was, after all, named Pater Patriae by the Senate in the following year. The notion of being a citizen of Rome seems not to have changed much on the ground (as far as the evidence reveals), but the ideas of what that means and to whom one is loyal fundamentally shifts with the onset of empire.

I think, in essence, the idea of empire and monarchy are what Rome and Britain have in common in terms of what they ask of their citizenry, both natural born and naturalised. I am not quite sure if the same can be said of the US. In the years I have lived in the UK, I have become aware of an acute difference between what for Brits is nationalism (especially in regards to identification as English, Welsh, etc.), and for Americans is patriotism. The American idea of patriotism (so many flags!) is one I have struggled to negotiate most of my life, and has recently become a larger issue as part of protests arising around the national anthem, the Black Lives Matters movement, and other social injustices. And yet, no one (as far as I am aware), who knows I am now a citizen of two countries has called into question my allegiance to either.


Regardless, I am keenly aware that whatever passport I hold, on some level I will always be identified as an American, and not British. Cicero would probably have a few choice words for me, but somehow, I think the Paphlagonians might be more understanding.

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Drinking with Cucumae

In my recent trip to the Vesuvian cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, one thing that struck me anew is the distinct lack of dipinti, that is, painted inscriptions, on the walls of Herculaneum in comparison to Pompeii. This is not down to the smaller scale of the excavated city or a difference in the writing tendencies in the population, but rather seems to be simply a matter of surviving plaster surfaces. Unlike graffiti, which can be scratched into any hard surface, painting legible dipinti, most often used as a means of advertisement, required a flat smooth surface such as that provided by the painted plaster walls. In Pompeii, though these are now much damaged and faded, there are still large stretches of publicly accessible wall, such as that on the Via dell’Abbondanza, that preserve these texts. In Herculaneum, in contrast, there is a distinct lack of plastered exteriors.


There are four dipinti that I am aware of in the scavi of Herculaneum today. Three of them are located on a single wall at Insula VI 14, at the entrance to the Bottega ad Cucumas. Two of these seem related, whilst the lowest on the pilaster is not.

Bottega_ad_Cucumas (1).jpg

The most prominent, in the middle, is a painted advertisement listing the cost of various types of wine, and is the origin of the name of the bar.

AE 1989: 182a
Ad cucumas.
‘To the vessels.’

This is written above a painting of four wine jugs, each labelled with a different price ranging from two to four and a half asses per sextarius (a unit equal to just over half a litre). This indicates that it wasn’t quantity so much as quality of wine that predicated cost. Above this, there is a painting of the god Sancus, a figure associated with trust and honesty, and may have been an attempt by the innkeeper to indicate to his patrons the wine was not overly watered down. Like the wine jugs, his painting is accompanied by a brief inscription:

AE 1989: 182c
Ad Sancum.
‘To Sancus.’

Unrelated to these two dipinti, in the lowest register of the wall is an advertisement for a gladiatorial game.

AE 1989: 182b
Nola // scr(iptor) / Aprilis a / Capua.
‘Nola. Aprilis from Capua wrote this.’

This is a wonderful little text, primarily because it is useful for demonstrating the regional network of gladiatorial games that operated in Campania (this is a subject I presented on at the 2nd North American Congress of Greek & Latin Epigraphy which will be published at some point in the future). This relatively straightforward dipinto ties three of the local communities together by attesting the work of a man from Capua in Herculaneum promoting an event in Nola.

Despite the relative paucity of dipinti in the city of Herculaneum, the three texts (and accompanying images) on this one wall provides a glimpse into the kind of thing one might have expected to find on every plastered surface of the town, had it survived antiquity. The richness of colour and design suggests that walking down the street in Herculaneum two thousand years ago would have been an overwhelming experience of sight. If this is the example, it is nothing less than travesty that more of the dipinti did not survive. I suppose the bright side is that at least this wall is preserved, both in situ, and (I’m slightly ashamed to admit) in the virtual world of Pokémon Go:


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The photo above is probably one of the most famous walls to be found in the city of Pompeii. It is one of the few examples still (fairly) legible and in situ of electoral dipiniti. There are multiple individuals and magisterial positions advertised in this one small section of wall, between two doorways on the Via dell’Abbondanza. Despite some measures of protection it has been damaged and faded over the years. Whilst I recognise many of the names on this wall, that’s not exactly the focus of this particular post. Something I have been working on for some time now is instead looking at some of the abbreviations used in the electoral programmata. This is part of a larger project on elections and voting that I have written about before, but as I walked by this wall last week, I had a chance to look again at the way such notices were painted.

The section of wall above contains five abbreviations and ligatures that were commonly used in electoral dipinti. Probably the two most common were simple abbreviations of the magisterial posts that one could run for – ‘aed’ for aedile, and the slightly less obvious ‘IIvir’ for duovir. This latter one is interesting in and of itself for the visual depiction of the word, combining the Roman numeral for two with the word man, which is, after all, quite literally what the post name meant. Two found here, ‘DRP’ and ‘OVF’, can be written in ligature, reducing the three initial abbreviations to one or two letters. Dignum rei publicae (worthy of public office) and oro vos faciatis (I beg you to elect) were very specific to these notices for elections. Whether or not the average man (or woman!) on the street knew what the abbreviated letters stood for or simply, through repetition, had a vague idea of the intention, is somewhat up for debate. (One additional abbreviation of this ilk not visible on this wall is ‘VB’ – virum bonum – a good man.) Two other common abbreviations that appear in dipinti refer to those who are either writing (scriptores) or sponsoring (rogatores) the text that is painted. There is an example of the abbreviation ‘rog’ present here, which again, seems to be specific to electoral signs. The name or identification of a scriptor might also appear in other painted notices such as those advertising games.

The abbreviation that spurned my interest in the dipinti, however, is not common, and one not easily deciphered unless you already happen to know what it is.


The letters CIP are not an abbreviated word, but rather an abbreviated name. These three letters are, in fact, referring to a man named Gaius Iulius Polybius. He is one of nearly forty men that I have identified who ran for public office in Pompeii using his initials rather than any part of his name. This begs all sorts of questions about how one recognised such names, how well known a person had to be to win an election just using their initials, whether or not this was in part influenced by voting practices, and of course, how literate the average person walking down the street might be. The reality is that for a notice such as this to be useful in any way, a majority of the voting public had to be able to recognise that this:


actually means this:

CIL IV 7872
C(aium) I(ulium) P(olybium) IIvir(um) d(ignum) r(ei) p(ublicae).
‘Gaius Iulius Polybius for duovir, worthy of public office.’

I remain unconvinced that this would have been possible for a barely or semi- literate society. I also cannot help but think that I have had to explain many of these abbreviations to people who are far better Latinists than I, as the use of abbreviations is not necessarily intuitive, but one that is developed through practice. The same must have been true of the Pompeian voters two thousand years ago, and I suspect, epigraphers one hundred years ago who failed to recognise the random letters for what they are: initials of would be magistrates.


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Something Old, Something New

I’ve recently been on site in Herculaneum and Pompeii doing some work. Whilst my research often leads me to new areas of the city or I am trying to find some particular detail about whatever I’m working on, it is rare, having first set foot in Pompeii more than twenty years ago, for me to really see it in a new way. This visit, however, was different.

Currently (and until January), there are thirty bronze sculptures created by Igor Mitoraj placed around the city. This exhibit, reportedly curated by the artist before his death two years ago, places statues in various locales around the city. Many are in obvious public places like the Forum or the Stabian Baths, but others are placed in such a way that they kind of surprise you as you find yourself on the floor of the theatre with them looming above from the wall of the Triangular Forum. The artist was heavily influenced by Classical art, as is obvious from his work. I admittedly knew little about his work until quite recently, but have since read of his fragmented and misplaced or broken bodies as depicting both how damaged ancient statues appear, and as the physical representation of human despair. There is, certainly, a sadness in the faces that appear.


Temple of Venus


Stabian Baths

There were four sculptures, two in the changing room of the Stabian Baths and two in the Triangular Forum, that I found particularly reminiscent of ancient art. The wrappings and postures of these works are evocative of various ancient bronzes of boxers. One that comes to mind most immediately is Boxer at Rest, a late Hellenistic statue found in Rome.

One piece I found quite interesting simply for its placement was at the junction of the Via dell’Abbondanza and the Via Stabiana. In antiquity, much like today, this crossroads was a hub of activity and foot traffic coming and going from the Forum, the theatre district, and the commercial area of the street leading to the amphitheatre and palaestra. It was here one of the most prominent men in Pompeii in the Augustan period built an arch, which was surrounded by statues, including one dedicated to himself, Marcus Holconius Rufus. As this was an area once filled with honourific statues, it was really quite something to see one (more or less) as it should be. The same could be said of an equestrian statue placed in the Forum, positioned on one of the remaining statue bases of antiquity.


Equestrian Statue in the Forum



Junction of Via dell’Abbondanza and the Via Stabiana.

I absolutely loved seeing Mitoraj’s work scattered across the city. Besides the fact that his work is incredibly beautiful in its own right, seeing these bronze sculptures against the backdrop of the Pompeian cityscape was quite extraordinary. For one thing, it is rare to see bronze in an ancient site like this – where bronze survived antiquity without being melted down, it is almost exclusively kept in museums. This, although modern art, provided a small glimpse into a missing element of the ancient city. Beyond that, it made me look at Pompeii in a completely different way than I have before. I don’t want to say I am blasé about the remains of the city – I do still feel the same awe as I did the first time I stepped into the Forum as a high school student – but there is a certain amount of complacency when one has worked in the same place year after year. This exhibit of sculptures made me look again at familiar places, in a way that made me appreciate the artistry not just of the art work, but of the buildings, the scenery, and the way they worked together, giving me an entirely new impression of a city I have been in love with for decades.




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Touring the Temple of Isis

The Temple of Isis in Pompeii has always been an intriguing structure for those who work in the ancient city. Not only is it a clear representation of the influx (and acceptance) of foreign gods in Rome, it also has had a distinct place in the conversation regarding euergetism, the political advancement of the sons of freedmen, and the rebuilding of the city after the earthquake in AD 62. The temple, seemingly demolished in its entirety in the earthquake, was rebuilt quickly due to the generosity of a six year old boy named Numerius Popidius Celsinus. It was among the first structures to be excavated in Pompeii, discovered in 1764.

I was recently in Pompeii doing a bit of work on graffiti, and much to my surprise, found a few in the Temple of Isis that I had somehow never noticed before. This, much like last week’s post, isn’t ancient graffiti, but instead is something more akin to early modern graffiti. The small building just to the south of the cella identified as a purgatorium (you can see the plan of the temple complex here) is still fairly well covered with the original ancient stucco work.


The plaster has been used to record names of tourists and visitors, going back to the time the building was first excavated.


The earliest I found was the above, J. Broom, who carved his name in 1789. The majority seem to date to the last few decades of the 1700s and the 1800s. The latest specific date I saw was 1900. Whilst the majority of the names were Anglophone (hardly a surprise considering the popularity of the Grand Tour amongst the British at that time), I was pleased to see at least one Italian had also left his mark. A man named Giuseppe (I can’t quite make out the surname), was there in 1790.


I’ve already written about the seemingly inherent human desire to leave behind a mark (here and here), but there were a couple of other things that struck me about these particular graffiti. One is the handwriting. It is very obvious that most of these texts were written in a different era simply by the penmanship. This is particularly stunning in view of carving a name in stucco – few blocky large letters – but almost exclusively the fine cursive fonts of another century. It has the appearance of names having been signed with pen and ink rather than carved with a sharp object into a hard surface. Also, the specificity. A few people didn’t just record their names and the year, but also the month, and even the day.


These visitors to the temple in May of 1797 (specifically on the 24th for the one on the left), used the column as their writing surface, thus limiting themselves considerably on space.

I admittedly rather like this little collection of names and dates in the Temple of Isis, despite the fact that usually I am disgusted by the addition of graffiti by modern tourists to sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum. Normally, I consider this defacement, and the destruction of irreplaceable ancient surfaces. This strikes me as particularly egregious when someone has written across a wall painting (what kind of tourist even brings a marker into the site?). Yet these texts, despite being defacement of an ancient monument, also tell a story about the site, about the history of the excavations and access, and about how Pompeii became a recognizable place in the world’s collective cultural mind. So whilst I am somewhat conflicted about their existence, finding them, searching for different years, looking at handwriting styles and names, was a few minutes of absolute joy, and a reminder of why I love doing what I do.

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For Judy

In the second century AD, the stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote, that on encountering one grieving for the loss of a child or similar, that ‘As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.’ Grief was a slightly paradoxical concept in the ancient world. For the Romans, certainly, visible grieving was considered antithetical to Roman values, particularly for men. This was especially true for grieving over a child, whom had not been on the earth for very long, and thus was not the subject of long attachment. There were even laws suggesting tombs were unnecessary for the very young. And yet… tombs exist for children who lived months or a few years, and an entire genre of literature, the consolatio, existed solely for the purpose of consoling one on their grief (or in some cases, attempting to jolt one out of an extended grieving period). Cicero wrote a (mostly) lost consolatio when his daughter Tullia died after childbirth. Seneca penned three surviving consolatio, one to Marcia grieving for her sons, one to Claudius’s freedman Polybius (although this may have had ulterior motives), and one to his own mother offering her solace for his own exile. In essence, regardless of what philosophers or laws indicated, Romans grieved when someone they loved died.

Last night I received news from home of a death in the family. Well, a family friend to be precise, but the woman who became your mother’s best friend when she moved to a new town at the age of five is, for all intents and purposes, family. She was not a huge presence in my life growing up. I have only vague memories of meeting her prior to adulthood. And yet somehow she loomed large in my consciousness. She was a career woman, an editor for Current Biography. She lived in Manhattan. She was friends with actors, artists, and musicians. I watched one of her friends in a popular sitcom on television. Once a year or so, she would take herself off to London for a month just to go to the theatre, concerts, and museums. She was, though distant, an example of a life being lived, a life that wasn’t family and children, but career and culture and friends. To a very young me, that was inspiring. She was possibility.

In later years she left her job, New York, and the theatre, returning to her hometown to care for her mother, and battle some demons of her own. She still read the New York Times daily. She did the crosswords (something we very much had in common). My parents also moved back, and she became a bigger part of my life. Trips home involved long visits, she kept up to date on my life via my mom, and always wanted to know about what I was doing, who was in my life, how my career was progressing. I would bring gifts of tea and biscuits from England, and we would share memories of London and theatre and talk about music and politics and culture as much as we talked of our own lives. Then she got cancer. It has been a struggle of treatments and remission and return that has lasted several years. In many ways, the illness caused her much more mental than physical anguish, and it was an incredibly difficult (and admittedly at times frustrating) thing to witness. My parents, being the amazing people that they are, have cared for her, supported her, and done all they could to help her fight what was ultimately a losing battle.

I am grieving. For all that she suffered, for all that she meant to me both as a child and an adult, and for knowing we will never share another pot of tea and packet of Hobnobs (her particular favourite). At the same time, reflecting on her place in my life, there is some echo of her in who I have become. Whether she ever knew it or not, I was incredibly fortunate to have her in my life, both as a friend and as an example. So, stoic philosophers be damned. Like Cicero, I am writing a consolatio. Not to send off to anyone else to assuage their grief, but for myself, and for her.

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