One of the difficulties in identifying specific individuals in the epigraphic evidence of the ancient world is being able to determine with any surety if different texts that contain the same name actually refer to the same person. Moreover, even with a large corpus of evidence, it can be unlikely to understand clearly what that person’s role was in society. An intriguing example of this comes in the guise of a female resident of Nuceria, a town approximately eleven kilometers from Pompeii, by the name of Primigenia.
CIL IV 10241
vellem essem gemma (h)ora non amplius una
ut tibi signanti oscula pressa darem.
‘Greetings to Primigenia of Nuceria. Would that I were the gemstone (of the signet ring I give you) if only for one single hour, so that, when you moisten it with your lips to seal a letter, I can give you all the kisses I have pressed on it.’
This elegiac couplet, found on a tomb outside of the Nucerian Gate of Pompeii, is thought to derive from Ovid Amores II. 15, which tells of a lover’s desire to be the ring he gifts to his paramour:
Ring, to encircle my beautiful girl’s finger,
appreciated only in terms of the giver’s love,
go as a dear gift! Receiving you with glad heart,
may she slide you straightaway over her knuckle:
May you suit her as well as you suit me,
and smoothly fit the right finger with your true band!
Lucky ring, to be touched by my lady:
now I’m sadly envious of my own gift.
O if only I could, suddenly, be my present,
by the art of Circe or old Proteus!
Then, when I wanted to touch my girl’s breasts
and slip my left hand into her tunic,
I’d glide from her finger, however tight and clinging,
and with wonderful art fall into the loose folds.
Again, so I could seal a secret letter,
the sticky wax not freeing from a dry gem,
I’d be touched first by the lovely girl’s wet lips –
so that sealing the work would give me no pain.
If I were to be plunged in your purse, I’d refuse to go,
I’d cling, a shrinking ring, to your finger.
I’ll never be an embarrassment to you, mea vita,
so your tender finger refuses to carry the weight.
Wear me, when you drench your body in the hot shower,
and let the falling water run beneath the jewel –
though, I think, your naked limbs would rouse my passion,
and, as that ring, I’d carry out a man’s part.
A vain wish? Off you go then little gift:
show her that true loyalty comes with you!
The notion that someone chose to inscribe a graffito reminiscent of Ovid’s poem for his lover is a romantic one, and no doubt is the basis for the conclusion that Della Corte drew regarding this and other texts naming Primigenia that she was a ‘lady of good birth, not only most beautiful but fascinating, bursting with femininity, that is to say with a real enchanting “intellectual”, even though her actual achievements are unknown to us in the field of arts whether of letters or of the theatre.’
A further graffito found in Pompeii, in the Casa del Menandro, tells the ancient and modern reader where to find her:
CIL IV 8356
Nucerea quaeres ad Porta(m) Romana(m)
in vico Venerio Novelliam
‘At Nuceria, near the Roman gate in the district of Venus, look for Novellia Primigenia.’
Della Corte takes this text as proof the woman named in the couplet and this Novellia Primigenia are one and the same, as both hail from Nuceria. He further supposes that she must be a descendent of Gaius Novellius Rufus, as he is the only citizen of the gens attested epigraphically in the region, who coincidentally has a tomb in Nuceria (CIL X 1097), in a district that still retains the name of Porta Romana.
There are a number of additional texts that show the popularity of Primigenia in Pompeii and in Herculaneum, where a graffito beseeched her to visit a man named Hermeros in Puteoli:
CIL IV 10676
Hermeros Primigeniae dominae
veni Puteolos in vico Tyaniano et quaere
a Messio numulario Hermerotem Phoebi.
‘Hermeros to Primigenia, conqueror of hearts, greetings! Come to Puteoli and in the Vicus Timinianus at the bank of Messius, ask for Hermeros of Phoebus.’
For Della Corte, this is proof positive that Primigenia was ‘an intellectual of distinction’ who was engaged in a ‘literary and artistic tour’ from Nuceria through Pompeii, Herculaneum, (undoubtedly also) Naples, and Puteoli.
What Della Corte fails to mention, however, is that there are at least six different men linked to Primigenia in more than twenty graffiti that name her. Sabinus, Secundus, Lucius Isticidius, and Cornelius Carito are just some of those who recorded time spent with Primigenia (CIL IV 5538, 8769c, 8260a 3976, 4270). The majority of the texts do not name an author, but instead offer their greetings to the woman who is described as ‘most sweet, most lovable’ (CIL IV 8177 dulcissimae amatissimawque) and beautiful (CIL IV 8301 [Primig]eniam quam feli(citer) mirati sumus. ’With what joy of the eyes have we admired Primigenia!’). Whether there are as many scribblers as there are texts (or, in fact, as many Primigenias) is extremely difficult to determine.
The frequency of this woman’s name in texts describing her attractive attributes in conjunction with multiple men has led some scholars to interpret her status in a different manner than Della Corte. Both Varone and Lancaster view Primigenia as a high-grade prostitute, a well-educated courtesan who may have been an actress. Topographical evidence further supports this conclusion – the graffito of Hermeros was found in the men’s baths in Herculaneum, one Pompeian graffito was found in the lupanare, and her own address is suspect for it’s location in a vicus named for Venus, the goddess of love.
So who was Primigenia really? A well-respected aristocratic woman renowned for her intellect, or a prostitute of some reputation whose liaisons were recorded by many a satisfied customer? It is unlikely there will ever be a conclusive answer to that question, but piecing together the evidence is a lesson in itself, in that no matter how much evidence there is for an individual, teasing out the true nature of that person’s life is rarely going to be more than speculative.