Pompeii and circumstance

I was asked to contribute a short article to The Conversation, an online newsletter written by academics, on the importance of accuracy in the film Pompeii, which is released in the UK today. My original text can be found below, and the published article is available here.




It seems that every time a new film based on historical events is released, there is a rush to discuss the accuracy of the portrayal, how realistically the past is recreated, and what value the film might have for learning anything about the past. This is as true for films about antiquity as it is for films set fifty or one hundred years ago. Perhaps though, these are not the right questions to ask, but we should instead wonder if accuracy even matters.

The purpose of a film is to tell a story – whether entirely fictional or not – and is not meant to be an educational tool. That’s why documentaries exist. As much as the makers of the newest film set in the ancient world, Pompeii, claim attention to detail and historical accuracy, that seems an impossibility, and is probably an unfair burden to place on what is, in essence, an heroic action film. Much discussion has already filled the internet regarding the manner in which the eruption takes place (there was no fire raining down on escaping Pompeians) or the location of the amphitheatre (it should be in the southeast corner of the city instead of the north), but these are details that can easily be attributed to artistic license. Fire is much more dramatic than a lot of pumice and ash, and the foreboding view of Vesuvius looming over the arena must add an element of expectant dread for the viewer. And isn’t that the point? The elements of antiquity that are altered are likely done so in order to better tell the story, to enhance the experience of the moviegoer. If the average person in the cinema learns a little something in the process…great! If that spurns someone on to read more, or take a trip to Italy to see it for themselves…even better! If it is just a fun two hours watching some sword fighting and volcanic drama (with undoubtedly a bit of romance thrown in), well that’s good too. History won’t suffer because the film isn’t quite right on every detail.

This is not to say that particularly egregious historical inaccuracies don’t set my teeth on edge – they often do. But films like this aren’t made for scholars who have been working in Pompeii (or Rome, or Greece) for more than a decade – they are for the general public. For the average person sitting in the cinema (expert or not), what it comes down to really is how compelling the story is – the flaws in accuracy can be overlooked if the story and the characters capture the viewer’s attention. This was the case with Gladiator, the HBO/BBC series Rome, but not so much with some other recent sword and sandal films (I’m looking at you, Alexander and Troy). Until I get a chance to see it for myself, whether or not Pompeii tells a good story is something I cannot judge.

Regardless of what might be historically wrong with the film, I have no doubt that many will see it and enjoy it. For the city of Pompeii, there has always been an huge attraction for the general public – the ruins wouldn’t get 2.5 million visitors per year otherwise. This is not entirely about viewing antiquity, but about the horrific destruction of nature. Walking around the city gives a sense of average people, living their lives, until one day everything stopped. It is the suddenness of that end that engenders a kind of empathy and fascination. As macabre as that may sound, it is an element of a visit to Pompeii that can be found even amongst the earliest visitors, when writers such as Goethe, Mary Shelley, and Mark Twain wrote about the spectre-like aspect of the city and its unfortunate inhabitants, frozen in time at the worst possible moment.

There is something immensely compelling about the tragedy that befell the people living in this city that draws people to its story. This is equally true for those of us in academia as it is for the general public. These filmmakers have just found another way to tell that story, and in doing so, will reach far more people than any scholar ever could. For that reason, how accurately they have done it isn’t really that important.

Parisian Connections


I have just returned to the UK after a weekend in Paris, and though I admit to a certain amount of touristy frivolity, the purpose of my trip was to attend a one day conference showcasing network based research for archaeologists and historians. This was organised by The Connected Past, whom have been responsible for a few other workshops and seminars I have attended. As someone relatively new to network studies, having the chance to hear what other people are doing and discuss the practical issues of data collection and visualisation programmes is invaluable. The papers are interesting too.

I am routinely stunned by the variety and breadth of the research that is being conducted using network analysis. There seems to be little limitation on the time or place to which this methodology can be applied. I have previously written here about the project mapping Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence, but add to that fifteenth century ties between the elite of Tours and the king, networks of Bronze Age archaeological contexts, connections between early twentieth century Swiss scientists, and the exchange of gifts amongst natives and Spaniards during Columbus’ Caribbean voyages. There was, of course, more, (the full programme is online and the proceedings were documented on Twitter at #tcp2014), but this demonstrates the richness of the potential for network theory as a methodology. The question was raised during discussion after the conclusion of the papers whether or not this is a fad or a valid methodological approach to our studies: Is network analysis the only way to access a specific set of data? To some extent, the answer to this question depends on the research questions one has in the first place, but for those in the room, the answer was certainly yes.

Undoubtedly the best aspect of this conference was being introduced to three other projects applying network theory to antiquity of which I was previously unaware. There is an ongoing project led by Henrik Gerding and Per Östborn at Lund University that is using network theory to chart the distribution of new technologies – specifically brick and tile production. The paper presented focused on Hellenistic fired bricks as an example of the diffusion of innovation, and presented a number of different hypothetical models in an attempt to discover how and why new production techniques were adopted.

Shifting further east, Networks in the Roman Near East (NeRoNE), is a relatively new project led by Eivind Heldaas Seland at the University of Bergen. His paper focused on finding trade routes between Palmyra and the Persian Gulf in the first three centuries AD. This uses archaeological and ethnographic data and maps, amongst other features, available water supplies as the basis of a network in order to determine the routes used by caravans across the desert.

The final presentation on the ancient world was a literary one. Anthony Glaise (Paris IV-Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure) and Thibault Clerice (King’s College London) developed a programme that maps mentions of Cicero in literature from the time of his life until the fifth century AD. This resource, available online, allows connections to be drawn between one of the more prolific writers of the late Republic with people, places, gods and other literature. This approach (much like Elton Barker’s Hestia project) seems to have great potential for challenging the way we study ancient literature.

As most scholars will relate, research can be an incredibly solitary thing. This is one reason why conferences such as this are so important – not just for the opportunity to learn about other projects, but in order to discuss your own. For someone working with a methodology that has (relatively) few participants in Classical studies, this has been, once again, an experience from which I come away feeling reinvigorated about my own work, and the potential for the future. Besides that…..Paris.




Venus Pompeiana


In addition to the pleas of the lovelorn one would expect to find addressed to the goddess of love, Venus appears in a number of contexts in Pompeii, both epigraphic and iconographic. Many of the images in particular are typical motifs for this deity: Venus at her bath, Venus lounging with Mars, or a marine scene of Venus and the sea from which she was born. One can only assume that Botticelli would have been pleased his own version of Venus resembled an ancient one, as found in the House of the Marine Venus (II.3.3).

Yet, Venus had a very special relationship with this city, separate from matters of the heart. She was the patron deity of Pompeii, and as such, took on a role here that is not found elsewhere in the ancient world. Venus’ appointment as patron goddess was a natural choice considering that the colony’s founder, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, claimed he was favoured by the goddess, particularly in her guise as Venus Felix, from which he took his cognomina. This is evident in the official name of the city as the Colonia Veneria Cornelia, as found in this inscription found in the Temple of Apollo:

CIL X 787
M(arcus) Holconius Rufus d(uum)v(ir) i(ure) d(icundo) tert(ium) / C(aius) Egnatius Postumus d(uum)v(ir) i(ure) d(icundo) iter(um) / ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum) ius luminum / opstruendorum(!) HS |(mille) |(mille) |(mille) / redemerunt parietemque / privatum col(onia) Ven(eria) Cor(nelia) / usque at(!) tegulas / faciundum coera(ve)runt.
‘Marcus Holconius Rufus, duumvir with judicial power for the third time, and Gaius Egnatius Postumus, duumvir with judicial power for the second time, by decree of the decurions, paid 3,000 sesterces for the right to block off light, and say to the building of a private wall belonging to the colonia Veneria Cornelia.’

This name for the colony appears so frequently in the wax tablets of Iucundus it is often abbreviated as ‘c.c.V.C.’ (See, for example, CIL IV 3340.28, 3340.141, 3340.142, 3340.143, 3340.144, 3340.147, and 3340.148.)

Venus Pompeiana, as she was called locally, is a personification of the goddess that was wholly created by the inhabitants of this city. Likely a manifestation of her role as protector, the Pompeians clearly held their version of Venus in a special place, which is evident in both epigraphic and visual representations of the goddess. It was not unusual to call upon Venus Pompeiana for assistance or protection, as can be seen in the following texts.

CIL IV 26 = CIL I2 1664a
N(umerium) Barcha(m) IIv(irum) v(irum) b(onum) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) ita v[o]beis Venus Pomp(eiana) sacra [sancta propitia sit].
‘I ask you to elect Numerius Barcha, a good man, as duovir. May Venus Pompeiana (be favourable) to your offerings.’

CIL IV 538 (ILS 5138), underneath an image of gladiators
(H)abiat Venere <P>ompei{i}ana iratam qui hoc laesaerit.
‘May he who vandalises this picture incur the wrath of Pompeian Venus.’

CIL IV 2457
Methe Cominiaes atellana amat Chrestum. Corde [si]t utreisque Venus Pompeiana propitia et sem[per] concordes veivant.
‘Methe of Atella, slave of Cominia, loves Chrestus. May Venus Pompeiana smile favourably on their hearts and let them always live in harmony.’

CIL IV 4007 (CLE 233)
Tu, pupa sic valeas, / sic habeas / Venere Pompeanam / propytia / Munn [—] / [—]
‘May you always be in good health, my darling, and may you have the goodwill of Venus Pompeiana.’

Another aspect of Venus’ localised personification comes in the conflation of the Roman goddess with an indigenous Italic deity, most likely, Mefitis. Both goddesses have characteristics relating to nature and the physical world, and both appear with the epithet Fisica. Mefitis Fisica is found outside Pompeii, in Grumentum:

CIL X 203
[—] Mefiti Fisicae [—]

Venus Pompeiana Fisica, or simply Venus Fisica, is found in a number of inscriptions around the city:

CIL IV 1520 (CLE 354)
Candida me docuit nigras / odisse puellas odero si potero sed non invitus / amabo / scipsit Venus fisica Pompeiana.
‘Blondie has taught me to hate dark girls. I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them. Venus Pompeiana Fisica wrote this.’

CIL IV 6865
[—]ae nostrae feliciter. / [Perp]etuo rogo, domna; per / [Vener]m(-) Fisicam te rogo ni me / [reicias?] / [—]us. Habeto mei memoriam.
‘Greetings to you, our…I beg you incessantly, my lady; by Venus Fisica I beg you not to refuse me. Remember me.’

Venus Fisica is even credited with inspiring offerings to other Roman gods, as seen in this votive dedication:

CIL X 928
Imperio Veneris Fisicae Iovi O(ptimo) M(aximo) / Antistia Methe / Antisti Primigeni / ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘At the behest of Venus Fisica, Antistia Methe (of) Antistius Primigenius (dedicated this) to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. By the decree of the decurions.’

The worship of Venus Pompeiana, unlike Diana and Ceres, has been linked to a dedicated temple. Located outside the city walls, on a promontory that would have once looked out to sea, the sanctuary had a sacred grove in addition to the temple building. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that a temple stood on the site prior to the one dedicated to Venus – some have tried to link this to pre-colonial worship of Mefitis, in attempt to further the link to later adoption of Venus – but this remains tenuous.

With the temple, one would expect to also find evidence of priestesses dedicated to the adoration of Venus. Surprisingly, there is only one woman, a member of the Alleii family, who is specifically named as a priestess of Venus:

[A]lleia Mai f(ilia) / [s]acerd(os) Veneris / et Cereris sibi / ex dec(urionum) decr(eto) pe[c(unia) pub(lica)]
‘Alleia, daughter of Maius, priestess of Venus and Ceres, to herself, in accordance with a decree of the town councillors, with [public] money.’

There are, however, four women who are identified as sacerdos publica in inscriptions that do not specify the deity worshipped. As Venus is the patron goddess of the colony, it seems a logical conclusion that any woman named as a ‘public priestess’ was in fact charged with honouring Venus on behalf of the city. That the women known to us – Eumachia (CIL X 810-813), Mammia (CIL X 816 and 998), Holconia (CIL X 950), and Istacidia Rufilla (CIL X 999) – all come from prominent families of the Augustan period perhaps reinforces this conclusion.

There are two further texts that refer to the worship of Venus, both from columellae in a funerary context:

CIL X 1023
Iunoni / Tyches Iuliae / Augustae Vener(iae).
‘To the Juno of Tyche, (slave) of Julia Augusta, worshipper of Venus.’

CIL X 1054
Mesciniae |(mulieris) l(ibertae) / Veneriae.
‘To Mescinia, freedwoman (of a woman), worshipper of Venus.’

One further aspect of Venus Pompeiana worth mentioning is her iconographic persona, which is something that is entirely separate from that of the goddess of love. Gone is the nude imagery of the goddess normally on view – even within Pompeii – and in her place is a very different figure. Venus Pompeiana is fully clothed, wearing a crown, and holding a sceptre in one hand and a rudder in the other. As she is still accompanied by Eros, as is usual for the more familiar version of Venus, there is no doubt as to her identification. One of the best examples of this was found in the House of Verecundus (IX.7.6), in which Venus Pompeiana stands in the prow of a boat being drawn by four elephants:



A similar figure is found in another painting, from the House of Venus and the Four Gods (IX.7.1):




The rudder is still present despite the lack of the boat. Some scholars have equated this with Pompeii’s function as a port on the Sarno River. This aspect of relating Venus to the sea, not just as her place of birth, but specifically for its importance to Pompeii and the natural world may be another aspect of the characterization of Venus Pompeiana Fisica. This can be seen in a painting from the Domus of Lesbianus and Numicia Primigenia (I.13.9) wherein Venus Pompeiana appears to be steering a boat:



Similar images of Venus Pompeiana, distinctive in her clothing, crown, sceptre and rudder can be found in the House of the Labyrinth (VI.11.9), House of Castor & Pollux (VI.9.6), the House of M. Fabius Rufus (VII.16.22, pictured above) and a shop at V.4.6.

The epigraphic and iconographic evidence clearly demonstrates that in some sense, two different images of Venus existed for the inhabitants of Pompeii. One was the traditional deity of the Roman pantheon, but the other was far more familiar, and was a localized personification of the goddess. Although for all intents and purposes the two were one and the same, the specific manifestations of Venus Pompeiana, particularly in her imagery, illustrates that the Pompeians had their own view of Venus in her guise as the protector and benefactor of the city which was all their own.

Rescuing Pompeii




I was contacted a few weeks ago by Dan Vergano, a writer working on an article for National Geographic. He was looking into the series of recent collapses and the theft of a fresco in Pompeii and how the current situation of site management, preservation and continuing efforts to save Pompeii are viewed by scholars like myself who work in the area.

Vergano’s article follows the announcement by the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni archeologici di Pompei Ercolano Stabia of formal plans for proceeding with the Grand Progetto Pompei, which outlines a maintenance based approach using the combined efforts of archaeologists, conservationists, engineers and architects, as has been applied successfully in Herculaneum for many years. The article, including a small contribution from yours truly, can be read here.

Knowing Vesuvius

BEN119473From the House of the Centenary IX.8.6

Two scholars from the University of Chicago have recently completed a new translation of the Tempest Stela, a 3,500 year-old Egyptian text from Thebes. This text describes days of weather consisting of the ‘sky being in storm without cessation’, a ‘tempest of rain’, and the dead floating down the Nile like boats of papyri. The conclusions from this new reading suggest this weather pattern is a result of the volcanic eruption at Thera, and actually gives a new date to the event, more in line with recent carbon dating than scholars have previously thought.

The recording of volcanic activity in the ancient world is something that is surprisingly overlooked by most who study Pompeii. There is a prevalent belief amongst Pompeian scholars that those who lived in the shadow of Vesuvius nearly two thousand years ago hadn’t the slightest clue it was a volcano. This is largely due to the fact that the last known event had taken place more than a thousand years before, and no written record of the Avellino eruption existed. Yet there is a large amount of evidence from around the ancient Mediterranean that suggests its inhabitants were all too familiar with volcanic landscapes, eruptions, and other kinds of seismic activity. From the sixth century BC, Greek natural philosophers were writing about volcanic events, both from the perspective of observation and mythological origin. Volcanoes were often identified as the result of Titans, the location of the forge of the fire-god Vulcan, or as the entrance to the underworld. The earliest theories on volcanoes and earthquakes focused on underground wind and fire, as is evident from the description found in Book 6 of Lucretius’ de rerum Natura:

‘And besides,
When subterranean winds, up-gathered there
In the hollow deeps, bulk forward from one spot,
And press with the big urge of mighty powers
Against the lofty grottos, then the earth
Bulks to that quarter whither push amain
The headlong winds.’

The idea of wind or trapped air causing seismic events can also be found in Seneca. Writing within a few years of the earthquake that struck Pompeii in AD 62, he explains some of the occurrences surrounding the quake as a result of ill air from beneath the ground:

Seneca Naturales quaestiones 27.-1-2

‘But some particular events are reported to have occurred in this Campanian earthquake, and they require explanation. They say that a flock of hundreds of sheep was killed in the Pompeii area. There is no reason for you to think this happened to those sheep because of fear: we have said that a plague commonly occurs after major earthquakes, and this is not surprising. For many causes of death are lurking deep below: the air itself can be unhealthy for those who breath it, either through a defect in the earth, or because the air is stagnating inertly in perpetual darkness, or because of contamination by the corrupting effects of subterranean fires.’

Regardless of how well ancient Romans understood the cause of earthquakes or volcanic activity, a number of authors, writing in the century before the great Plinian eruption of AD 79, described both Vesuvius and the region in a manner that illustrates a good awareness of the fiery past of the area, and the similarity to other areas that were currently seismically active. In a discussion on building materials, the first century BC architect Vitruvius extolls the unique properties of pozzolana, a volcanic sand that forms the basis of an extraordinary durable cement:

Vitruvius de Architectura II.6.1-3
‘It is found about Baiæ and the territory in the neighbourhood of Mount Vesuvius; if mixed with lime and rubble, it hardens as well under water as in ordinary buildings. This seems to arise from the hotness of the earth under these mountains, and the abundance of springs under their bases, which are heated either with sulphur, bitumen, or alum, and indicate very intense fire. The inward fire and heat of the flame which escapes and burns through the chinks, makes this earth light; the sand-stone (tophus), therefore, which is gathered in the neighbourhood, is dry and free from moisture…It is moreover said that in former times fires under Vesuvius existed in abundance, and thence evolved flames about the fields…The species of sponge-stone, however, thence obtained, is not found except in the neighbourhood of Ætna and the hills of Mysia.’

Vitruvius recognises that Vesuvius once was an active volcano, and even draws parallels between the characteristics of the Campanian mountain with the active Aetna on Sicily. Similarly, Strabo recognises that the land of Vesuvius and Aetna share the same ashy soil suitable for vines:

Strabo Geographica V.4.8
‘Above these places lies Mt. Vesuvius, which, save for its summit, has dwellings all round, on farm-lands that are absolutely beautiful. As for the summit, a considerable part of it is flat, but all of it is unfruitful, and looks ash-coloured, and it shows pore-like cavities in masses of rock that are soot-coloured on the surface, these masses of rock looking as though they had been eaten out by fire; and hence one might infer that in earlier times this district was on fire and had craters of fire, and then, because the fuel gave out, was quenched. Perhaps, too, this is the cause of the fruitfulness of the country all round the mountain; just as at Catana, it is said, that part of the country which had been covered with ash-dust from the hot ashes carried up into the air by the fire of Aetna made the land suited to the vine; for it contains the substance that fattens both the soil which is burnt out and that which produces the fruits; so then, when it acquired plenty of fat, it was suited to burning out, as is the case with all sulphur-like substances, and then when it had been evaporated and quenched and reduced to ash-dust, it passed into a state of fruitfulness.’

He actually takes this further, realizing, although not in an entirely accurate way, that the entire region along the coast of southern Italy is part of a linked system of geological unrest:

Strabo Geographica V.4.9
‘But what Pindar says is more plausible, since he starts with the actual phenomena; for this whole channel, beginning at the Cumaean country and extending as far as Sicily, is full of fire, and has caverns deep down in the earth that form a single whole, connecting not only with one another but also with the mainland; and therefore, not only Aetna clearly has such a character as it is reported by all to have, but also the Lipari Islands, and the districts round about Dicaearchia, Neapolis, and Baiae, and the island of Pithecussae.’

Many of these islands that Strabo names were, in fact, actively erupting during this period of antiquity. The Pompeians would not have had to look far for examples of volcanic activity. The Aeolian Islands of Stromboli, Lipari and Vulcano were all active – Stromboli, or Thera in antiquity, had been continuously active for 2500 years. Livy described the emergence of new island between Lipari and Vulcano in 183 BC.

Aetna was continuously active for two millennia, with fifteen documented eruptions between 141-10 BC. An eruption in 44 BC was so catastrophic the ash cloud dimmed sunlight over Rome, and there was such concern over the harvest that the Senate appointed Cassius & Brutus to oversee the harvest – or so Plutarch wrote two hundred years later. And of course, Aetna was the subject of a didactic poem written in the Neronian period. Although the author is unknown, some scholars suspect it was the product of Lucilius Junior, who observed an eruption whilst serving as Nero’s procurator on Sicily. Perhaps coincidently, he had grown up near Vesuvius:

‘Aetna shall be my poetic theme and the fires that break from her hollow furnaces. My poem shall tell what those mighty causes are which roll conflagrations on their way, what it is that chafes at governance, or whirls the clamorous heat-currents.’

There is also a fair amount of physical evidence that has survived in the archaeological record that demonstrates that the inhabitants of the Bay of Naples were dealing with seismic activity regularly. Work carried out by the Herculaneum Conservation Project along the ancient coastline has revealed regular changes in the coastline and water levels as a result of bradyseism. Both the House of the Telephus Relief and the Suburban Baths had to block of access points to the structures in order to prevent flooding. Some have speculated that the changes in the water levels were also responsible for the abandonment (and eventual total submersion) of the Portus Iulius at Misenum. Built in 37 BC, it became impossible to use within twenty-five years, which shows how dramatically levels were changing in that period. This is still a massive problem in the area today.

What is compiled here is a relatively small sample of the evidence that existed in antiquity for seismic activity and the nature of a volcanic landscape. All things considered, it seems unlikely that the Pompeians didn’t have some inkling that they were living near a volcano, even if they were unsure of its dormancy. The idea that no one would have remained there had they known of Vesuvius’ potential for death and destruction is blatantly false – millions of Italians continue to live there today, despite a well documented and understood threat. Perhaps the reason for accepting this seemingly inevitable risk is best illustrated by Martial, who though lamenting the destruction of the region soon after AD 79, makes it clear it was well worth it:

Martial, Epigrams IV.44
‘This is Vesuvius, green yesterday with viny shades; here had the noble grape loaded the dripping vats; these ridges Bacchus loved more than the hills of Nysa; on this mount of late the Satyrs set afoot their dances; this was the haunt of Venus, more pleasant to her than Lacedaemon; this spot was made glorious by the fame of Hercules. All lies drowned in fire and melancholy ash; even the gods could have wished this had not been permitted them.’


B is for Barcha

One difficulty in piecing together the names of Pompeians is that names can, and do, take many different forms. The Imperial Roman system of the tria nomina, consisting of a praenomen, nomen and cognomen was not in use during the earliest years of the Roman colony, and even when it was the standard form later, the practice of only using one or two names was not uncommon. Numerous scholars have attempted to discern the patterns of name construction and frequency of use, largely using letters and speeches of Cicero, and to a lesser extent, Pliny the Younger. What this has revealed is that the number of names used depends on the level of formality and esteem one had for the individual, but at the same time, different practices came in and out of fashion. According to Adams, in Cicero’s time it was common to address someone using praenomen + nomen or praenomen + cognomen, but that by the end of the Republic there was a shift to nomen + cognomen. The aristocracy apparently favoured the use of praenomen + cognomen, which is apparent in one particularly interesting example found in Pompeii.

There are three dipinti that record the candidacy of Numerius Barcha for the office of duovir:

CIL IV 26 = CIL I2 1664a
N(umerium) Barcha(m) IIv(irum) v(irum) b(onum) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) ita v[o]beis Venus Pomp(eiana) sacra [sancta propitia sit].
‘I ask you to elect Numerius Barcha, a good man, as duovir. May Venus Pompeiana (be favourable) to your offerings.

N(umerium) Bar(cam) IIv(irum) [oro vos] col(oni).
‘Numerius Barcha. Colonists, I ask you to elect him duovir.’

CIL IV 72 = CIL I2 1644b
N(umerium) Barc(ham) II/v(irum) v(irum) b(onum) o(ro) v(os) col(onei).
‘Numerius Barcha, a good man. Colonists, I ask you to elect him duovir.’

There is a surprising amount of information contained in these texts despite the fact that we cannot identify the man’s family. Like all inscriptions recorded in volume I2 of the CIL, these dipinti are Republican in date. This is also evident in the fact that two of the notices beseech the colonists to ensure Barcha’s election. The Roman colony of Pompeii was established by Sulla in 80 BC, so for any of the colonists to still be around and voting, this election must have taken place between approximately 80 and 50 BC. Further, as Barcha is running for duovir, the second office in the local cursus honorum, he must have previously served as an aedile, and at the youngest, would be in his late twenties at the time of this second campaign, assuming he wasn’t himself a colonist, and thus considerably older.

There is one additional electoral programmata that is also attested to this candidate. Here, finally, we get his gentilicium:

CIL IV 45 = I2 1672a
N(umerium) Vei(u)m I[I] /v(irum) v(irum) b(onum) o(ro) v(os) co(lonei).
‘Numerius Veius, a good man. Colonists, I ask you to elect him duovir.’

This may, at first glance, seem as if it belongs to an entirely different man. The name Numerius was common enough, and identifying any specific individual by praenomen alone would be a highly dubious endeavour. The use of the nomen Veius with the praenomen of Numerius increases the probability of a match, but is still shaky as a concrete attribution. Luckily, especially considering the age of these inscriptions, there is one further graffito, found in the amphitheatre, that allows Numerius Barcha and Numerius Veius to be viewed as one and the same:

CIL IV 75 = CIL I2 1644c
[- – -] Vei Barc(h)a tabes[cas].
‘Numerius Veius Barcha, may you rot!’

Clearly, not everyone was a fan.

Finally, a monumental inscription from a tomb found outside of the Porta di Nocera provides more absolute confirmation that the names of Veius and Barcha should indeed be linked:

D’Ambrosio & De Caro (1983) 3ES
Veia N(umeri) f(ilia) Barchilla / sibi et / N(umerio) Agrestino Equitio / Pulchro viro suo.
‘Veia Barchilla, daughter of Numerius, (built this) for herself and to Numerius Agrestinus Equitius Pulcher, her husband.’


This inscription, still in situ on a large tumulus tomb dated to the late Republican / early Augustan period, attests the final resting place of Numerius Veius Barcha’s daughter. Although female naming conventions can often be more tricky than male, this is a very clear case of adopting the nomen in feminine form for a first name, with the addition of a diminutive version of her father’s cognomen as a second name. With the filiation naming her father Numerius, this becomes conclusive evidence that the man who sought election using his praenomen and cognomen only, is in fact a member of the Veii family. This is a family of some importance who will be present throughout the Roman period of Pompeii, who I will undoubtedly discuss further as I move through the alphabet.

What is most striking, however, in the case of Barcha, is how difficult it can be to rely on one or two texts to accurately identify individual people or their relationship to other family members. In this instance, the survival of just a few texts provides the evidence needed to piece together this father, daughter, and the gens they belong to. For many of the names recorded in the Pompeian epigraphy, the puzzle remains unsolved.

Vergil Abuse

The last week has seen much discussion about the use of a quotation from Vergil’s Aeneid on the 9/11 memorial soon to open in lower Manhattan. Whilst much has been said already about the (perhaps?) inappropriateness of taking a quotation out of context and whether the significance of the memorial is somehow diminished by a text that relates more to the death of two warriors in battle than the senseless killing of thousands through an act of terrorism, this is not actually the first time this quotation has been used for a memorial, and more to the point, not the first time it has been taken out of context – after all, Vergil did that himself. Ancient literature – or any literature for that matter – is not inherently sacrosanct. The words of authors have been used in ways other than intended, mis-appropriated, taken out of context, or just adapted for another purpose entirely virtually since writing began, and a series of literary graffiti found in Pompeii prove this.

Many of the texts scratched or painted onto the walls of Pompeii quote known literary texts. This practice, whether lines of text appear in full, in fragments, or with minor faults was common enough to warrant study, as is evident from Kristina Milnor’s latest book. Yet at the same time, these ancient authors were also being modified – not in error, but rather to use give their words an alternate meaning. Ovid, Propertius, Ennius, and, of course, Vergil, all have had their words adapted in some way on the walls of Pompeii.

I have already written of the similarity of a text offering a ring to Primigenia of Nuceria to a poem from Ovid’s Amores:

CIL IV 10241
Nucer[in]ae sal(utem)
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.’

Ovid Amores II. 15
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!

At least two complete graffiti find their inspiration in the same line of Ovid, also from the Amores:

Ovid Amores 3.11.35
Odero, si potero; si non, invitus amabo.
‘I will hate if I have strength; if not, I shall love unwilling.’

One, found in the House of the Scientists (VI.14.43), laments the hold Venus (i.e. love) has over a man:

CIL IV 1520 (CLE 354)
Candida me docuit nigras / odisse puellas odero si potero sed non invitus / amabo / scipsit Venus fisica Pompeiana.
Blondie has taught me to hate dark girls. I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them. Venus Pompeiana Fisica wrote this.’

The second, found on the other side of the city in the house at I.11.10, is nearly identical in sentiment:

CIL IV 9847
Candida me docuit nigras o[d]isse / puellas odero si potero si non / invitus amabo.
‘A fair girl taught me to scorn dark ones. I will scorn them if I can; if not… I will reluctantly love them.’

Further texts (CIL IV 1526 and 1528) begin with the same words Candida me docuit: CIL IV 1523 simply says ‘Candida’, and CIL IV 3040 misspells the text ‘Cand[id]a me docu(it), suggesting further attempts to record the same sentiment were never completed. All six of these graffiti are also linked to Propertius’ work:

Propertius Elegies I.1.3-6
Tum mihi constantis deiecit lumina fastus
et caput impositis pressit Amor pedibus,
donec me docuit castas odisse puellas
improbus, et nullo vivere consilio.
‘It was then that Love made me lower my looks of stubborn pride and trod my head beneath his feet, until the villain taught me to shun decent girls and to lead the life of the ne’er-do-well.’

Propertius and Ovid were more or less contemporaries, so who inspired whom, and whether one or both were the inspiration for our Pompeian scribblers is impossible to determine.

Vergil also appears in abundance on the walls of Pompeii. He is the most quoted of the ancient authors in the extant evidence, with the majority of the texts coming from the Aeneid. The Georgics and Eclogues are also represented, as here:

CIL IV 5007 (CLE 2157)
Det mihi Damoeta felicior quam P{h}asiphae haec omnia scripsit Zosimus.
‘Let Damoetas give (it) to me and he will be happier than Pasiphae. All this is written by Zosimus.’

Dic mihi, Damoeta, cuium pecus? an Meliboei?
‘Tell me, Damoetas, who owns the flock? Is it Meliboeus?’

This verse obscenely paraphrases Vergil, as noted by Varone, wherein Zosimus is bragging that his skills as a lover are superior to that of the bull Pasiphae engaged in sexual relations with whilst disguised in a contraption resembling a cow.

There is one graffito, however, that perhaps is the best illustration of altering a famous literary passage for new – and humourous – purposes. The text is based on the best known line from the Aeneid, one that could probably be quoted by school children in antiquity as easily as it is today:

Vergil Aeneid I.1
Arma virumque cano
I sing of arms, and of the man.

The first line of the Aeneid was incredibly popular in Pompeii, appearing on walls more than fifteen times, either in full or shortened versions (it was often abbreviated ‘arma virumq’). On the outer wall of the Fullonica of Fabius Ululitremulus (IX.13.5), beneath a wall painting of Aeneas leading his father and son from a burning Troy, we find something rather different:

CIL IV 9131
Fullones ululamque cano, non arma uirumq(ue).
‘Of fullers and the owl I sing, not of arms and the man.’

Ululitremulus – the ‘owl trembler’ – owned a shop where wool was worked, which fell under the patronage of Minerva, the goddess of weaving and crafts to whom owls were sacred, and chose to decorate the façade of the building with the hero of Vergil’s poem. Thus, the first line of the Aeneid, altered to include a reference to owls and fulleries, becomes a visual and literary joke for anyone in the know.

What this graffito in particular, and those above as well, demonstrate is that manipulating a literary text to a different purpose is nothing new. Single lines of text were taken out of context, quoted, adapted, and re-used frequently on the walls of Pompeii. Undoubtedly, the meaning of a text can change. Writing, as the ancient poets well knew, is a means of preserving memory, and it is up to the reader, not the writer, to determine what that memory is. I think Vergil would have known this, and would have appreciated the hilarity of singing about owls instead of a man as much as he would recognize the solemnity of his words on the wall of a memorial to thousands of dead.


Venus, Weaver of Webs

Venus enim / plagiaria / est; quia exsanguni / meum petit, / in vies tumultu(m) / pariet: optet /
sibi, ut bene / naviget, / quod et / Ario sua r(ogat).

‘Venus is a weaver of webs; from the moment that she sets out to attack my dearest (of my blood) she will lay temptations along his way: he must hope for a good voyage, which is also the wish of his Ario.’
CIL IV 1410


This graffito, found in the cubiculum of the House of Hercules (VI.7.6), is a brilliant example of one of the most enduring relationships the Pompeians had with this goddess: negotiating for assistance in the name of love. Venus is by far the most ubiquitous of the goddesses worshiped in Pompeii (and may even, when all evidence is considered, be the most popular deity full stop): her adoration comes in both texts and image, but also represents a variety of personifications and different relationships with the inhabitants. She served as the patron goddess of the Roman colony established in 80 BC, thus having a clear and distinct role as a protector. That alone may have made her extremely popular, but it is her guise as the goddess of love that makes her so often invoked, particularly on the walls of the city.

The graffito above is thought to be written not by a suspicious lover, but by a concerned mother, Ario, worried for her lovesick son. Found beside an image of a snake, a symbol of protection in the Roman world, the text was scratched into a wall that had a nail driven into it, which has led some scholars to suggest it was meant as a magical ritual.

Venus graffito

Regardless of the significance (or lack thereof) of the nail, the message itself is clear, and not an uncommon one. Venus, goddess of love, can relieve the suffering of those caught in her grasp:

CIL IV 1824 (CLE 947)
Quisquis amat, veniat. Veneri volo frangere costas / fustibus et lumbos debilitare deae. / Si potest illa mihi tenerum pertundere pectus / quit ego non possim caput i[ll]ae frangere fuste?
‘Let all who love go to blazes! As for Venus, I want to break her ribs with cudgel blows and maim her loins. If she can pierce my tender heart, why shouldn’t I split her head with my stick?’

CIL IV 1520 (CLE 354)
Candida me docuit nigras / odisse puellas odero si potero sed non invitus / amabo / scipsit Venus fisica Pompeiana.
Blondie has taught me to hate dark girls. I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them. Venus Pompeiana Fisica wrote this.

CIL IV 5092 (CLE 44)
Amoris ignes sentires, mulio, / magi(s) properares, ut videres Venerem. / Diligo puerum Venustum; rogo punge iamus. / Bibisti: iamus, prende lora et excute, / Pompeios defer, ubi dulcis est amor / meus es [- – -].
‘Driver, if you could only feel the fires of love, you would hurry more to enjoy the pleasures of Venus. I love young Charmer; please, spur on the horses, let’s go on! You’ve had your drink, let’s go, take the reins and crack the whip…take me to Pompeii, where my sweet love lives.’

As is seemingly always the case where love is concerned, the majority of these texts are poetic in form, and some not all that different in tone from what the Romantic poets would pen hundreds of years later. The fleeting nature of love, desire, and pain of separation, all at Venus’s behest, is a typical theme:

CIL IV 5296 (CLE 950)
O utinam liceat collo complexa tenere / braciola et teneris oscula ferre labellis. / I, nunc ventis tua gaudia pupula crede: / crede mihi levis est natura virorum. / Saepe ego cu(m) media vigilare(m) perdita nocte / haec mecum medita(n)s: multos Fortuna quos supstulit alte / hos modo proiectos subito praecipitesque permit. / Sic Venus ut subito co(n)iunxit corpora amantum / dividit lux et separees qui{d} ama[nt].
‘Oh, if only I could hold my gentle arms around you and press my kisses on your tender lips. Go now, girl, confide your joys to the winds: believe me, flighty is the nature of men. These things I’ve often mediated lying awake in despair in the middle of the night: many has Fortune raised on high, then suddenly let fall headlong, oppressing them with worst duress. Likewise though Venus in a moment unites the bodies of lovers, the first light divides them and you will separate their love.’

CIL IV 9123 (CLE 2292)
Nihil durare potest tempore perpetuo / cum bene sol nituit, redditur Oceano; / decrescit Phoebe quae modo plena fuit. / Venerum feritas saepe fit dura levis.
‘Nothing can last forever: When the sun has glittered all day, it returns to the ocean; the moon, that awhile ago was full, now wanes. Even the fierceness of Venus often becomes a puff of wind.’

Venus and her impact on the human heart is not always the subject of disparagement, but she is also praised and beseeched for lasting love and good fortune:

CIL IV 2457
Methe Cominiaes atellana amat Chrestum. Corde [si]t utreisque Venus Pompeiana propitia et sem[per] concordes veivant.
‘Methe of Atella, slave of Cominia, loves Chrestus. May Venus Pompeiana smile favourably on their hearts and let them always live in harmony.’

CIL IV 4007 (CLE 233)
Tu, pupa sic valeas, / sic habeas / Venere Pompeanam / propytia / Munn [—] / [—]
‘May you always be in good health, my darling, and may you have the goodwill of Venus Pompeiana.’

Varone wrote of Venus that the Pompeians ‘manifest their sincere devotion to the goddess by asking her favours and making promises ex voto at moments of crisis in their lives.’ This is understandable considering Venus’s personification of love, desire, and all matters of the heart. Perhaps the importance of Venus to the inhabitants of this city is best summed up in a Greek text found on one of the walls of the city:

CIL IV 9867
Αφροδείτη σώζουσα
‘Venus the saviour.’