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.’

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