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.


3 thoughts on “Vergil Abuse

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s