Fools and Fakes


Although the tradition of tricks and pranks that marks our modern observance of the first day of the month in April has only a tenuous antecedent in the ancient tradition of Hilaria, the Romans (and more to the point, Pompeians) certainly liked a good joke or two. Clear evidence of this can be found in the number of made up and silly names that can be found in the epigraphic record. I do not mean what are clearly the pet names of lovers, but rather names that are false or made up, seemingly representing a real person but more likely a joke. One particular way this appears is in the electoral dipinti, wherein a number of the scriptores and rogatores, that is, the individual or group asking for the election of a candidate and the painter of the inscription, are seemingly false names. The idea that the name used in a graffito or dipinto is not an accurate reflection of the scribbler is hardly a new one: after all, as many of us with siblings can attest, why claim an act of vandalism yourself when you can write your brother or sister’s name instead? In the case of the electoral programmata, however, it is more difficult to reconcile the use of a nom de plume with an act of writing which was accepted, if not expected, to occur on the city walls. Therefore, whether this was meant as an elaborate joke or as some kind of satirical commentary on the candidate himself is a bit difficult to determine. If we look at some of the examples on a case by case basis, however, it may become apparent, that in some instances, the names chosen may suggest a rather biting assessment of a politician’s suitability for office.

The preponderance of evidence belongs to the programmata of Marcus Cerrinius Vatia, a man whose name is recorded in notices calling for his election both as aedile and duovir. To begin, there are a series of dipinti written by men named Florus and Fructus:

M(arcum) C<i>r<d>ium VVIAM / Cri[- – -]m[- – -] M[- – -]o Florus.

CIL IV 387
M(arcum) Cerrinium / aed(ilem) Capito rog(at) / scr(ipsit) Fructus pycta.

CIL IV 803
M(arcum) Cerrinium aed(ilem) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) scr(ipsit) Florillus.

Fructus is also responsible for one further notice, written for another candidate:

CIL IV 934
Q(uintum) Marium Rufum aed(ilem) [- – -] Fructus cu[pidus(?).

These names, Florus (flowered) and Fructus (fruit), are hardly unusual in the ancient world. Both exist as cognomen in Pompeii and beyond. There are a number of graffiti containing the single names of Florus (CIL IV 2223, 3097, 4293, 4298, 4387, 8153c, and 8640) and Fructus (CIL IV 2126, 2244, 2245, 2245a, 3324 = 5042, 4151, and 10033.4), and other examples from the city’s walls which may indicate that there is more than one individual bearing such a name, including a prostitute and a gladiator who was victorious both at Nuceria and Herculaneum.

CIL IV 2409c
Fructus hic cum [?]
‘Fructus was here with ?’

CIL IV 7339
Felix aeris as(sibus) // IV / Florus / X.
‘Felix costs IV asses. Florus ten.’

CIL IV 4299
V K(alendas) Aug(ustas) Nuceriae Florus vic(it) / XIIX K(alendas) Sept(embres) Herc(u)lanio vicit.
’28 July, Florus won at Nuceria; 15 August, won at Herculaneum.’

What makes the combination of Florus and Fructus seem less than above board, however, is the following text:

CIL IV 581 = ILS 6418d
M(arcum) Cerrinium / Vatiam aed(ilem) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) seribibi / universi rogant / scr(ipsit) Florus cum Fructo.
‘All the late drinkers ask you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia aedile. Florus and Fructus wrote this.’

One dipinto, in which a candidate is supported by the late drinkers hardly seems enough evidence to justify the notion that Florus and Fructus were not the actual names of the writers. It is easy enough to envision a scenario where some friends of the candidate left a tavern one night after a few too many and painted this as a joke. However, when taken in conjunction with other messages of (supposed) support appearing for our man Vatia, it seems that there is more to it:

CIL IV 575 = ILS 6418e
Vatiam aed(ilem) rogant / Ma(rcum) Cerio(m) dormientes / universi cum / [- – -?].
‘All the late sleepers ask for Marcus Cerrinius Vatia for aedile.’

CIL IV 576 = ILS 6418f
Vatiam aed(ilem) / furunculi rog(ant).
The petty-theives ask for Vatia for aedile.’

CIL IV 7389
[M Cerrinium Vatiam?] drapetae omnes.
‘Marcus Cerrinius Vatia?. All fugitive slaves.’

The call for the election of a magistrate by a group is certainly not an unusual thing: many examples can be found from the neighbours (CIL IV 852, 6625), to the millers (CIL IV 7273), and the garlic-growers (CIL IV 3485). Some of these groups certainly seem less reputable (at least to modern sensibilities) than others. For example, it is not necessarily clear that either of the following provide a ringing endorsement:

CIL IV 1147
A(ulum) Vettium Firmum / aed(ilem) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) d(ignum) r(ei) p(ublicae) o(ro) v(os) f(aciats) pilicrepi facite.
‘The ball players ask that you elect Aulus Vettius Firmus aedile, worthy of public things.’

CIL IV 7863
C(aium) Lollium / Fuscum IIvir(um) v(iis) a(edibus) s(acris) p(ublicis) p(rocurandis) / Asellinas rogant / nec sine Zmyrina
‘Caius Lollius Fuscus duumvir for looking after the roads [and] the sacred [and] public buildings. Aselina’s [girls] ask you, not without Zmyrina.’

Vatia, in comparison, seems to be supported by a number of ne’er-do-well groups, which either are completely fabricated as a joke, or as an indictment on the character of the man and his supporters. In this context, Florus and Fructus (who also claim responsibility for the more straightforward message of CIL IV 230), seem to be amongst the jokers, and therefore, the veracity of their names can be called into question.

One final example, a notice for the incredibly popular Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus for whom a large number of programmata survive, suggests that the joke may not always be one based on undesirable behaviour, but rather an unwanted body part:

CIL IV 7240
Cn(aeum) Helvium / Sabinum aed(ilem) d(ignum) r(ei) p(ublicae) o(rat) f(aciatis) / Masculus cum codatis ubiq(ue).
‘Elect Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus aedile, worthy of public office. Masculus and all those who have a tail recommend him.’

Though hardly on the same level as the Philogelos, the dipinti advertising some candidates standing for election in Pompeii do suggest a certain level of sarcasm, trickery, and word play. Ultimately, it is difficult to determine exactly what was meant by these made-up names of groups and individuals, demonstrating once again, that when it comes to understanding exactly what was meant by the writing on the walls, the joke is really on us.

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