Passing Notes*

A recent article in Smithsonian Magazine profiled the work of Caroline Winterer, an historian and director of the Humanities Center at Stanford University.  She, like me, is using social network analysis to look at the past in a new way. In conjunction with the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, she leads a team taking a quantitative approach to the letters written by and to Benjamin Franklin as part of the project Mapping the Republic of Letters. This project, in which the research focuses more on the information typically found on an envelope than the content of the letter itself, demonstrates how this methodology allows historians, of any period, to discern connections and patterns found in huge amounts of often fragmentary data that would otherwise be inconceivable.

Letters, unfortunately, do not survive from the ancient world in quite the same way, nor in such abundance – Franklin exchanged more than three thousand letters whilst living abroad between 1757 and 1775. For the best known letter writers of the ancient world, Cicero and Pliny the Younger, both of whom maintained collections of their correspondence specifically for the purpose of publication, there are merely hundreds. Survival of letters of the more average Roman, such as those recovered from Vindolanda, are more rare, especially outside of the dry conditions that preserve so much papyri in Egypt. To date, none have been recovered from Pompeii.

Yet, amongst the thousands of graffiti that cover the walls of the city, there are exchanges between two or more scribblers, responding, commenting, and furthering a type of discourse that can, in some sense, be compared to the back and forth nature of more formal correspondence. One such example is a brief dialogue between men named Severus and Successus, rivals for the affections of a woman named Iris. Found at the entrance of a caupona at I.x.2, CIL IV 8259 and 8258 are actually three separate inscriptions, the first and last by Severus, with a reply from Successus in between.

Successus textor amat coponiaes ancilla
Nomine Hiredem, quae quidem illum
Non curat, sed ille rogat, illa com(m)iseretur.
Scribit rivalis, vale.

‘Successus the weaver loves a barmaid named Iris who does not care for him. The more he begs, the less she cares. A rival wrote this. Farewell!’

This is followed by the rather confrontational response from Successes:

Invidiose, quia rumperes, se(ct)are noli formonsiorem
Et qui est homo pravessimus et bellus.

‘You who are bursting with jealousy, don’t dare to harry someone who is more attractive than you, one who is robust and wicked.’

To which Severus replies:

Dixi, scripsi. Amas Hiredem,
Quae te non curat. S[u]a Successo
Ut su[p]ra(t) [—].

‘I have written and spoken. You love Iris, who does not care about you. To Successus, as….. Severus.’

Both Cooley & Cooley and Varone discuss the texts, noting that this sort of rivalry is not unusual in the Pompeian corpus of graffiti. There are numerous texts which disparage a love rival, insult an acquaintance, or dismiss the abilities (usually sexual in nature) of a fellow Pompeian. What fascinates me about this particular example is the exchange between the two men – and like Franklin’s letters – it isn’t the content I am interested in, but that it occurred at all. This dialogue illustrates the connectedness of this community – that Successus should not only discover and respond to the initial text, but also that Severus should come back to add further to their exchange.  A likely scenario is that this pub served as the local drinking establishment for both men, with the popular Iris serving the wine. Regardless, this type of discourse, scratched onto a wall in Pompeii, provides evidence for a kind of interaction more usually found in letters, and thus substitutes one written form for another in a place where little non-lapidary writing survives.

* With thanks to my dad, an avid magazine reader, who gave me the article that inspired this post.