Drinking with Cucumae

In my recent trip to the Vesuvian cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, one thing that struck me anew is the distinct lack of dipinti, that is, painted inscriptions, on the walls of Herculaneum in comparison to Pompeii. This is not down to the smaller scale of the excavated city or a difference in the writing tendencies in the population, but rather seems to be simply a matter of surviving plaster surfaces. Unlike graffiti, which can be scratched into any hard surface, painting legible dipinti, most often used as a means of advertisement, required a flat smooth surface such as that provided by the painted plaster walls. In Pompeii, though these are now much damaged and faded, there are still large stretches of publicly accessible wall, such as that on the Via dell’Abbondanza, that preserve these texts. In Herculaneum, in contrast, there is a distinct lack of plastered exteriors.


There are four dipinti that I am aware of in the scavi of Herculaneum today. Three of them are located on a single wall at Insula VI 14, at the entrance to the Bottega ad Cucumas. Two of these seem related, whilst the lowest on the pilaster is not.

Bottega_ad_Cucumas (1).jpg

The most prominent, in the middle, is a painted advertisement listing the cost of various types of wine, and is the origin of the name of the bar.

AE 1989: 182a
Ad cucumas.
‘To the vessels.’

This is written above a painting of four wine jugs, each labelled with a different price ranging from two to four and a half asses per sextarius (a unit equal to just over half a litre). This indicates that it wasn’t quantity so much as quality of wine that predicated cost. Above this, there is a painting of the god Sancus, a figure associated with trust and honesty, and may have been an attempt by the innkeeper to indicate to his patrons the wine was not overly watered down. Like the wine jugs, his painting is accompanied by a brief inscription:

AE 1989: 182c
Ad Sancum.
‘To Sancus.’

Unrelated to these two dipinti, in the lowest register of the wall is an advertisement for a gladiatorial game.

AE 1989: 182b
Nola // scr(iptor) / Aprilis a / Capua.
‘Nola. Aprilis from Capua wrote this.’

This is a wonderful little text, primarily because it is useful for demonstrating the regional network of gladiatorial games that operated in Campania (this is a subject I presented on at the 2nd North American Congress of Greek & Latin Epigraphy which will be published at some point in the future). This relatively straightforward dipinto ties three of the local communities together by attesting the work of a man from Capua in Herculaneum promoting an event in Nola.

Despite the relative paucity of dipinti in the city of Herculaneum, the three texts (and accompanying images) on this one wall provides a glimpse into the kind of thing one might have expected to find on every plastered surface of the town, had it survived antiquity. The richness of colour and design suggests that walking down the street in Herculaneum two thousand years ago would have been an overwhelming experience of sight. If this is the example, it is nothing less than travesty that more of the dipinti did not survive. I suppose the bright side is that at least this wall is preserved, both in situ, and (I’m slightly ashamed to admit) in the virtual world of Pokémon Go: