When in Melbourne

Back in September I had the great pleasure to go to Melbourne as the keynote speaker for the National Archaeology Student Conference (NASC). Whilst I was in town, I also spent an enjoyable couple of hours talking to Matt Smith of La Trobe University, who has produces podcasts on the ancient world. The first of our conversations, on the graffiti of Pompeii, is now available as Episode XXX of the When in Rome series. If you’ve got an hour to spare and want to learn a bit about the writing on the walls of an ancient city, you can find the podcast on iTunes and Soundcloud.




Touring the Temple of Isis

The Temple of Isis in Pompeii has always been an intriguing structure for those who work in the ancient city. Not only is it a clear representation of the influx (and acceptance) of foreign gods in Rome, it also has had a distinct place in the conversation regarding euergetism, the political advancement of the sons of freedmen, and the rebuilding of the city after the earthquake in AD 62. The temple, seemingly demolished in its entirety in the earthquake, was rebuilt quickly due to the generosity of a six year old boy named Numerius Popidius Celsinus. It was among the first structures to be excavated in Pompeii, discovered in 1764.

I was recently in Pompeii doing a bit of work on graffiti, and much to my surprise, found a few in the Temple of Isis that I had somehow never noticed before. This, much like last week’s post, isn’t ancient graffiti, but instead is something more akin to early modern graffiti. The small building just to the south of the cella identified as a purgatorium (you can see the plan of the temple complex here) is still fairly well covered with the original ancient stucco work.


The plaster has been used to record names of tourists and visitors, going back to the time the building was first excavated.


The earliest I found was the above, J. Broom, who carved his name in 1789. The majority seem to date to the last few decades of the 1700s and the 1800s. The latest specific date I saw was 1900. Whilst the majority of the names were Anglophone (hardly a surprise considering the popularity of the Grand Tour amongst the British at that time), I was pleased to see at least one Italian had also left his mark. A man named Giuseppe (I can’t quite make out the surname), was there in 1790.


I’ve already written about the seemingly inherent human desire to leave behind a mark (here and here), but there were a couple of other things that struck me about these particular graffiti. One is the handwriting. It is very obvious that most of these texts were written in a different era simply by the penmanship. This is particularly stunning in view of carving a name in stucco – few blocky large letters – but almost exclusively the fine cursive fonts of another century. It has the appearance of names having been signed with pen and ink rather than carved with a sharp object into a hard surface. Also, the specificity. A few people didn’t just record their names and the year, but also the month, and even the day.


These visitors to the temple in May of 1797 (specifically on the 24th for the one on the left), used the column as their writing surface, thus limiting themselves considerably on space.

I admittedly rather like this little collection of names and dates in the Temple of Isis, despite the fact that usually I am disgusted by the addition of graffiti by modern tourists to sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum. Normally, I consider this defacement, and the destruction of irreplaceable ancient surfaces. This strikes me as particularly egregious when someone has written across a wall painting (what kind of tourist even brings a marker into the site?). Yet these texts, despite being defacement of an ancient monument, also tell a story about the site, about the history of the excavations and access, and about how Pompeii became a recognizable place in the world’s collective cultural mind. So whilst I am somewhat conflicted about their existence, finding them, searching for different years, looking at handwriting styles and names, was a few minutes of absolute joy, and a reminder of why I love doing what I do.

Scribblers and Scholars

Last weekend I finally got around to doing one of those Oxford things that one living here should do: despite my slight tendency to vertigo I climbed the very narrow, steep and winding stairs to the top of the tower of University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Although it is believed that there has been a church in this location since Anglo-Saxon times, the current building is an assemblage of components built between the thirteenth and eighteenth century. The oldest part of the structure is the Tower, dated to 1280. Tourists (okay, and residents) climb the tower for the stunning views over the skyline of Oxford. Narrow walkways are on all four sides of the Tower, linked by small arched passageways. Within two of these corner passages, I discovered a wealth of inscribed names, initials, and dates. DSCF7643

The earliest date I found inscribed is in the above photo, 1612, carved deeply beneath a less visible 1791. An individual with the initials AR, in the upper right corner, carved his (I’m assuming) initials in 1676. The overlap of names and the wearing over time has rendered most of the scratchings fairly illegible. Whilst I have seen other churches (Gloucester Cathedral comes to mind) with graffiti inscribed by builders and craftsmen, the dates and use of the building suggest to me that the majority of these names belong to students or visitors to the university. The Tower, a few floors below this vantage point, contains the Old Library. Built in 1320, it was the first central university office and library (i.e. not college affiliated), and was used for meetings and research prior to the construction of the Bodlian Library and Divinity School, built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the latest dated inscriptions I found were from 1811, when Messrs. Stone and Godfrey carved their names, well past the time when the Tower rooms would have still been used as originally intended.


One other aspect I found quite interesting is the obvious time and care that was taken in carving these names. Many have the letters blackened, a practice similar to using red paint as was common in Roman monumental inscriptions. In addition, a close look at the lettering indicates that on many occasions there were attempts made at style – adding serifs to the letters, creating the appearance of distinct fonts and handwritings. Compare, for example, the photo below, where both the ‘R’ and initial ‘W’ of the surname have distinct serifs, difference in thickness of the lines of the lettering, and show a replication of a monumental style of inscription. This is at odds with the penciled text beneath, clearly by a more modern hand, which lacks the same level of artistry all together.


I have written before about that overwhelming desire people have to record their name, or leave a mark. It would appear that on some level, the students of Oxford in centuries past were no different. What is remarkable, at least to me, is that such effort went into carving the letters and attempting to make them visible and lasting. This suggests a desire for permanence that isn’t all that surprising – it is exactly the thing that has led people to write on walls – whether in Pompeii two thousand years ago, in a church tower in Oxford four hundred years ago, or on an underpass over the motorway today.

For Women, By Women

One thing that I have always had some issue with in dealing with the epigraphy in the Roman world, particularly the graffiti, is the somewhat antiquated view that very few women could read or write. Literacy in general for the ancient world is normally restricted to the upper classes, and even more so for women. I have never exactly agreed with this approach to literacy, as I have discussed here previously. As Kristina Milnor discussed in her book on literary graffiti in Pompeii (see especially Chapter 4), even when texts are seemingly written by a woman for a woman, male scholars have attempted to change the sex of the writer to fit their preconceived notions of literacy, gender, and sexuality.  There are, however, some graffiti that simply cannot be explained away by mistakes of grammar or as a joke. This is one of my favourites:

CIL IV 10231
Gravido me tene(t) / At(i)me[tus].
‘Atimetus got me pregnant.’

It is simple, it is straightforward, and there really can be no doubt it was written by a woman. I have always seen this as part warning to other women – look what he did to me, best to stay away from Atimetus – and part admonishment for the man who, by virtue of the graffito’s existence, clearly is not taking responsibility for his actions.  Pregnancy is mentioned in other inscriptions – see for example CIL IV 7024 Gravid(o) (te)net – but this is the only I am aware of that names the man who caused such a state. That factor, in and of itself, suggests to me that not only did a woman write this graffito, but in doing so she must have expected a significant number of other women to be able to read it. Thus, in four words, our anonymous writer has provided evidence for literacy amongst the female population in Pompeii.




F is for Festius

Whilst finishing corrections to the manuscript that became my book, I discovered that one of the funerary inscriptions carved into the city wall in an area of poor burials between the Porta di Nola and the Porta di Sarno had been misread. CIL X 8351 was read as Aulus Fistius, but is in fact, Aulus Festius. The ‘i’ is actually an ‘e’.

Photo 1.JPG

The name ‘Fistius’ doesn’t actually occur anywhere else in the Roman world, whereas Festius does – including in Pompeii. There are a series of dipinti (CIL IV 1182-1184) that record a man named Numerius Festius Ampliatus, who was a lanista, organising gladiatorial games. The most famous of the texts naming Ampliatus was written in charcoal on a tomb at the Porta di Ercolano. As this dipinto was recorded alongside an elaborate stucco decoration of games, gladiators, and wild animals, his games are believed to have been quite the spectacle.


The article that discusses my findings and the evidence for the mis-reading of the name of Festius has been published in the latest volume of Epigraphica. If anyone would like a PDF of the article, please email me here.

Graffiti Fridays

I have been somewhat derelict in my blogging the last few months. This is admittedly because I have been working on a number of projects that haven’t necessarily lent themselves to writing posts, and I equally haven’t had the time to delve into the various bits and pieces I’ve been saving to write about. That said, I did recently have an idea for writing a short weekly piece to get myself back into the habit of posting regularly, and to further explore my love of graffiti.

With that in mind… Welcome to the first Graffiti Friday. This will be a brief weekly post on graffiti. It may be ancient or it may be modern, my only requirement for inclusion is something that caught my eye or intrigued me in someway. Here goes:


CIL IV 8031



Found in the vestibule of the House of Casca Longus (I.vi.11) in Pompeii, this graffito is part text and part figural:

CIL IV 8031
Munus te ub(i)q(ue)
“Games, you are everywhere.”

What is remarkable about this is that the letter ‘Q’ of the inscription is drawn in such way that it resembles the elliptical shape of an arena, the location where the ubiquitous games were held. This is a fabulous example of an image that illustrates the exact meaning of the text.



E is for Epidius

The letter E has been a bit of a dilemma for me – there aren’t many gentilicium that begin with this letter – but there are two that are considered to be families of distinction. What is somewhat remarkable about both of them – the Epidii and the Eumachii  – is that they have a reputation for importance in Pompeian scholarship, yet the evidence is actually somewhat scarce, but in different ways. The Eumachii are known almost entirely because of one person, whereas the Epidii are known primarily from a single place – the family burial plot. The idiosyncratic nature of the evidence for the evidence thus made me decide to derive from form and write about both.

The Epidii are one of the families of what are typically termed ‘indigenous’ Pompeians – that is – their presence in Pompeii pre-dates the time of Roman colonisation in 80 BC. There is some connection between the family name and a god of the river Sarnus. Members of the family are attested in the Sabellian period in some Oscan inscriptions. Castrén claims, somewhat dubiously, twenty-nine individuals that belong to the gens Epidia. (A number of these names are only partially recorded in the witness lists of the tablets of Iucundus, and thus there could be some duplication in Castrén’s prosopography). The most well known member of the family is Marcus Epidius Sabinus, who was a magistrate in the Flavian period. There are numerous dipinti supporting his campaigns for both aedile (which he won) and later for duovir. What is noteworthy about his electoral programmata is the inclusion of an endorsement of an agent of the emperor Vespasian in six of his notices.

CIL IV 768 = ILS 6438d
M(arcum) Epidium Sabinum d(uumvirum) i(ure) dic(undo) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) dig(nus) est / defensorem coloniae ex sententia Suedi Clementis sancti iudicis / consensu ordinis ob merita eius et probitatem dignum rei publicae faciat / Sabinus dissignator cum Plausu facit.
‘I beg you to elect Marcus Epidius Sabinus duovir with judicial powers, he is worthy. May you elect one who is a protector of the colony according to the opinion of Suedius Clemens, the worshipful judge, and by agreement of the council on account of his merits and his honesty, worthy of public office. Sabinus, the theatre official, elects him with applause.’

There are at least ten different freedmen whose names appear in the wax tablets of Iucundus that belong to the gens Epidia. This in itself is a testament to the apparent size of the family: the tablets are dated to a decade from the 50s to 60s AD, so document a fairly short period of time in which there were ten or more male freedmen of sufficient status to serve as witnesses to financial transactions. None of these men are attested anywhere else in the epigraphic record except Marcus Epidius Hymenaeus, who also appears in electoral notices as a rogator (CIL IV 7509, 7692) and has recorded his name on the walls of the city (CIL IV 9517, 9518.1-5).

What is particularly striking about this family, however, is their funerary evidence. In the early twentieth century, an area was found approximately five hundred meters from the Porta di Stabia, which upon excavation, revealed the burials of more than one hundred and sixty individuals, believed to all be members of the Epidii family. Known as Fondo Azzolini, this four hundred square meter area features two types of burial: inhumation and cremation. Forty-four of the burials are relatively simple interments of corpses in stone lined graves, following the tradition of pre-Roman burial typical of the Samnite period. The remainder consist of burial of urns containing cremated remains, the use of terracotta libations tubes, and grave markers in the form of columellae. Made primarily of tufa and limestone, they are fairly rough in design in comparison to the marble variants found in the city, and many of them are inscribed. In his publication on the original excavation, Matteo Della Corte (NSA 1916: 287-309) recorded funerary epitaphs on thirty-two of the Roman era burials.


Like so many of those whose name appear as witnesses on the wax tablets, those recorded in the funerary inscriptions are unattested elsewhere in Pompeii. However, based on the nomenclature, the majority appear to belong to slaves, women, and freedmen, so it probably is little surprise that these individuals are otherwise unknown. What this does, though, is clearly illustrate the extended nature of the Roman family. Many also record their ages, which is not unusual in practice, particularly for those who die young, but is nevertheless disproportionately high in occurrence in comparison to other burial areas in Pompeii. Some examples:

NSA 1916: 302.4
M(arcus) Epidius / Monimus / vix(it) ann(is) XXX.
‘Marcus Epidius Monimus lived thirty years.’

NSA 1916: 302.7b
Livia Calliope / v(ixit) ann(is) XXX.
‘Livia Calliope lived thirty years.’

NSA 1916: 303.23
Liberalis / vixit XVII / annis.
‘Liberalis lived seventeen years.’

NSA 1916: 303.66
M(arcus) Epidius / Dioscorus.
‘Marcus Epidius Dioscourus.’

NSA 1916: 303.110
Epidiae / Veneriae.
‘To Epidia Veneria.’

Ultimately, what I find fascinating about the Epidii, is that unlike many of the other prominent families of Pompeii, far more epigraphic evidence survives for the freedmen and slaves of the family than for the men who would have served as owners and patrons. Because so many are to be found in the family’s burial area, it begs the question whether the more elite members of the family were also interred therein, or have the monumental tomb that would be expected of those of their status elsewhere. The fact that Marcus Epidius Sabinus, when running for office, is the sole evidence of support coming from an external magistrate, much less one in the employ of the emperor, suggests that this was a family to be reckoned with. That they had power and prestige is clear, as is the wealth they must have possessed as demonstrated by the number of slaves and freedmen attested. That they are so unobtrusive in the epigraphic record is an anomaly in comparison to other magisterial families.  I, of course, want to know why. Short of finding another tomb or burial area (hang on, I’ll get my trowel!) I’m afraid we’ll never know.