About a month ago I managed to escape from the library long enough to pop into a small temporary exhibit at the  British Museum – Defacing the past: damnation and desecration in imperial Rome. It focuses on the practice of damnatio memoriae, where (mostly) bad emperors were condemned by the Senate, and had their name and likeness removed. In some instances, this was done by one emperor in order to remove a rival. Caracalla’s destruction of his brother Geta’s memory is the most obvious example, and one that featured heavily in the exhibit. But it was also a practice engaged in by the people after to removal of a particularly hated ruler. Pliny the Younger, writing after the damnatio memoriae had been issued for Domitian, said ‘How delightful it was, to smash to pieces those arrogant faces, to raise our swords against them, to cut them ferociously with our axes, as if blood and pain would follow our blows.’ (Panegyric 52.4-5). As I expected, the collection on display included some re-modelled or damamged portrait busts, a lot of coins that had one face rubbed out, and a few monumental stone inscriptions with lines chiseled out. What surprised me was to see a graffito, imitating a monumental inscription, and bearing the same erasure that a lapidary text would suffer. (The original graffito is not on display, but there is a large reproduction).




Found in a guardhouse of the nightwatch in Trastevere in Rome, the original text says:

CIL VI 3075
Imp(eratore) d(omino) n(ostro) Alexandro III / co(n)s(ule) |(centuria) Auli Terentius / Felix devotus numini / eorum feci(t) sebac{c}i/aria m(ense) Mai{i}o / salvis commanipu/los.
‘To the emperor our lord Alexander, consul for the third time, Terentius Felix member of the division of Aulus, devotee of the protective gods of the imperial family, performed the [night watch] rota of the month of May with all his companions safe.’

The graffito includes what looks like an altar, with the text inscribed on the base, and surmounted with a statue of Victory holding a palm, and busts of Alexander Severus and his mother, Julia Mamaea, on either side. When Alexander was assassinated in AD 235, this death marked the end of the Severan Dynasty and the start of nearly fifty years of civil wars and upheaval, in which twenty-six of the next twenty-eight emperors were also assassinated. After his death, his memory was condemned. The graffito was then defaced – the images of him and his mother were both crossed out, and his name was struck through in the first line of text. The damage done to the graffito is clearer in a line drawing:




Although the Senate issued a damnatio memoriae at the time of his death, this was lifted in AD 238, when Alexander Severus was instead deified. What is particularly interesting about that is that it potentially allows the execution of the damnatio memoriae on the graffito to be dated to a three year period. Furthermore, I find the act of defacing a graffito in this manner unusual in and of itself, and would surmise that it has only happened because it isn’t just a random scribbling, but one that was specifically made to replicate a monumental inscription. I have written about this practice before, but never have I come across a text that was defaced after a Senatorial decree. This, I think, puts a whole new twist on the concept of a damnatio memoriae, and how it was viewed or enacted by ordinary Romans.

Go Figure*

I recently discovered the eclectic and all together fantastic collection of Classical and classically inspired objects that make up Sir John Soane’s Museum. It was, for the sheer size and arrangement of the artifacts, overwhelming. As such, I plan to return another day to explore the permanent collections more thoroughly. My primary objective on this occasion, however, was to see the temporary exhibit ‘Drawn from Antiquity.’ The exhibit focuses on the use of ancient sculpture as the basis for life-drawing over the course of the last five hundred years. Sculpture, particularly the many nudes that survived antiquity, was a more than adequate replacement for a live model, either when it was considered unseemly, or as an initial introduction, prior to the use of the real life human form. If one considers particularly the athleticism often depicted in male statues (which indeed, was in part the inspiration of the recent British Museum exhibit ‘Defining Beauty‘), sculpture was an ideal representation of the musculature of the human form. This exhibit then, brings together a collection of works that focus particularly on the artist at work, whether in a studio or museum, and thus demonstrate the use of ancient sculpture as the model for life drawing. One excellent example of this, shown below, illustrates the use of a combination of classical sculpture, skeletons, and what appears to be a corpse as the artists’ models.

Jan van der Straet and Cornelis Cort 'The Practice of the Visual Arts' (1578) British Museum.
Jan van der Straet and Cornelis Cort ‘The Practice of the Visual Arts’ (1578) British Museum.

This sort of practice is, in fact, the inspiration for Soane’s own collection of architectural fragments, casts, sculpture and other items which he kept in his home and used to educate his architecture students at the Royal Academy of Art.

This got me thinking a bit about the practice of drawing generally, but more specifically about the tendency to draw the human figure, whether a simple stick figure or a fully articulated representation of the human form. Pompeii, of course, in addition to the thousands of textual graffiti adorning the city’s walls, also hosts a large number of figural graffiti. These range from elaborate drawings like that found in the House of the Ship Europa (so named, in fact, for the graffito of the ship), to small doodles that are not readily identifiable as depicting an human or animal:

Man or bird? Langner 241,  III.4.b
Man or bird? Langner 241, III.4.b

Although some of the figural graffiti include some text, usually in the form of a single name or numerals, the majority are nothing but a drawing, and thus not something I often get to look at. The tendency to draw in antiquity is, however, well documented in Martin Langner’s Antike Graffitizeichnungen, which demonstrates that practice was widespread both in terms of geography and subject matter. He attempts to classify the images into typologies, which, for the most part work, but the ambiguity and differences in the skill level of execution to sometimes render this subjective. Regardless, what quickly becomes apparent when flipping through his catalogue is that there is a desire to replicate the human form, whether or not one can do so accurately.

Langner 633, IX.11.3
Langner 633, IX.11.3

This figure is of particular interest for its crudity. An argument has been put forward by Katherine Huntley that some of the figural graffiti from the Vesuvian region can by used to study childhood development. Her premise is that developmental psychology has shown children conceptualise and draw in a specific manner as they are developing which is ubiquitous across language, culture, and time, and therefore can be applied to the identification of the type of drawing typical of children as a method for identification. She outlines six stages in development of drawing beginning with scribbling, progressing through basic or pre-schematic, schematic, visual schema, visual realism. She attributes this human figure from the exterior of a bar to the third (schematic) stage when drawing begins to become more complex and multiple elements are combined to form a composite image such as this one, which combines a diagonal cross and an oval to create a more complex figure.

Other elements of the progression of drawing (whether by child or adult) can be seen in the layering of elements. In the figure below, hair exists underneath the cap, in a manner that suggests one aspect (hair) was applied before the next (cap), thus creating a final product that was logical in its conception, but is unrealistic in its execution. This occurs in full figure illustrations

Langner 254, V.2.4

as well. This figure, viewed in profile, depicts both arms despite the side-on perspective. This too, is a common occurrence in drawings created by those of either lesser skill or age.

Langner 711, Grand Palaestra, II.7
Langner 711, Grand Palaestra, II.7

What is interesting to me, however, particularly in the context of the Soane exhibit which inspired me to look at figural graffiti, is that many of the images actually recreate standard ancient portrait types. The majority of the facial illustrations are similar to the portrait busts popular in Roman (and to be fair, Greek) sculpture. They depict a head and shoulders, often but not always in profile. Some are of course, rendered more expertly than others,

Langner 206, VI.16.35
Langner 206, VI.16.35

This particular example adds lines around the neck and shoulders, attempting to give a three-dimensional appearance to the graffito as if it was, in fact, a sculpture rather than a scratched drawing. The final example is an illustration of a gladiator. It is in gladiators and other athletic figures that there is an attempt to depict the human form more accurately, that is, in conveying musculature, movement, and often clothing and weaponry.

Langner 770, Grand Palaestra, II.7
Langner 770, Grand Palaestra, II.7

Here, there is a curvature to the calf, knee, and thigh that is indicative of muscular legs. The bent leg emphasises this. Likewise, the left shoulder and upper arm is similarly muscled, and the bent elbow, combined with the hold on a short sword demonstrates an awareness on behalf of the artist of movement, the form of the body, and the way athletic figures were depicted in other media, especially sculpture. This image, and others like it, seem to indicate that like their more modern counterparts, those living two thousand years ago also drew from antiquity.

*The inspiration for this post lays in part with Sophie Hay and her recent habit of tweeting figural graffiti to illustrate her current mood.

Post No Bills

Last night, BBC4 aired a documentary entitled ‘A Brief History of Graffiti.’ Presented by art historian Richard Clay, the programme explored not just the technical definition of graffiti (scratched, or inscribed texts or images such as those found in Pompeii), but all manner of markings left behind by someone who wanted to leave some trace of their existence. I’ve written before about the ubiquitous nature of recording one’s presence across millennia and thousands of miles. This habit is one hardly limited to the ancient Romans that are the focus of my research, and this programme illustrated this point over and over again.

When one defines graffiti as broadly as possible, as a man-made mark of some kind – painted, scratched, stenciled, written or figural – it quickly becomes clear that the claim that graffiti can be found wherever humans go is a truism. For the purposes of this programme, that ranges from the 30,000 year old cave paintings of southern France to modern street art in New York City. What remains the same is the urge to do this: what one NY graffiti artist referred to as an ‘innate human impulse’ to leave some trace behind. This is true of all the work profiled, whether the graffiti of local rivalries in Pompeii, the words of the revolutionaries of the Commune du Paris of the 1870s on the walls of the catacombs, or the images of the architect turned stencil artist Blek le Rat, whose work has inspired a whole generation of artists.

The element that has perhaps changed over time, again and again, is the attitude towards leaving such marks. A figure of a gladiator complete with sword, shield, and number of victories was inscribed on a wall inside a house in third century Lyon. This suggests a level of not just acceptance but permission for such a thing to appear. This is contradicted in the reaction to what Dr. Clay refers to as the industrialisation of graffiti, that is, the development of lithography and mass produced posters, in nineteenth century France when ‘défense d’afficher’ begins to appear on buildings. This attitude of viewing graffiti as subversive, revolutionary, vandalism, and a challenge to the status quo continues through the twentieth century, but certainly has no real effect on the production of graffiti. Indeed, despite this, street artists who once were at the vanguard of the underground movement, known for acts such as painting entire NYC subway cars, are now shown in galleries, painting on canvas, and selling their art. This is perhaps best illustrated by the ongoing exhibit of Terrains Vagues at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which developed a specific space for collaborative work by a number of graffiti artists.

What struck me again, repeatedly, throughout the programme, and indeed as I continue with my own research on inscriptions, is this need to record one’s place in the world, as however fleeting as that might be. I find something oddly comforting in the idea that this is an element of human nature, a shared need to leave one’s mark. It makes me want to buy some paint and find a blank wall to make my own.

Sexing Graffiti

DSCF5889 Over the course of the last six months or so, there has been a sudden proliferation of graffiti on a wall in a female toilet in one of the university libraries here in Oxford. This is, in fact, part of a longstanding tradition of notes scribbled on the walls of the library toilets, some of which survived for years before removal, and are fondly remembered by those who frequented one particular loo or another. The current crop of texts began with the question of why no one was writing on the wall, quickly followed by a call to ‘Take back the toilet wall!’ and has since expanded to include quotations of both ancient and more modern literature (in multiple languages), laments of Saturdays spent in the library (which is somewhat ironic as that’s where and when I am writing this), and general conversations about life, relationships, and graffiti. Some of my favourite scribblings ask ‘What does the graffiti really want?’, adds a bit of archaeological context by writing about a foot higher on the wall than the other texts ‘The archaeologist would conclude that most people have been writing sitting down. (This is an obvious exception)’, and finally a warning that ‘Omnia vincit cleaner.’  A few days ago I noticed a new dimension to the texts: after six months, there were finally two graffiti of a sexual nature. One commented on a desire to actually have sex in the library (with some additional commentary regarding completing such an act, and further comment on the necessity to include a second person) but the other, proclaiming the power of female genitalia, included an illustration that was both startlingly accurate and really, quite funny in concept. Behold: DSCF5860 This got me thinking: the walls of Pompeii are covered with texts of a sexual nature (some of which I’ve discussed previously here and here) both written and figural, but are these largely composed by men, or women? Of course, answering this unequivocally is impossible for Pompeii (unlike, presumably, the women’s toilet in the library), but I couldn’t help but wonder if men are more inclined to reach the point of sexual texts more quickly than women… would it have taken six months for the first penis joke to appear in a men’s toilet? To this end, I thought to look at some of the Pompeian graffiti to see if there is any discernible difference between the way men and women write or draw about sex and genitalia.

On face value, it would appear that the majority of graffiti of a sexual nature are written by men. Although he does not include genitalia in his catalogue of figural graffiti, Langner does discuss the appearance of scratched phallus on the walls of Pompeii and elsewhere, noting that a vagina only appears once, but in Britain, not Italy.

Pompeii_graffiti_2The graffiti themselves can be viewed with a typology: brags, insults (which may come in the form of admonishments or directions), and advertisements (for prostitutes). Leaving the last category aside, male authors (and subjects) do seem to dominate the evidence. The standard braggart type consists of proclaiming either one’s conquests or one’s abilities, whether the author’s specifically or that of the partner:

CIL IV 8897
Dionysios / qua hora volt / [l]icet chalare.
‘Dionysios is allowed to fuck whenever he wants.’

CIL IV 2175
Hic ego puellas multas / futui.
‘Here I have fucked many girls.’

CIL IV 2145
C(aius) Valerius Venustus m(iles) c(o)h(ortis) I pr(aetoriae) / (centuria) Rufi fututulor maximum.
‘Gaius Valerius Venustus, soldier of the first praetorian cohort in Rufus’ century, the greatest of all fuckers.’

CIL IV 5251
Restitutus multas decepit / sepe puellas.
‘Restitutus has often seduced many girls.’

CIL IV 40129
Hic ego bis futui.
‘I have fucked here twice.’

CIL IV 2273
Murtis bene / felas.
‘Myrtis, you suck well.’

CIL IV 2421
Rufa ita vale quare bene felas.‘Rufa, may life be as good as your sucking.’

Two texts, both found in the House of Fabius Rufus, written about a woman named Romula could be interpreted in a similar vein, but could just as easily be read as insulting to the woman’s character:

Fabio Rufo 34
Romula cum suo hic fellat et uubique.
‘Romula sucks her man here and everywhere.’

Fabio Rufo 19
Romula viros mule trec[en]tos.
‘Romula…thousands of men.’

Less clear cut is the following:

CIL IV 2310b
Euplia hic / cum hominibus bellis / MM.
‘Euplia was here with thousands of good looking men.’

Whilst at first this seems similar to the graffiti naming Romula, the qualification that the men were good looking seems to shift the identity of the writer – this is no longer simply an insult – but a statement about her ability to attract numerous handsome men. This seems less a comment on her wanton ways and more a compliment or boast on her own behalf.

One graffito describing the endurance of one woman’s activities appears to be written not by her or the man she was servicing, but by a third party, another man whose initials may indicate authorship.

CIL IV 1391
Veneria / Maximo / mentla / exmuccavt / per vindemia[m] / tota/ et relinque/t utr(umque) ventre / inane e[t] / os plenu / C(aius) S[- – – ?].
‘Veneria has sucked the cock of Maximus throughout the vintage, leaving both her holes empty and only her mouth full. Gaius S—?’

Some of graffiti offer directions, or admonishments for the abilities of one performing a sex act. Like many, the majority of these appear to be written by men.

CIL IV 4185
Sabina / felas / no belle fasces.
‘Sabina you are sucking it, but not well.’

Where the sex of the author is ambiguous, it is because it can be read as either a homosexual male (even if meant as an insult to a straight male) or a female.

CIL IV 794
Lente impelle.
‘Push in slowly.’

CIL IV 10041d
Piramo / cottdie / linguo.
‘I lick Pyramus every day.’

CIL IV 8715b
Iucu(n)dus / male cala.
‘Iucundus screws badly.’

CIL IV 4239 = CLE 41
Fortunate animula dulcis, perfututor. / Scribit qui novit.
‘Fortunatus, you sweet soul, you mega-fucker. Written by one who knows.’

Another graffito complementing Fortunatus (though it is impossible to say if it is the same man) suggests that it could be written by a woman, as it addresses another female by name, recommending Fortunatus’ technique:

CIL IV 1230
Fortunatus futuet te inguine / veni vede, Anthusa.
‘Fortunatus will fuck you really deep. Come and see, Anthusa.’

Even those texts that refer to performing sexual acts on women are somewhat tenuous in attribution. Males sometimes insulted other men by suggesting this was in their habit.

CIL IV 4264
Iucundus cunum lingit Rusticae.
‘Iucundus licks the cunt of Rustica.’

CIL IV 5178
Corus / cunnum lingit.
‘Corus licks the cunt.’

CIL IV 1383
Isidorum aed(ilem) [o(ro) v(os) fac(iatis)] / optime cunulincet.
‘Vote for Isidorus for aedile, he licks cunts the best.’

What strikes me about the written Pompeian evidence is that so much of it is so difficult to attribute. Although this is generally true of these kinds of texts, attempting to determine the sex of the author rather than a named individual writer seems, in theory, like it should be much simpler than it actually is. Whilst there is no doubt in my mind that some of these texts were written by women – who else but a female would write Gravido me tene(t) / Atm[etus?] (CIL IV 10231 ‘Atimetus got me pregnant.’) – it is near impossible to separate the descriptions of the acts taking place from a heterosexual interaction, an insult directed to another man, or a homosexual act. Unlike the two sexual texts I found in the female toilet of the library, the streets of Pompeii provide no agency as to who could have been there or would have scribbled such graffiti. The Roman world had very few spaces that can unequivocally be labelled as strictly single sex, and more to the point, had very different ideas than abound in the modern world not just about sexual images and commentary, but also about where and how these were expressed publicly.