No Shit

Not long before my trip to Italy last month, a friend asked me about a particular text in Herculaneum. Her question stirred a vague recollection, which of course piqued my curiosity. Not only did I look up the text before I went, but I went looking for it on site.

Little remains of the original painted notice, on the side of a water tower at the intersection of the decumanus and Cardo IV between Insulae V and VI:


Investigations by various scholars, including one using New Infrared Reflectography (NIRR), have revealed the existence of two notices, one painted on top of the other. The earliest, dated prior to AD 60, has been reconstructed thusly:

CIL IV 10489
M(arcus) Rufellius Robia A(ulus) Tetteius Se[verus] / IIvir[i iure] dic(undo) / b(onum) f(actum) ad laev[and – – -]pu[- – -]erte ut[- – -]ipe[- – -]e / [e]dicemus HS XX si [prim]os(?) t[- – -] praesent[- – -] HS n(ummum) servom verberibus coercueramus.
‘Marcus Rufellius Robia and Aulus Tetteius Severus, duovirs [for the administration of jusitice]. We declare a fine of 2o sesterces if free citizens […], we will punish slaves with […] lashes.

The lost portions of the text render it impossible to know what the punishment described is actually for. However, the overlaying text, dated to sometime in the years of the AD 60s to 70s, provides the missing information.

CIL IV 10488
M(arcus) [Alf]icius Pa[ul]lus / aedil(is) / is velit in hunc locum / stercus abicere nonetur n[on] / iacere si quis adver[sus ea] / i(u)dicium fecerit liberi dent / [dena]rium n(ummum) servi verberibus / [i]n sedibus admonentur.
‘Marcus Alficius Paulus, aedile, (declares): anyone who wants to throw excrement in this place is warned that it is not allowed. If someone shall denounce this action, freeborn will pay a fine of […] denarii, and slaves will be punished by […] lashes.’

In essence then, what we have is notices put up by local magistrates warning of the punishment to be meted out in any instances of dumping excrement in the vicinity of the water tower.

There are a number of things that I find really interesting about these dipinti. Whilst I am no expert on health and disease in the Roman world, my first thought was that it was potentially unusual to see a notice prohibiting the dumping of waste near a water supply. The only similar inscription that comes to mind was found on a cippi on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, dated to the first century BC:

CIL VI 31614
L(ucius) Sentius C(ai) f(ilius) pr(aetor?) / de sen(atus) sent(entia) loca / terminanda coeravit / b(onum) f(actum) nei quis intra / terminos propius / urbem ustrinam / fecisse velit neive / stercus cadaver / iniecisse velit.
‘Lucius Sentius, son of Gaius, praetor, by decree of the Senate, has ordered the fixing of this boundary. No burning (cremation) to be undertaken beyond the markers of the boundary in the direction of the city. No dumping of excrement or corpses.’

Added beneath this text in red paint, CIL VI 31615 provides an additional similarity to the text in Herculaneum, as someone added the line Stercus longe / aufer / ne malum habeas (‘Take a shit well away, if you don’t want trouble.’) The pestilent nature of the Esquiline Hill was described by Horace, who was pleased with the effort made to clean up the area, no doubt as a result of such prohibitions.

Horace Satire I.8.12-16
‘Here a pillar marked a width of a thousand feet for graves,
Three hundred deep, ground ‘not to be passed to the heirs’!
Now you can live on a healthier Esquiline and stroll
On the sunny Rampart, where sadly you used to gaze
At a grim landscape covered with whitened bones.’

The inscription from Rome, however, had nothing to do with water source, but was more in regards to the danger of fire and the stench of decaying corpses and rubbish (as well as human waste). The addition to the text suggests it was enforced. This still seems to make the notice from Herculaneum unique.

Three additional aspects of these dipinti are worth noting. First, the existence of two texts within roughly a twenty year span suggests that making the public aware of this prohibition was necessary on more than one occasion. True, the first notice could have faded to illegibility hence the idea of reissuing it, but if dumping waste by the water tower wasn’t a problem, there would have been no need. That in itself suggests this was at least a semi-regular occurrence. Second, there is the matter of the different punishments: beatings for slaves, a fine for freeborn. As callous as this sounds, it is quite logical. Freeborn offenders are more likely (in theory) to have cash available than a slave might. But the final point I wish to make goes back to the actual dumping of waste. The location of these notices on a water tower makes sense if the magistrates are interested in keeping the water source relatively clean. However, the physical location of the tower, the notice, and the topography of the immediate area makes the dumping of waste here seem like a rather odd choice. Just look:


The tower is at a crossroads between two insulae and the decumanus. The sidewalk that runs down either side of Cardo IV is quite a steep step down to the street itself, such that there is a ramp leading down to the street level (just visible behind the water tower in the photo). There isn’t actually a lot of room for dumping anything in this location. The only place that seems a likelihood is a small space at the base of the tower on the left side. This is, perhaps uncoincidentally, the only place from which the prohibition is actually visible. How or why this small space became so frequently used to dump waste that the town magistrates felt the need to post a notice outlawing it twice is, frankly, beyond me. Regardless, the repetition of the notice and the specificity of punishment makes it quite clear that the magistrates of Herculaneum took no shit. Literally.

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:



I never would have realised this myself, but WordPress just kindly wished me (or rather, this blog) a happy anniversary. I find it difficult to believe that an entire year has passed since I began looking in earnest at the networks of Pompeii as visible through the epigraphic record, and find it even more surprising that I have found evidence of so many types of networks, not just in the ancient city, but in Latin literature as well (watch this space for more on that).

I have been amazed that the blog as a whole has had such a  following – this makes the thirtieth posting, and the pages have been viewed nearly six thousand times. So, in looking back at the last year of my research project and this blog, I thought I would review the top five posts, in terms of popularity. (Note: I have excluded hits for pages such as the archives, about section, and the posts containing videos from the research seminar series held at the University of Leeds earlier this year, all of which had many hundreds of views.  If you missed them, you can find them all here: The Present and Future of Vesuvian Research).

5. Vergil Abuse (96 views)

4. This time, it’s personal (106 views)

3. The Herculanenses (133 views)

2. Venus Pompeiana (149 views)

1. Pompeii and Circumstance (351 views)

The Herculanenses


Despite working in Pompeii for many years, I have never had much occasion to spend time in its sister city, Herculaneum, primarily because much of the material I have worked on (tombs, namely) have yet to be found there. Thanks to Rebecca Benefiel and the Herculaneum Graffiti Project, however, my interest in the second city destroyed by Vesuvius has been piqued. Tremendously.

The Herculaneum Graffiti Project has a two-fold objective: to create a searchable database for the non-lapidary texts of the Vesuvian cities, and to document the texts, preserving the evidence digitally and making it more broadly accessible.  As part of this endeavour, and working in conjunction with the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni archeologici di Pompei Ercolano Stabia, Epigraphic Database Roma, EAGLE Europeana, and the Herculaneum Conservation Project, the HGP has begun on-site work to record and document the graffiti and dipinti of Herculaneum.

I spent the better part of a week taking part in the first field season for this project along with thirty other lecturers, post-graduates and undergraduates. Working in teams, we spent hours scouring the walls for inscriptions that have previously been attested, and hoping to find some new ones as well. When a text was found, it was measured, photographed, documented in a line drawing, and eventually, translated and entered into the EDR corpus.


Despite having worked with texts of this nature for many years, it was a startling revelation to do so in situ, suddenly realising the difficulties in locating these often very small scribblings, deciphering the letter shapes of ancient handwriting, and understanding the meaning behind fragmentary words. It very quickly becomes understandable that much of this type of epigraphy has been missed, mis-read, and lost to the post-excavation elements. Thus, the importance of preservation, and simple efforts of conservation, quickly become apparent.

Case in point: eighteen graffiti were recorded in one room of the Grande Taberna in Insula IV, but only one can still be seen today. This text (CIL IV 10529), an anecdote about the philosopher Diogenes written in Greek, survives because it is protected by glass and a small roof, which prevent weathering of the plaster into which the letters were carved. Likewise, there is an incredibly well preserved graffito (naming the Herculanenses) sheltered by glass and a roof in the House of the Painted Papyri (CIL IV 10520). The dipinto of the papyrus for which the house was named (CIL IV 10481), however, was not covered in the same way, and is no longer  discernible.

In comparison, one of my favourite texts (for undoubtedly obvious reasons), has been left exposed to the elements, and has thus deteriorated considerably not only since it was first recorded, but noticeably even in the twenty years since it was last photographed by Varone (1994: 487).

CIL IV 10525
Hyacinthus hic fuit / Verginiam suae s(alutem).
Hyacinthus was here. Greetings to his Verginia.



This illustrates not only the importance of continued efforts of conservation and preservation of the texts on the walls of Herculaneum, but also the importance of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project’s efforts to document and digitally preserve what is currently visible. I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to work with the project and this amazing group of people, and look forward to continuing to contribute to their incredibly worthwhile and necessary efforts.


The Present and Future of Vesuvian Research

During the last three months I have had the privilege of hosting a number of distinguished speakers in the Department of Classics at the University of Leeds for a seminar series dedicated to current and future scholarship in Pompeii and the Vesuvian region. I wish to thank Professor Peter Kruschwitz, Dr. Rick Jones, Dr. Richard Hobbs, Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, and Dr. Anne-Marie Leander for giving their time and sharing their work with those of us in attendance, and for agreeing to share their papers more widely through this blog.

Prof. Peter Kruschwitz ‘Aufidius was here. (Really? Where exactly?)’

Dr. Rick Jones ‘Future oriented archaeology in Pompeii’

Dr. Richard Hobbs  ‘Coins and Mediterranean connections in early Pompeii’

Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill ‘Herculaneum: Can we save the sites?’


Dr. Anne-Marie Leander  ‘Focus on innovation in the study of insula V. 1 Pompeii’

Dr. Virginia L. Campbell ‘Sex degrees of separation’



Rescuing Pompeii




I was contacted a few weeks ago by Dan Vergano, a writer working on an article for National Geographic. He was looking into the series of recent collapses and the theft of a fresco in Pompeii and how the current situation of site management, preservation and continuing efforts to save Pompeii are viewed by scholars like myself who work in the area.

Vergano’s article follows the announcement by the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni archeologici di Pompei Ercolano Stabia of formal plans for proceeding with the Grand Progetto Pompei, which outlines a maintenance based approach using the combined efforts of archaeologists, conservationists, engineers and architects, as has been applied successfully in Herculaneum for many years. The article, including a small contribution from yours truly, can be read here.

Knowing Vesuvius

BEN119473From the House of the Centenary IX.8.6

Two scholars from the University of Chicago have recently completed a new translation of the Tempest Stela, a 3,500 year-old Egyptian text from Thebes. This text describes days of weather consisting of the ‘sky being in storm without cessation’, a ‘tempest of rain’, and the dead floating down the Nile like boats of papyri. The conclusions from this new reading suggest this weather pattern is a result of the volcanic eruption at Thera, and actually gives a new date to the event, more in line with recent carbon dating than scholars have previously thought.

The recording of volcanic activity in the ancient world is something that is surprisingly overlooked by most who study Pompeii. There is a prevalent belief amongst Pompeian scholars that those who lived in the shadow of Vesuvius nearly two thousand years ago hadn’t the slightest clue it was a volcano. This is largely due to the fact that the last known event had taken place more than a thousand years before, and no written record of the Avellino eruption existed. Yet there is a large amount of evidence from around the ancient Mediterranean that suggests its inhabitants were all too familiar with volcanic landscapes, eruptions, and other kinds of seismic activity. From the sixth century BC, Greek natural philosophers were writing about volcanic events, both from the perspective of observation and mythological origin. Volcanoes were often identified as the result of Titans, the location of the forge of the fire-god Vulcan, or as the entrance to the underworld. The earliest theories on volcanoes and earthquakes focused on underground wind and fire, as is evident from the description found in Book 6 of Lucretius’ de rerum Natura:

‘And besides,
When subterranean winds, up-gathered there
In the hollow deeps, bulk forward from one spot,
And press with the big urge of mighty powers
Against the lofty grottos, then the earth
Bulks to that quarter whither push amain
The headlong winds.’

The idea of wind or trapped air causing seismic events can also be found in Seneca. Writing within a few years of the earthquake that struck Pompeii in AD 62, he explains some of the occurrences surrounding the quake as a result of ill air from beneath the ground:

Seneca Naturales quaestiones 27.-1-2

‘But some particular events are reported to have occurred in this Campanian earthquake, and they require explanation. They say that a flock of hundreds of sheep was killed in the Pompeii area. There is no reason for you to think this happened to those sheep because of fear: we have said that a plague commonly occurs after major earthquakes, and this is not surprising. For many causes of death are lurking deep below: the air itself can be unhealthy for those who breath it, either through a defect in the earth, or because the air is stagnating inertly in perpetual darkness, or because of contamination by the corrupting effects of subterranean fires.’

Regardless of how well ancient Romans understood the cause of earthquakes or volcanic activity, a number of authors, writing in the century before the great Plinian eruption of AD 79, described both Vesuvius and the region in a manner that illustrates a good awareness of the fiery past of the area, and the similarity to other areas that were currently seismically active. In a discussion on building materials, the first century BC architect Vitruvius extolls the unique properties of pozzolana, a volcanic sand that forms the basis of an extraordinary durable cement:

Vitruvius de Architectura II.6.1-3
‘It is found about Baiæ and the territory in the neighbourhood of Mount Vesuvius; if mixed with lime and rubble, it hardens as well under water as in ordinary buildings. This seems to arise from the hotness of the earth under these mountains, and the abundance of springs under their bases, which are heated either with sulphur, bitumen, or alum, and indicate very intense fire. The inward fire and heat of the flame which escapes and burns through the chinks, makes this earth light; the sand-stone (tophus), therefore, which is gathered in the neighbourhood, is dry and free from moisture…It is moreover said that in former times fires under Vesuvius existed in abundance, and thence evolved flames about the fields…The species of sponge-stone, however, thence obtained, is not found except in the neighbourhood of Ætna and the hills of Mysia.’

Vitruvius recognises that Vesuvius once was an active volcano, and even draws parallels between the characteristics of the Campanian mountain with the active Aetna on Sicily. Similarly, Strabo recognises that the land of Vesuvius and Aetna share the same ashy soil suitable for vines:

Strabo Geographica V.4.8
‘Above these places lies Mt. Vesuvius, which, save for its summit, has dwellings all round, on farm-lands that are absolutely beautiful. As for the summit, a considerable part of it is flat, but all of it is unfruitful, and looks ash-coloured, and it shows pore-like cavities in masses of rock that are soot-coloured on the surface, these masses of rock looking as though they had been eaten out by fire; and hence one might infer that in earlier times this district was on fire and had craters of fire, and then, because the fuel gave out, was quenched. Perhaps, too, this is the cause of the fruitfulness of the country all round the mountain; just as at Catana, it is said, that part of the country which had been covered with ash-dust from the hot ashes carried up into the air by the fire of Aetna made the land suited to the vine; for it contains the substance that fattens both the soil which is burnt out and that which produces the fruits; so then, when it acquired plenty of fat, it was suited to burning out, as is the case with all sulphur-like substances, and then when it had been evaporated and quenched and reduced to ash-dust, it passed into a state of fruitfulness.’

He actually takes this further, realizing, although not in an entirely accurate way, that the entire region along the coast of southern Italy is part of a linked system of geological unrest:

Strabo Geographica V.4.9
‘But what Pindar says is more plausible, since he starts with the actual phenomena; for this whole channel, beginning at the Cumaean country and extending as far as Sicily, is full of fire, and has caverns deep down in the earth that form a single whole, connecting not only with one another but also with the mainland; and therefore, not only Aetna clearly has such a character as it is reported by all to have, but also the Lipari Islands, and the districts round about Dicaearchia, Neapolis, and Baiae, and the island of Pithecussae.’

Many of these islands that Strabo names were, in fact, actively erupting during this period of antiquity. The Pompeians would not have had to look far for examples of volcanic activity. The Aeolian Islands of Stromboli, Lipari and Vulcano were all active – Stromboli, or Thera in antiquity, had been continuously active for 2500 years. Livy described the emergence of new island between Lipari and Vulcano in 183 BC.

Aetna was continuously active for two millennia, with fifteen documented eruptions between 141-10 BC. An eruption in 44 BC was so catastrophic the ash cloud dimmed sunlight over Rome, and there was such concern over the harvest that the Senate appointed Cassius & Brutus to oversee the harvest – or so Plutarch wrote two hundred years later. And of course, Aetna was the subject of a didactic poem written in the Neronian period. Although the author is unknown, some scholars suspect it was the product of Lucilius Junior, who observed an eruption whilst serving as Nero’s procurator on Sicily. Perhaps coincidently, he had grown up near Vesuvius:

‘Aetna shall be my poetic theme and the fires that break from her hollow furnaces. My poem shall tell what those mighty causes are which roll conflagrations on their way, what it is that chafes at governance, or whirls the clamorous heat-currents.’

There is also a fair amount of physical evidence that has survived in the archaeological record that demonstrates that the inhabitants of the Bay of Naples were dealing with seismic activity regularly. Work carried out by the Herculaneum Conservation Project along the ancient coastline has revealed regular changes in the coastline and water levels as a result of bradyseism. Both the House of the Telephus Relief and the Suburban Baths had to block of access points to the structures in order to prevent flooding. Some have speculated that the changes in the water levels were also responsible for the abandonment (and eventual total submersion) of the Portus Iulius at Misenum. Built in 37 BC, it became impossible to use within twenty-five years, which shows how dramatically levels were changing in that period. This is still a massive problem in the area today.

What is compiled here is a relatively small sample of the evidence that existed in antiquity for seismic activity and the nature of a volcanic landscape. All things considered, it seems unlikely that the Pompeians didn’t have some inkling that they were living near a volcano, even if they were unsure of its dormancy. The idea that no one would have remained there had they known of Vesuvius’ potential for death and destruction is blatantly false – millions of Italians continue to live there today, despite a well documented and understood threat. Perhaps the reason for accepting this seemingly inevitable risk is best illustrated by Martial, who though lamenting the destruction of the region soon after AD 79, makes it clear it was well worth it:

Martial, Epigrams IV.44
‘This is Vesuvius, green yesterday with viny shades; here had the noble grape loaded the dripping vats; these ridges Bacchus loved more than the hills of Nysa; on this mount of late the Satyrs set afoot their dances; this was the haunt of Venus, more pleasant to her than Lacedaemon; this spot was made glorious by the fame of Hercules. All lies drowned in fire and melancholy ash; even the gods could have wished this had not been permitted them.’


Pompeii Research Seminar Series: Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
, Professor of Roman Studies at the University of Cambridge, gave the fourth lecture in the research seminar series Pompeii: The Present and Future of Vesuvian Research with a paper entitled ‘Herculaneum: Can we save the sites?’

Professor Wallace-Hadrill is the director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project and former director of the British School at Rome. He is primarily a social and cultural historian who has published key texts on Rome – Rome’s Cultural Revolution, Cambridge University Press (2008) – and Pompeii and Herculaneum – Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Princeton University Press (1994) for which he won an award from the Archaeological Institute of America. His work with the Packard Humanities Institute in Herculaneum has focused on preservation and conservation of the site and serves as a model for future efforts in the Vesuvian area.

He began his paper with a discussion of the long history of the excavation of both Pompeii and Herculaneum,and many of the issues encountered by past archaeologists in dealing with the destruction of archaeology and need for conservation. Elucidating on many of these issues still felt today, Wallace-Hadrill illustrated his point with details of his own work with Professor Michael Fulford at the University of Reading in the House of Amarantus (I.9.12).

Turning to Herculaneum, the remainder of the paper focused on the work of the Herculaneum Conservation Project with support from the Packard Humanities Institute. The premise behind this work is that the way to save the Vesuvian sites from further decay is to combine the efforts of archaeologists, conservators, engineers, and other specialists working together in order to halt (or at least slow down) the degradation of the ruins. Some of their activities are relatively simple in concept – such as getting the city’s ancient drainage system working again – but more often their work involves looking at connected systems of prevention – such as solving the damp problem in the neighbouring house in order to save the mosaic in the House of Neptune. Wallace-Hadrill’s final example of the kind of collaborative work he espouses concerned the House of the Telephus Relief. The desire to protect marble embellishments on an upper storey of the house led to the discovery of the remains of the original timber roof, and its eventual reconstruction.

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The work in this house is a testament to the method’s adopted by the Herculaneum Conservation Project, Wallace-Hadrill, and the Packard Institute, and certainly provide a convincing argument for future work in the Vesuvian region.



Primigenia of Nuceria


One of the difficulties in identifying specific individuals in the epigraphic evidence of the ancient world is being able to determine with any surety if different texts that contain the same name actually refer to the same person. Moreover, even with a large corpus of evidence, it can be unlikely to understand clearly what that person’s role was in society. An intriguing example of this comes in the guise of a female resident of Nuceria, a town approximately eleven kilometers from Pompeii, by the name of Primigenia.

CIL IV 10241
Nucer[in]ae sal(utem)
vellem essem gemma (h)ora non amplius una
ut tibi signanti oscula pressa darem.

‘Greetings to Primigenia of Nuceria. Would that I were the gemstone (of the signet ring I give you) if only for one single hour, so that, when you moisten it with your lips to seal a letter, I can give you all the kisses I have pressed on it.’

This elegiac couplet, found on a tomb outside of the Nucerian Gate of Pompeii, is thought to derive from Ovid Amores II. 15, which tells of a lover’s desire to be the ring he gifts to his paramour:

Ring, to encircle my beautiful girl’s finger,
appreciated only in terms of the giver’s love,
go as a dear gift! Receiving you with glad heart,
may she slide you straightaway over her knuckle:
May you suit her as well as you suit me,
and smoothly fit the right finger with your true band!
Lucky ring, to be touched by my lady:
now I’m sadly envious of my own gift.
O if only I could, suddenly, be my present,
by the art of Circe or old Proteus!
Then, when I wanted to touch my girl’s breasts
and slip my left hand into her tunic,
I’d glide from her finger, however tight and clinging,
and with wonderful art fall into the loose folds.
Again, so I could seal a secret letter,
the sticky wax not freeing from a dry gem,
I’d be touched first by the lovely girl’s wet lips –
so that sealing the work would give me no pain.
If I were to be plunged in your purse, I’d refuse to go,
I’d cling, a shrinking ring, to your finger.
I’ll never be an embarrassment to you, mea vita,
so your tender finger refuses to carry the weight.
Wear me, when you drench your body in the hot shower,
and let the falling water run beneath the jewel –
though, I think, your naked limbs would rouse my passion,
and, as that ring, I’d carry out a man’s part.
A vain wish? Off you go then little gift:
show her that true loyalty comes with you!

The notion that someone chose to inscribe a graffito reminiscent of Ovid’s poem for his lover is a romantic one, and no doubt is the basis for the conclusion that Della Corte drew regarding this and other texts naming Primigenia that she was a ‘lady of good birth, not only most beautiful but fascinating, bursting with femininity, that is to say with a real enchanting “intellectual”, even though her actual achievements are unknown to us in the field of arts whether of letters or of the theatre.’

A further graffito found in Pompeii, in the Casa del Menandro, tells the ancient and modern reader where to find her:

CIL IV 8356
Nucerea quaeres ad Porta(m) Romana(m)
in vico Venerio Novelliam

‘At Nuceria, near the Roman gate in the district of Venus, look for Novellia Primigenia.’

Della Corte takes this text as proof the woman named in the couplet and this Novellia Primigenia are one and the same, as both hail from Nuceria. He further supposes that she must be a descendent of Gaius Novellius Rufus, as he is the only citizen of the gens attested epigraphically in the region, who coincidentally has a tomb in Nuceria (CIL X 1097), in a district that still retains the name of Porta Romana.

There are a number of additional texts that show the popularity of Primigenia in Pompeii and in Herculaneum, where a graffito beseeched her to visit a man named Hermeros in Puteoli:

CIL IV 10676
Hermeros Primigeniae dominae
veni Puteolos in vico Tyaniano et quaere
a Messio numulario Hermerotem Phoebi.

‘Hermeros to Primigenia, conqueror of hearts, greetings! Come to Puteoli and in the Vicus Timinianus at the bank of Messius, ask for Hermeros of Phoebus.’

For Della Corte, this is proof positive that Primigenia was ‘an intellectual of distinction’ who was engaged in a ‘literary and artistic tour’ from Nuceria through Pompeii, Herculaneum, (undoubtedly also) Naples, and Puteoli.

What Della Corte fails to mention, however, is that there are at least six different men linked to Primigenia in more than twenty graffiti that name her. Sabinus, Secundus, Lucius Isticidius, and Cornelius Carito are just some of those who recorded time spent with Primigenia (CIL IV 5538, 8769c, 8260a 3976, 4270). The majority of the texts do not name an author, but instead offer their greetings to the woman who is described as ‘most sweet, most lovable’ (CIL IV 8177 dulcissimae amatissimawque) and beautiful (CIL IV 8301 [Primig]eniam quam feli(citer) mirati sumus. ’With what joy of the eyes have we admired Primigenia!’). Whether there are as many scribblers as there are texts (or, in fact, as many Primigenias) is extremely difficult to determine.

The frequency of this woman’s name in texts describing her attractive attributes in conjunction with multiple men has led some scholars to interpret her status in a different manner than Della Corte. Both Varone and Lancaster view Primigenia as a high-grade prostitute, a well-educated courtesan who may have been an actress. Topographical evidence further supports this conclusion – the graffito of Hermeros was found in the men’s baths in Herculaneum, one Pompeian graffito was found in the lupanare, and her own address is suspect for it’s location in a vicus named for Venus, the goddess of love.

So who was Primigenia really? A well-respected aristocratic woman renowned for her intellect, or a prostitute of some reputation whose liaisons were recorded by many a satisfied customer? It is unlikely there will ever be a conclusive answer to that question, but piecing together the evidence is a lesson in itself, in that no matter how much evidence there is for an individual, teasing out the true nature of that person’s life is rarely going to be more than speculative.

Research Seminar Series: Pompeii. The Present and Future of Vesuvian Research

As part of the Leverhulme Trust funded research project on Social Network Analysis in Pompeii, in conjunction with the Department of Classics at the University of Leeds, a research seminar series on current and future work in the Vesuvian region has been organised for the Spring semester 2014. All are welcome to attend.

Pompeii poster

For further information, please contact: