Venus Pompeiana


In addition to the pleas of the lovelorn one would expect to find addressed to the goddess of love, Venus appears in a number of contexts in Pompeii, both epigraphic and iconographic. Many of the images in particular are typical motifs for this deity: Venus at her bath, Venus lounging with Mars, or a marine scene of Venus and the sea from which she was born. One can only assume that Botticelli would have been pleased his own version of Venus resembled an ancient one, as found in the House of the Marine Venus (II.3.3).

Yet, Venus had a very special relationship with this city, separate from matters of the heart. She was the patron deity of Pompeii, and as such, took on a role here that is not found elsewhere in the ancient world. Venus’ appointment as patron goddess was a natural choice considering that the colony’s founder, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, claimed he was favoured by the goddess, particularly in her guise as Venus Felix, from which he took his cognomina. This is evident in the official name of the city as the Colonia Veneria Cornelia, as found in this inscription found in the Temple of Apollo:

CIL X 787
M(arcus) Holconius Rufus d(uum)v(ir) i(ure) d(icundo) tert(ium) / C(aius) Egnatius Postumus d(uum)v(ir) i(ure) d(icundo) iter(um) / ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum) ius luminum / opstruendorum(!) HS |(mille) |(mille) |(mille) / redemerunt parietemque / privatum col(onia) Ven(eria) Cor(nelia) / usque at(!) tegulas / faciundum coera(ve)runt.
‘Marcus Holconius Rufus, duumvir with judicial power for the third time, and Gaius Egnatius Postumus, duumvir with judicial power for the second time, by decree of the decurions, paid 3,000 sesterces for the right to block off light, and say to the building of a private wall belonging to the colonia Veneria Cornelia.’

This name for the colony appears so frequently in the wax tablets of Iucundus it is often abbreviated as ‘c.c.V.C.’ (See, for example, CIL IV 3340.28, 3340.141, 3340.142, 3340.143, 3340.144, 3340.147, and 3340.148.)

Venus Pompeiana, as she was called locally, is a personification of the goddess that was wholly created by the inhabitants of this city. Likely a manifestation of her role as protector, the Pompeians clearly held their version of Venus in a special place, which is evident in both epigraphic and visual representations of the goddess. It was not unusual to call upon Venus Pompeiana for assistance or protection, as can be seen in the following texts.

CIL IV 26 = CIL I2 1664a
N(umerium) Barcha(m) IIv(irum) v(irum) b(onum) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) ita v[o]beis Venus Pomp(eiana) sacra [sancta propitia sit].
‘I ask you to elect Numerius Barcha, a good man, as duovir. May Venus Pompeiana (be favourable) to your offerings.’

CIL IV 538 (ILS 5138), underneath an image of gladiators
(H)abiat Venere <P>ompei{i}ana iratam qui hoc laesaerit.
‘May he who vandalises this picture incur the wrath of Pompeian Venus.’

CIL IV 2457
Methe Cominiaes atellana amat Chrestum. Corde [si]t utreisque Venus Pompeiana propitia et sem[per] concordes veivant.
‘Methe of Atella, slave of Cominia, loves Chrestus. May Venus Pompeiana smile favourably on their hearts and let them always live in harmony.’

CIL IV 4007 (CLE 233)
Tu, pupa sic valeas, / sic habeas / Venere Pompeanam / propytia / Munn [—] / [—]
‘May you always be in good health, my darling, and may you have the goodwill of Venus Pompeiana.’

Another aspect of Venus’ localised personification comes in the conflation of the Roman goddess with an indigenous Italic deity, most likely, Mefitis. Both goddesses have characteristics relating to nature and the physical world, and both appear with the epithet Fisica. Mefitis Fisica is found outside Pompeii, in Grumentum:

CIL X 203
[—] Mefiti Fisicae [—]

Venus Pompeiana Fisica, or simply Venus Fisica, is found in a number of inscriptions around the city:

CIL IV 1520 (CLE 354)
Candida me docuit nigras / odisse puellas odero si potero sed non invitus / amabo / scipsit Venus fisica Pompeiana.
‘Blondie has taught me to hate dark girls. I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them. Venus Pompeiana Fisica wrote this.’

CIL IV 6865
[—]ae nostrae feliciter. / [Perp]etuo rogo, domna; per / [Vener]m(-) Fisicam te rogo ni me / [reicias?] / [—]us. Habeto mei memoriam.
‘Greetings to you, our…I beg you incessantly, my lady; by Venus Fisica I beg you not to refuse me. Remember me.’

Venus Fisica is even credited with inspiring offerings to other Roman gods, as seen in this votive dedication:

CIL X 928
Imperio Veneris Fisicae Iovi O(ptimo) M(aximo) / Antistia Methe / Antisti Primigeni / ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘At the behest of Venus Fisica, Antistia Methe (of) Antistius Primigenius (dedicated this) to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. By the decree of the decurions.’

The worship of Venus Pompeiana, unlike Diana and Ceres, has been linked to a dedicated temple. Located outside the city walls, on a promontory that would have once looked out to sea, the sanctuary had a sacred grove in addition to the temple building. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that a temple stood on the site prior to the one dedicated to Venus – some have tried to link this to pre-colonial worship of Mefitis, in attempt to further the link to later adoption of Venus – but this remains tenuous.

With the temple, one would expect to also find evidence of priestesses dedicated to the adoration of Venus. Surprisingly, there is only one woman, a member of the Alleii family, who is specifically named as a priestess of Venus:

[A]lleia Mai f(ilia) / [s]acerd(os) Veneris / et Cereris sibi / ex dec(urionum) decr(eto) pe[c(unia) pub(lica)]
‘Alleia, daughter of Maius, priestess of Venus and Ceres, to herself, in accordance with a decree of the town councillors, with [public] money.’

There are, however, four women who are identified as sacerdos publica in inscriptions that do not specify the deity worshipped. As Venus is the patron goddess of the colony, it seems a logical conclusion that any woman named as a ‘public priestess’ was in fact charged with honouring Venus on behalf of the city. That the women known to us – Eumachia (CIL X 810-813), Mammia (CIL X 816 and 998), Holconia (CIL X 950), and Istacidia Rufilla (CIL X 999) – all come from prominent families of the Augustan period perhaps reinforces this conclusion.

There are two further texts that refer to the worship of Venus, both from columellae in a funerary context:

CIL X 1023
Iunoni / Tyches Iuliae / Augustae Vener(iae).
‘To the Juno of Tyche, (slave) of Julia Augusta, worshipper of Venus.’

CIL X 1054
Mesciniae |(mulieris) l(ibertae) / Veneriae.
‘To Mescinia, freedwoman (of a woman), worshipper of Venus.’

One further aspect of Venus Pompeiana worth mentioning is her iconographic persona, which is something that is entirely separate from that of the goddess of love. Gone is the nude imagery of the goddess normally on view – even within Pompeii – and in her place is a very different figure. Venus Pompeiana is fully clothed, wearing a crown, and holding a sceptre in one hand and a rudder in the other. As she is still accompanied by Eros, as is usual for the more familiar version of Venus, there is no doubt as to her identification. One of the best examples of this was found in the House of Verecundus (IX.7.6), in which Venus Pompeiana stands in the prow of a boat being drawn by four elephants:



A similar figure is found in another painting, from the House of Venus and the Four Gods (IX.7.1):




The rudder is still present despite the lack of the boat. Some scholars have equated this with Pompeii’s function as a port on the Sarno River. This aspect of relating Venus to the sea, not just as her place of birth, but specifically for its importance to Pompeii and the natural world may be another aspect of the characterization of Venus Pompeiana Fisica. This can be seen in a painting from the Domus of Lesbianus and Numicia Primigenia (I.13.9) wherein Venus Pompeiana appears to be steering a boat:



Similar images of Venus Pompeiana, distinctive in her clothing, crown, sceptre and rudder can be found in the House of the Labyrinth (VI.11.9), House of Castor & Pollux (VI.9.6), the House of M. Fabius Rufus (VII.16.22, pictured above) and a shop at V.4.6.

The epigraphic and iconographic evidence clearly demonstrates that in some sense, two different images of Venus existed for the inhabitants of Pompeii. One was the traditional deity of the Roman pantheon, but the other was far more familiar, and was a localized personification of the goddess. Although for all intents and purposes the two were one and the same, the specific manifestations of Venus Pompeiana, particularly in her imagery, illustrates that the Pompeians had their own view of Venus in her guise as the protector and benefactor of the city which was all their own.

Venus, Weaver of Webs

Venus enim / plagiaria / est; quia exsanguni / meum petit, / in vies tumultu(m) / pariet: optet /
sibi, ut bene / naviget, / quod et / Ario sua r(ogat).

‘Venus is a weaver of webs; from the moment that she sets out to attack my dearest (of my blood) she will lay temptations along his way: he must hope for a good voyage, which is also the wish of his Ario.’
CIL IV 1410


This graffito, found in the cubiculum of the House of Hercules (VI.7.6), is a brilliant example of one of the most enduring relationships the Pompeians had with this goddess: negotiating for assistance in the name of love. Venus is by far the most ubiquitous of the goddesses worshiped in Pompeii (and may even, when all evidence is considered, be the most popular deity full stop): her adoration comes in both texts and image, but also represents a variety of personifications and different relationships with the inhabitants. She served as the patron goddess of the Roman colony established in 80 BC, thus having a clear and distinct role as a protector. That alone may have made her extremely popular, but it is her guise as the goddess of love that makes her so often invoked, particularly on the walls of the city.

The graffito above is thought to be written not by a suspicious lover, but by a concerned mother, Ario, worried for her lovesick son. Found beside an image of a snake, a symbol of protection in the Roman world, the text was scratched into a wall that had a nail driven into it, which has led some scholars to suggest it was meant as a magical ritual.

Venus graffito

Regardless of the significance (or lack thereof) of the nail, the message itself is clear, and not an uncommon one. Venus, goddess of love, can relieve the suffering of those caught in her grasp:

CIL IV 1824 (CLE 947)
Quisquis amat, veniat. Veneri volo frangere costas / fustibus et lumbos debilitare deae. / Si potest illa mihi tenerum pertundere pectus / quit ego non possim caput i[ll]ae frangere fuste?
‘Let all who love go to blazes! As for Venus, I want to break her ribs with cudgel blows and maim her loins. If she can pierce my tender heart, why shouldn’t I split her head with my stick?’

CIL IV 1520 (CLE 354)
Candida me docuit nigras / odisse puellas odero si potero sed non invitus / amabo / scipsit Venus fisica Pompeiana.
Blondie has taught me to hate dark girls. I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them. Venus Pompeiana Fisica wrote this.

CIL IV 5092 (CLE 44)
Amoris ignes sentires, mulio, / magi(s) properares, ut videres Venerem. / Diligo puerum Venustum; rogo punge iamus. / Bibisti: iamus, prende lora et excute, / Pompeios defer, ubi dulcis est amor / meus es [- – -].
‘Driver, if you could only feel the fires of love, you would hurry more to enjoy the pleasures of Venus. I love young Charmer; please, spur on the horses, let’s go on! You’ve had your drink, let’s go, take the reins and crack the whip…take me to Pompeii, where my sweet love lives.’

As is seemingly always the case where love is concerned, the majority of these texts are poetic in form, and some not all that different in tone from what the Romantic poets would pen hundreds of years later. The fleeting nature of love, desire, and pain of separation, all at Venus’s behest, is a typical theme:

CIL IV 5296 (CLE 950)
O utinam liceat collo complexa tenere / braciola et teneris oscula ferre labellis. / I, nunc ventis tua gaudia pupula crede: / crede mihi levis est natura virorum. / Saepe ego cu(m) media vigilare(m) perdita nocte / haec mecum medita(n)s: multos Fortuna quos supstulit alte / hos modo proiectos subito praecipitesque permit. / Sic Venus ut subito co(n)iunxit corpora amantum / dividit lux et separees qui{d} ama[nt].
‘Oh, if only I could hold my gentle arms around you and press my kisses on your tender lips. Go now, girl, confide your joys to the winds: believe me, flighty is the nature of men. These things I’ve often mediated lying awake in despair in the middle of the night: many has Fortune raised on high, then suddenly let fall headlong, oppressing them with worst duress. Likewise though Venus in a moment unites the bodies of lovers, the first light divides them and you will separate their love.’

CIL IV 9123 (CLE 2292)
Nihil durare potest tempore perpetuo / cum bene sol nituit, redditur Oceano; / decrescit Phoebe quae modo plena fuit. / Venerum feritas saepe fit dura levis.
‘Nothing can last forever: When the sun has glittered all day, it returns to the ocean; the moon, that awhile ago was full, now wanes. Even the fierceness of Venus often becomes a puff of wind.’

Venus and her impact on the human heart is not always the subject of disparagement, but she is also praised and beseeched for lasting love and good fortune:

CIL IV 2457
Methe Cominiaes atellana amat Chrestum. Corde [si]t utreisque Venus Pompeiana propitia et sem[per] concordes veivant.
‘Methe of Atella, slave of Cominia, loves Chrestus. May Venus Pompeiana smile favourably on their hearts and let them always live in harmony.’

CIL IV 4007 (CLE 233)
Tu, pupa sic valeas, / sic habeas / Venere Pompeanam / propytia / Munn [—] / [—]
‘May you always be in good health, my darling, and may you have the goodwill of Venus Pompeiana.’

Varone wrote of Venus that the Pompeians ‘manifest their sincere devotion to the goddess by asking her favours and making promises ex voto at moments of crisis in their lives.’ This is understandable considering Venus’s personification of love, desire, and all matters of the heart. Perhaps the importance of Venus to the inhabitants of this city is best summed up in a Greek text found on one of the walls of the city:

CIL IV 9867
Αφροδείτη σώζουσα
‘Venus the saviour.’

Sweet Addresses


Bene salutando consuescunt, compellando blanditer, osculando, oratione uinnula, uenustula.
‘They get used to us through nice greetings, sweet addresses, kissing, tender and delightful speech.’
– Plautus Asinaria 222-223

In most instances, the ancient graffiti that contain a term of endearment don’t tell us much about networks, as few of them actually contain a real name. Instead, they offer us insight to the kind of relationships people had, how they recorded these, and more interestingly, what was an accepted or normal way to refer to one’s beloved. Though there are many similarities in the vocabulary of endearments regardless of language, whether ancient or modern, many of the Latin terms of endearment are not necessarily palatable to the modern Anglophone ear. Whilst foodstuffs and diminutives abound in most cases, some of the Latin examples may seem as dissonant as the French preference for cabbage – as in mon petit chou – over an English predilection for desserts – ‘cupcake’ or ‘honey’. Referring to someone as the sweetest or most loveable is common enough  – dulcissimae amantissimaeque as in CIL IV 8177 – and is probably the most typical kind of epithet, particularly in funerary inscriptions. But the graffiti in Pompeii also reveals a predilection for slightly more unusual endearments.

CIL IV 1780
Quid faciam vobis, ocilli lusci
‘What shall I do for you, twinkling eyes?’

CIL IV 1970
Noete, lumen, / va(le), va(le) / usque va(le).
‘Noete, my light, greetings! Greetings! Infinite greetings!’

CIL IV 1781 = CLE 1785
Mea vita meae deliciae, ludamus parumper: / hunc lectum campum, me tibei equom esse putamus.
‘My life, my delight, let us play for awhile: let this bed be our field and let me be your charger’

CIL IV 8870
A(n)ser, ab(i) amo(e)na[e] / loco.
‘Gosling, leave my delight alone.’

The above seem relatively straightforward and fairly normal to the modern viewer. Indeed, most Romance languages actually retain the Latin use of referring to a paramour as ‘my life’ as in CIL IV 1781. But there are more still where the original meaning may be lost to us:

CIL IV 5094
Primige[ne]nius / Successe salute. / Val(e) mea pistilla.
‘Primigenius greets Successa. Hello, my pestle.’

CIL IV 4447
Fonticulus Pisciculo suo / plurma salut(e).
‘Warmest regards from Puddle to her Fishlet.’

Varone explains these away as ‘delightful nicknames, which, as always happens, have a more or less obvious sexual connotation’. Whether or not this is true or just a reflection of a modern grasping at innuendo in lieu of recognizable terms of affection is difficult to say. If we turn away from the graffiti and look to other ancient texts, such as Plautus’ Asinaria, we find similar motifs in the endearments as those found on the walls of Pompeii, utilizing imagery of love, light, and animals.

Plautus Asinaria, 664-668; 691-696.
PHIL.: Da, meus ocellus, mea rosa, mi anime, mea uoluptas, Leonida, argentum mihi, ne nos diiunge amantis.
LEO: Dic me igitur tuom passerculum, gallinam, coturnicem, agnellum, haedillim me tuom dic esse uel uitellum, prehende auriculis, compara labella cum labellis.

PHIL: ‘Give the money to me, apple of my eye, my rose, my soul, my joy. Leonida, stop separating us lovers.’
LEO.: ‘Then call me your little sparrow, your hen, your quail; call me you little lamb, your kid, or your little calf; grab me by the ears and put your lips on mine.’


PHIL: Mi Libane, ocellus aureus, donum decusque amoris, amabo, faciam quod uoles, da istuc argentum nobis.
LIB.: Dic igitur med aneticulam, columbam uel catellum, hirundinem, monerulam, passerculum putillum, fac proserpentem bestiam me, duplicem ut habeam linguam, circumda torque bracchiss, meum collum circumplecte.

PHIL.: ‘My dear Libanus, my golden eye, love’s gift and glory, please, I’ll do what you like, but give us this money.’
LIB.: ‘Then call me your little duck, your dove, your puppy, your swallow, your jack-daw, your teeny-weeny sparrow, turn me into a reptile so that I have a double tongue. Put a chain around me with your arms, embrace my neck.’

In this play, the terms of endearment are being used facetiously between characters arguing over the money a pair of lovers wish to use to buy away the woman from her mother’s employ as a prostitute.  Here, this language is used in a cajoling and pleading manner, in order to better convince the pair holding the funds. Nevertheless, these scenes demonstrate the type of language that was typical of exchanges between lovers, which in some sense could be formulaic, but at the same time could be distinctive to the place, time, or couple.

The individuality of the words shared by lovers is best demonstrated in a final graffito:

CIL IV 1477
Victoria va(le) et ub(i)que vis / suaviter sternu<te>s.
‘Farewell, my Victoria, and wherever you go, may you sneeze sweetly.’

Whilst sneezing may not seem the most romantic attribute to note, for Victoria and her lover, this held some particular meaning. I like to imagine she had an especially cute way of sneezing that her partner found endearing, similar to the sentiment expressed when Adam Duritz sings: ‘And every time she sneezes, I believe its love.’ 

Perhaps, that in itself is the clue to the somewhat odd way of expressing affection found in the graffiti – for most lovers, the sweet addresses and tender delightful speech is highly personal and individual. Being referred to as a fishlet or pestle may be off putting to some, but may be the most endearing phrase imaginable to another.