Getting Your Word’s Worth



I recently came across what is quite likely the earliest treatise to appear on Pompeian graffiti: Inscriptiones Pompeianae; or Specimens and Facsimiles of Ancient Inscriptions discovered on the walls of buildings at Pompeii. Published in 1837, this small volume penned by Charles Wordsworth, nephew of the famous poet, Classicist, and bishop of St. Andrews, is, if not always entirely accurate in its interpretation of the texts, nonetheless an altogether lovely presentation of the texts scratched into the walls of the ancient city.

A mere thirty-three pages, this slim volume takes the form of a letter Wordsworth addresses to a friend – his dear P—, who seemingly accompanied him on a trip to Pompeii in 1832. He states the letter is ‘retaliation’ for P, who indulged in ‘some pleasant humour’ for his interest in the graffiti they saw on their trip. He further writes that he ‘should indeed have abstained from this undertaking as unnecessary, had any notice whatever been taken of these fragments to which I now invite your attention, by any of the writers who have described the antiquities of Pompeii.’ He claims (rightly) that apart from a few vague references in William Gell’s revised 1832 publication of Pompeiana, no one has yet mentioned the texts in print, much less published them in any way. This then, is what he sets out to do.

Wordsworth invites P to join him, as he acts as guide, to go back through the streets of Pompeii, and examine more thoroughly a number of the ancient graffiti. Likely to pique the interest of his friend, Wordsworth begins with a text from Vergil, P’s favourite Latin poet, which is to be found on a wall in the Building of Eumachia.


Now recorded as CIL IV 1982 (CLE 1785 = CLE 2292):

Circe socios 

the graffito is line 70  from Book VIII of Vergil’s Eclogues, the entire stanza (lines 69-71) of which reads:

Carmina vel caelo possunt deducere lunam,
carminibus Circe socios mutavit Ulixi,
frigidus in pratis cantando rumpitur anguis.

‘Songs can even draw the moon down from heaven; by songs Circe transformed the comrades of Ulysses; with song the cold snake in the meadows is burst asunder.’

Wordsworth demonstrates again and again throughout the book his thorough knowledge of ancient literature, but more astonishingly, an understanding of the graffiti and the culture of writing on display on the walls of Pompeii that is not always found in later (dare I say, even recent) works on the Pompeian epigraphy. This is clear in his recording of the following text, one of many found in the Basilica. Here, the writer combined the words of two poets, Ovid and Propertius, who wrote similar entreaties regarding gifts, matchmaking, and the difficulties of love.



Ovid Amores I.8.77-78 and Propertius Elegies IV.5.47-48

CIL IV 1893 (CLE 1785)
Surda sit oranti tua ianua laxa ferenti
audiat exclusi verba receptus amans

CIL IV 1894 (CLE 1785)
Ianitor addantis vigilet si pulsat inanis
surdus in obductam somniet usqu[e] seram 

‘Let your door be deaf to prayers but wide open to the bearer of gifts; let the lover who has been admitted hear the laments of the one excluded. The door-keeper must be awake for bearers of gifts, but when empty hands knock, let him be deaf and sleep against the bolt.’

There are a number of things that I find remarkable about this book, and not just because I love a beautiful, old, leather-bound tome. One is the faithful rendering of ancient handwriting throughout the text, as seen in the photos above. Wordsworth does this for every grafitto he presents, both in Latin and in Greek, which presumably would not have been possible if he had not made a faithful rendering of each one at the time he visited Pompeii five years before writing. Considering many of the early visitors to the excavations were more interested in collecting images of themselves in a romantically ruinous vista, or, for those bent on more scholarly pursuits, reproducing the ancient artworks, this attention to the non-lapidary texts is an unusual occurrence. As a feature of epigraphic publishing, illustrations of the handwriting do not appear again for nearly forty years until the first volume of CIL IV, and even then, is not applied systematically until sometime late in the 20th century. Wordsworth also shows an astuteness in his observations on language and the literary nature of the texts. Not only does he recognise the origin of those he records, but he seemingly has no difficulty in discerning the accurate quotations from those that are adapted or conflated in some way. He remarks once or twice on the poor spelling of the texts (which he attributes to slaves), but does not assume this is due to illiteracy, but rather refers to it as the ‘false Latinity of an Italian scribe.’ He also remarks on the very nature of literacy itself (which is a topic I have been meaning to address myself at some point), and makes a point with which I strongly agree, that ‘We hear much of the diffusion of literary tastes among all classes of people in our own age and country; and comparisons, injurious to other nations and times, are founded on this assumption. This is hardly fair. I should much question whether all the walls of all the country towns in England, would, if Milton were lost, help us to a single line of the Paradise Lost.’

Wordsworth’s attention to the graffiti shows, in many ways, that he was ahead of his time, not just in the recording of the texts, but in his appreciation for them, for the literary and literate proclivities of the Pompeians, and for recognising what an important artefact these scratched words were. For that, I would argue anyone working on ancient graffiti or Pompeii owes him a great deal of admiration and gratitude.

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.