Posts Tagged With: Pompeii

The War in Pompeii

In the autumn of 1943, during the Allied push to move up the Italian peninsula, the city of Pompeii was bombed twice, in September and October. Rumours have long abounded that someone in the Allied leadership believed that a Nazi Panzer unit was hiding amongst the ruins of the houses and buildings of the city (I know tanks are good at difficult terrain, but I can’t see them successfully maneuvering on many of Pompeii’s streets), but it is now thought both raids were accidental rather than deliberate. Regardless, more than one hundred and fifty bombs fell on the ruins, causing considerable damage to a number of houses, the original museum, and the palaestra.

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I’ve always rather marveled at the fact that despite heavy damage in the southwest corner of the city to the palaestra, the one bomb that fell upon the amphitheatre landed in the middle of the arena floor, causing the least damage possible to the structure:

Of course, in the aftermath, no Nazi tanks (or even troops) were found in the city.

As the war moved north, and slowly came to an end, Pompeii became the focus of a different sort of military activity: tourism. Troops stationed in and around Italy visited the ruins in huge numbers. A brief account of such visits can be found here. tumblr_o5n6n6ucql1rq5hzro1_500

Two such visitors left behind a graffito, recording their time in the city. Found on a wall in the House of Paquius Proculus (I.vii.i, also known as the House of Cuspius Pansa as electoral dipinti for both men were found on the walls), it contains the initials of two individuals and the date, the 31st of July 1944.

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The house itself had been excavated first in 1911 and completed between 1923 and 1926, thus making it one of the more recently discovered properties in 1944. As the house still retains extensive wall paintings and intricate floor mosaics (the atrium floor especially, which today cannot be walked on), it must have been quite a site a mere twenty years after it was cleared of volcanic debris. There is no way of knowing anything further about the people that left this inscription, A.V. and A.L., or even if they were military, but the date suggests to me that it is unlikely there were many civilian tourists visiting Pompeii at the time. The manner in which the date is written – day then month – along with the cross on the seven, indicates the person who scratched this was not American in origin, most likely European or Australian.*

There are numerous accounts of soldiers visiting ancient sites and cultural landmarks throughout Europe and North Africa during the war, but this is the first time I have come across direct evidence of it myself. I am sure other graffiti of a similar ilk must exist, but undoubtedly have not been recorded systematically. If anyone has come across texts like this, particularly in Pompeii or Herculaneum, do let me know.

 

*Update: This post sparked conversation with Dr. Nigel Pollard, who is currently writing a monograph on Pompeii during the war, who suggests the banded seven was uncommon amongst Brits at the time, and may be attributed to French troops active in the area.

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Vote Early, Vote Often

You’d have to have been in a coma the past several weeks to not be aware that today is Election Day in the United States. Being an American in the UK, I voted by post several weeks ago, but for the majority of my fellow citizens, some part of today will be spent in a queue at a polling station. This particular presidential election has been incredibly vitriolic, with one of the many contentious arguments being about electoral fraud and the outcome being ‘rigged.’ The reality is that very little voter fraud has ever been documented in modern American elections, but what about Rome?

One of the issues I keep coming back to again and again in my work on the Roman electoral process is that of identification. How did the officials overseeing a vote know who could vote? How did they prevent someone from voting who wasn’t legally permitted, or how did they keep someone from voting twice? This came up again recently when I gave a paper to the Birkbeck History Society about voting in Pompeii.

In the simplest terms possible, the physical act of voting involved the eligible citizens being divided into their units and tribes, separated in some way from others, who were then called to vote using a ballot (once the written vote was introduced by the Lex Gabinia in 139 BC) which was then deposited in an urn for counting. Voting could be successive or simultaneous, with counting and results read out either progressively or all together once the vote was complete by a magistrate, who would give the name of the candidate and break down the number of votes received by unit and tribe. There is no concrete evidence on how ballots were distributed or how or even if the qualification to vote was ever checked.

Whilst there is no specific evidence checks of voting eligibility were made, it is certainly clear that enfranchisement, particularly in the earlier years of the Republic, was jealously guarded, thus leading to one scholar to conclude that ‘it is impossible that the Romans, who were so jealous of their group voting machinery and of the timocratic class structure of the centuriate assembly, should not have taken some precautions to ensure that a citizen did not cast his vote in the wrong tribe or century nor cast it more than once.’ Some scholars have suggested that tribal leaders carried out informal checks whilst their members were waiting to vote, but as citizen numbers increased over the years this becomes improbable. It is possible some sort of identity token that contained name, tribe, and property qualification was in the possession of every citizen, which then could be shown to a rogator or custodes at some point in the voting process, much like our modern voter registration or electoral roll.

One scholar of Roman electoral processes has suggested this is a possible explanation for a coin minted in the first century BC, that it actually depicts a voter turning in an identity token, but all this is circumstantial – there is no written or physical evidence to support theory.

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This coin, a denarius of Publius Nerva dated to 113-112 BC,  is probably the best depiction of voting that survives antiquity. It illustrates the process used both for the oral vote and the written vote, where the voter crossed a pons to either state his choice to a rogator or deposit the ballot on which he wrote. One voter is depositing an object into the urn used to collect ballots, whilst the other, to the left, is handing something to a rogator. This could well be an identity token used to identify an individual’s eligibility to vote. Unfortunately, as good an explanation for this image as this may be, it doesn’t make fraud prevention any clearer. There are no photo IDs, and unless the rogator is keeping a record of who has already presented their token for voting, it is impossible to prevent someone from voting twice, or passing his token on to another.

Ancient literature does provide evidence of fraud at elections, but these instances record the ballot box being stuffed (Varro Rust. 3.ii ff) or numerous ballots appearing in one handwriting (Plutarch Cat. Minor 46.2). I’ve yet to come across an account that speaks to issues of repetitive voting or voting when not legally permitted. On one level, this suggests that it isn’t recorded because it never happened. However, considering the well-documented issues of bribery and intimidation in electioneering (particularly in the later years of the Republic), I find it difficult to believe other kinds of meddling with voting processes didn’t occur.

Whilst I continue to dig for information about ancient voter fraud, let’s all hope (for the sake of my sanity if nothing else) that modern instances are nothing more than the hyperbolic ranting of a desperate candidate.

 

 

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Rock the (Female) Vote

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One thing that has always been a bit of a pet peeve in my teaching of the ancient world is when students talk about both Greece and Rome as misogynist societies because women didn’t have the right to vote. Whilst I’m not denying that the ancient world was, for the most part, patriarchal by design, I’ve always found the enfranchisement of women as a rather daft piece of evidence considering that women couldn’t vote in the UK until 1918 (and even then only those over 30 with property qualifications) and in the US from 1919. It seems somewhat ridiculous to my mind to hold the ancient world to a standard that wasn’t met in modern life until the 20th century. Women in ancient Rome certainly couldn’t hold political office or vote, which we know from the laws collected by Justinian (D. 50.17.2), but there is ample evidence from Pompeii that women were very much engaged in the political process.

Amongst the electoral programmata that once covered the walls of Pompeii, there are fifty-four women supporting the candidacies of twenty-eight men. The majority of these women, thirty-three of them in fact, do so alone. That is, the dipiniti for which they are responsible is sponsored by them alone.

CIL IV 3479
Caecilium Capellam // d(uum)v(irum) i(ure) d(icundo) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / Cornelia rog(at).
‘Cornelia begs you to elect (Lucius) Caecilius Capella duovir with judicial powers.’

Perhaps surprisingly, (see above – patriarchal society), only thirteen women offer an electoral notice with a man.

CIL IV 207
M(arcum) Cerrinium Vatiam aed(ilem) / Nymphodotus cum Caprasia rog(at).
‘Nymphodotus with Caprasia asks you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia aedile.’

Four women sponsored dipinti with another woman, and two represent a larger group, as indicated by the word suis.

CIL IV 3294 = 3678
M(arcum) Casellium et L(ucium) Albucium aed(iles) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / Statia et Petronia rog(ant) tales cives in colonia in perpetuo.
‘Statia and Petronia beg you to elect Marcus Casellius and Lucius Albucius, excellent citizens for the perpetuity of the colony, aediles.’

CIL IV 1053
Polybium / IIvir(um) Lollia / cum suis.‘Lollia, with hers, (asks you to vote) for Polybius, duovir.’

What is particularly interesting, however, is that some of the candidates who are supported by female rogators have an incredibly high proportion of these notices. Gaius Iulius Polybius, for example, is supported by six different women: Cosseia (CIL IV 10051), Cuculla (CIL IV 7841 = AE 1913: 95), Fabia (CIL IV 7189), Specula (CIL IV 7167), Vatia (CIL IV 123), and Zmyrina (CIL IV 7864 = AE 1912: 238). Another candidate popular amongst the female population of Pompeii was Gnaeus Helvinius Sabinus. He is supported by nine women – although the data may be skewed in part because he has far more surviving notices – Aegle (CIL IV 7862 = AE 1912: 236), Biria (CIL IV 9885), Caprasia (CIL IV 923), Iunia (CIL IV 1168), Maria (CIL IV 7866), Parthope (CIL IV 3403), Poppaea (CIL IV 357), Primgenia (CIL IV 3410), and Recepta (CIL IV 1083). What made these particular men so popular and seen as worthy of a magisterial position remains, unfortunately, lost in history. The programmata written by women do not differ in format from those by men, and thus give no specific clues as to why these women chose to support these men.

The evidence for women participating in the electoral process in Pompeii despite not being able to vote or run for office themselves is one that has always intrigued me, and one, as I stated at the outset, that I think challenges the idea of  women accepting a non-civically minded role in the ancient world. In the final weeks leading up to the American presidential election, the idea of the impact of women voting (or actively campaigning for male candidates) has taken on a new importance. Polls have revealed that women alone may be responsible for the defeat of Donald Trump. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but the possibility, in conjunction with the ancient evidence, demonstrates how much women are interested in politics, and always have been.

 

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I Predict a Riot

Earlier this week I had the great privilege to spend an hour in a room full of engaged and enthusiastic Year 9 students talking about Pompeian graffiti. These students are studying for a GCSE in Classical Civilsation after school as part of The Iris Project at Cheney School. During the paper, in which I was introducing them to various aspects of graffiti and dipinti and the ways historians use these inscriptions, I was asked a question that rather took me by surprise. It wasn’t about graffiti, but about a wall painting that I was using to illustrate an event in Pompeii’s history which is related to a number of graffiti.

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This painting, found in the House of Anicetus, ( I.iii.23 ) famously depicts the riot that took place in the amphitheatre in AD 59. We know this is a real event because Tacitus tells us about it:

Tacitus Annals 14.17
‘At around the same time, there arose from a trifling beginning a terrible bloodbath among the inhabitants of the colonies of Nuceria and Pompeii at a gladiatorial show given by Livineius Regulus, whose expulsion from the senate I have recorded previously. Inter-town rivalry led to abuse, then stone-throwing, then the drawing of weapons. The Pompeians in whose town the show was being given came off the better. Therefore many of the Nucerians were carried to Rome having lost limbs, and many were bereaved of parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate; they passed it to the consuls. When their findings returned to the senators, the Pompeians were barred from holding any such gathering for ten years. Illegal associations in the town were dissolved, Livineius and the others who had instigated the trouble were exiled.’

In addition, there are a number of graffiti that illustrate the kind of animosity between neighbouring towns that may have contributed to, or resulted from, the event that Tacitus describes.

CIL IV 2183
Puteolanis Feliciter / omnibus Nuc{h}erinis / felicia et uncu(m) Pompeianis / Petecusanis.
Good fortune to the Puteolans; good luck to all Nucerians; the executioner’s hook to Pompeians.’

CIL IV 1329
Nucerinis / infelicia.
‘Ill luck to the Nucerians.’

One even accompanies a drawing depicting a gladiator holding a palm of victory:

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CIL IV 1293
Campani victoria una / cum Nucerinis peristis.
Campanians, in our victory you perished with the Nucerians.’

The question that was asked, however, related not to the graffiti but to the painting itself, or more to the point, how unusual it was to have a painting in one’s house that depicted such violence. On most occasions when I have come across a reference to this painting in a scholarly work, if the oddness of it is mentioned at all, it is done in a very offhand way of wondering why someone would wish to commemorate such an event (even if the Pompeians were considered the victors). I have never come across a comparison to other wall paintings in terms of the nature of the violence illustrated. In the moment when the question was asked, I was racking my brain for a similar scene – and I couldn’t think of a single one. The closest may be the Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun, which depicts a military battle. Still, as detailed as it is in regards to fallen men and distressed looking horses, it does not depict seemingly dead bodies still on the ground as we can see in the painting from Anicetus’s house. The very nature of gladiatorial combat is a gruesome and bloody sport to which Romans were largely accustomed, but sitting in an arena watching a contest which may result in spilled blood (but, contrary to popular belief, rarely death) is quite a different thing than displaying images of the dead or dying on the wall of your house.

The question, as raised by this student, made me think about the painting in a different way, and really wonder about the mindset of the person who had it commissioned. (I am now extremely curious to see if I can find anything comparable on the wall of a Roman house. If anyone has any examples – do let me know.)  This has been on my mind for a number of days, not just because of the nature of the question, but because of who asked it. It was a timely (and to be honest, necessary) reminder that for as much as I know and continue to learn about the ancient world, there is always a new and interesting way to think about things. More to the point, it is more often than not our students who point us in a different direction, and that our research, without our students, is lacking something essential.

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Initialising

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The photo above is probably one of the most famous walls to be found in the city of Pompeii. It is one of the few examples still (fairly) legible and in situ of electoral dipiniti. There are multiple individuals and magisterial positions advertised in this one small section of wall, between two doorways on the Via dell’Abbondanza. Despite some measures of protection it has been damaged and faded over the years. Whilst I recognise many of the names on this wall, that’s not exactly the focus of this particular post. Something I have been working on for some time now is instead looking at some of the abbreviations used in the electoral programmata. This is part of a larger project on elections and voting that I have written about before, but as I walked by this wall last week, I had a chance to look again at the way such notices were painted.

The section of wall above contains five abbreviations and ligatures that were commonly used in electoral dipinti. Probably the two most common were simple abbreviations of the magisterial posts that one could run for – ‘aed’ for aedile, and the slightly less obvious ‘IIvir’ for duovir. This latter one is interesting in and of itself for the visual depiction of the word, combining the Roman numeral for two with the word man, which is, after all, quite literally what the post name meant. Two found here, ‘DRP’ and ‘OVF’, can be written in ligature, reducing the three initial abbreviations to one or two letters. Dignum rei publicae (worthy of public office) and oro vos faciatis (I beg you to elect) were very specific to these notices for elections. Whether or not the average man (or woman!) on the street knew what the abbreviated letters stood for or simply, through repetition, had a vague idea of the intention, is somewhat up for debate. (One additional abbreviation of this ilk not visible on this wall is ‘VB’ – virum bonum – a good man.) Two other common abbreviations that appear in dipinti refer to those who are either writing (scriptores) or sponsoring (rogatores) the text that is painted. There is an example of the abbreviation ‘rog’ present here, which again, seems to be specific to electoral signs. The name or identification of a scriptor might also appear in other painted notices such as those advertising games.

The abbreviation that spurned my interest in the dipinti, however, is not common, and one not easily deciphered unless you already happen to know what it is.

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The letters CIP are not an abbreviated word, but rather an abbreviated name. These three letters are, in fact, referring to a man named Gaius Iulius Polybius. He is one of nearly forty men that I have identified who ran for public office in Pompeii using his initials rather than any part of his name. This begs all sorts of questions about how one recognised such names, how well known a person had to be to win an election just using their initials, whether or not this was in part influenced by voting practices, and of course, how literate the average person walking down the street might be. The reality is that for a notice such as this to be useful in any way, a majority of the voting public had to be able to recognise that this:

CIP IIvir DRP

actually means this:

CIL IV 7872
C(aium) I(ulium) P(olybium) IIvir(um) d(ignum) r(ei) p(ublicae).
‘Gaius Iulius Polybius for duovir, worthy of public office.’

I remain unconvinced that this would have been possible for a barely or semi- literate society. I also cannot help but think that I have had to explain many of these abbreviations to people who are far better Latinists than I, as the use of abbreviations is not necessarily intuitive, but one that is developed through practice. The same must have been true of the Pompeian voters two thousand years ago, and I suspect, epigraphers one hundred years ago who failed to recognise the random letters for what they are: initials of would be magistrates.

 

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Something Old, Something New

I’ve recently been on site in Herculaneum and Pompeii doing some work. Whilst my research often leads me to new areas of the city or I am trying to find some particular detail about whatever I’m working on, it is rare, having first set foot in Pompeii more than twenty years ago, for me to really see it in a new way. This visit, however, was different.

Currently (and until January), there are thirty bronze sculptures created by Igor Mitoraj placed around the city. This exhibit, reportedly curated by the artist before his death two years ago, places statues in various locales around the city. Many are in obvious public places like the Forum or the Stabian Baths, but others are placed in such a way that they kind of surprise you as you find yourself on the floor of the theatre with them looming above from the wall of the Triangular Forum. The artist was heavily influenced by Classical art, as is obvious from his work. I admittedly knew little about his work until quite recently, but have since read of his fragmented and misplaced or broken bodies as depicting both how damaged ancient statues appear, and as the physical representation of human despair. There is, certainly, a sadness in the faces that appear.

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Temple of Venus

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Stabian Baths

There were four sculptures, two in the changing room of the Stabian Baths and two in the Triangular Forum, that I found particularly reminiscent of ancient art. The wrappings and postures of these works are evocative of various ancient bronzes of boxers. One that comes to mind most immediately is Boxer at Rest, a late Hellenistic statue found in Rome.

One piece I found quite interesting simply for its placement was at the junction of the Via dell’Abbondanza and the Via Stabiana. In antiquity, much like today, this crossroads was a hub of activity and foot traffic coming and going from the Forum, the theatre district, and the commercial area of the street leading to the amphitheatre and palaestra. It was here one of the most prominent men in Pompeii in the Augustan period built an arch, which was surrounded by statues, including one dedicated to himself, Marcus Holconius Rufus. As this was an area once filled with honourific statues, it was really quite something to see one (more or less) as it should be. The same could be said of an equestrian statue placed in the Forum, positioned on one of the remaining statue bases of antiquity.

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Equestrian Statue in the Forum

 

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Junction of Via dell’Abbondanza and the Via Stabiana.

I absolutely loved seeing Mitoraj’s work scattered across the city. Besides the fact that his work is incredibly beautiful in its own right, seeing these bronze sculptures against the backdrop of the Pompeian cityscape was quite extraordinary. For one thing, it is rare to see bronze in an ancient site like this – where bronze survived antiquity without being melted down, it is almost exclusively kept in museums. This, although modern art, provided a small glimpse into a missing element of the ancient city. Beyond that, it made me look at Pompeii in a completely different way than I have before. I don’t want to say I am blasé about the remains of the city – I do still feel the same awe as I did the first time I stepped into the Forum as a high school student – but there is a certain amount of complacency when one has worked in the same place year after year. This exhibit of sculptures made me look again at familiar places, in a way that made me appreciate the artistry not just of the art work, but of the buildings, the scenery, and the way they worked together, giving me an entirely new impression of a city I have been in love with for decades.

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Quadraporticus

 

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Queer Graffiti

In recent weeks I’ve had cause to travel a bit within the UK, and during this time, I’ve come across a couple of (modern) graffiti that I found interesting, for related but somewhat different reasons. The first is really a text that no longer exists. That is, it is clear that an attempt was made to remove the sprayed inscription, but it failed in the respect that the original words, though faded, are still visible. On the side of a building at the University of Manchester, one can see this:

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‘FIGHT AIDS ACT UP’

ACT UP – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power – was founded in New York City in 1987. Growing up in New York at the time, and with gay and lesbian friends as part of my community, church, and extended family network, this slogan, along with the image of the pink triangle and SILENCE = DEATH, were a familiar part of my childhood. I was, up to the moment I stumbled upon this, completely unaware of the slogan being used in the UK, or in fact, any time in the last twenty years or so. I am not by any means dismissing the continued need to campaign for gay rights, healthcare, and AIDS research (let’s face it, for everyone really), I just wasn’t aware of the ongoing use of this slogan. This of course set my epigraphic mind racing: when was this written? was it put up by an American? is it a relic of a very different time and place or reflective of a current movement? None of these questions seem to have answers (as far as I can tell), but it intrigued me nonetheless.

Then earlier this week I was in Belfast, and came across this:

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Having never been to Northern Ireland before, I may have held the somewhat stereotypical view of it being fairly conservative socially. As I walked around the city on Sunday and Monday, I was rather taken aback by the number of rainbow flags on display, and thought how wonderfully progressive  it was to see such a bold statement of acceptance on display. I couldn’t figure out why this would be the case in August, as Pride Month is in June, when most cities see annual events and parades organised by LGBTQ communities. It was only after I looked online that I discovered I missed Belfast Pride by a day – there had in fact been a parade on Saturday.

These messages are reflective of an important movement for rights and inclusion, and are reflective of a modern society, not to be found a few hundred years ago much less a few thousand. Attitudes and perceptions of homosexuality in antiquity are as conflicted and contested as they are in some parts of the world today. Nevertheless, what both of these graffiti brought to mind was the enduring importance of being able to have relationships in an individual’s life, whatever the sex or gender of the person you love. To quote a more recent slogan used in the gay rights movement worldwide, love is love is love. Here, four texts (two for men by men, two for women by women) provide some ancient evidence from the walls of Pompeii that echo this sentiment.

CIL IV 4485
Hectice pupe, va(le) Mercator tibi dicit.
Hecticus, my pet, Mercator says hello to you.’

CIL IV 1256
Sabine calos, Hermeros te amat.
‘Sabinus, my beauty, Hermeros loves you.’

CIL IV 5296 = CLE 950
O utinam liceat collo complexa tenere || braciola et teneris / oscula ferre labelis. || I, nunc ventis tua gaudia, pupula, crede. || Crede mihi, levis est natura virorum. || Saepe ego cu(m) media / vigilare perdita nocte || haec mecum meditas: multos / Fortuna quos aupstulit alte || hos modo proiectos subito / praecipitesque premit. || Sic Venus ut subito coiunxit / corpora amantum || dividit lux et se / parees qui{d} amant.
‘Oh, if only I could grasp my gentle arms around you and and give kisses to your delicate little lips. Come now, my little darling, entrust your pleasures to the winds. Believe me, the nature of men is flighty. Often as I have been awake, lovesick, at midnight, I think on these things: many whom Fortuna raised high, then suddenly thrown down headlong, she now oppresses. Thus, just as Venus joins the bodies of lovers in a moment, daylight divides them and you will separate their love.’

CIL IV 8321a
Chloe Eutychiae s(alutem): / Non me curas, Euty / chia. Spe firma / tua Ruf(um)? amas.
‘Chole greets Eutychia: Eutychia you don’t care about me. With a firm hope you love…’

Love can be unrequited, relationships can be forbidden by law or moral code, or be the basis of a decades long campaign for equality. Regardless, in antiquity, or today, love is love is love. And that is definitely worth fighting for.

 

 

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The Legacy of Venus

A number of months ago I had the chance to go to the V & A for the exhibit ‘Botticelli Reimagined.’ Whilst the exhibit as a whole was about more of the artist’s works than just Venus, both she and the similarly inspired by antiquity painting of Primavera were certainly a focal point of at least half of the collection on display. The artwork ran the gamut from Botticelli’s own paintings to modern works, fashion, dance, and performance art.

Untitled_Panorama5© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

What struck me about this collection of artwork is the enduring legacy of the image of Venus. It occurred to me that whilst I have previously written about Venus in her guise as a goddess of love in the graffiti of Pompeii, and her special role as the patron deity of Pompeii known as Venus Pompeiana, I have paid much attention to the image of Venus that was so prevalent both in antiquity and in the modern world.

The number of images (whether painting, mosaic, or statue) are far too numerous for me to catalogue here. What I am intrigued by, however, is the most recognisable form of Venus, in which she is depicted with emerging from the sea, usually from a shell, at the moment of birth. This is the image that Botticelli used in his painting, and is one that can be traced back to the walls of Pompeii.

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In the peristyle of the eponymously named House of Venus in the Shell (II.iii.3), this is the precursor to the famous  painting of the Italian renaissance. But it isn’t the only such image that survives antiquity. A second century AD mosaic from Zeugma in Turkey depicts Venus (here as the Greek Aphrodite) in her shell, surrounded by ikhthyokentauroi (consider them the fish version of centaurs) identified as Aphros (Sea Foam) and Bythos (Sea Depths), obvious references to her birth story.

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A late third century AD wall painting from Rome, found in the lower levels of the Case Romane del Celio, also depicts Venus in her shell, surrounded by erotes in small boats.

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Of course Venus was not just depicted in painting, or by Romans, as is evidenced by this third century BC terracotta statue from Greece.

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This image of Venus has endured for thousands of years, and Botticelli was not the only painter of the modern era that choose Venus as his subject. He will probably remain, however, the most famous. I have a number of theories as to why this version of Venus is so popular – her fantastical birth, the ability to depict her nudity as she wouldn’t be fully clothed in the sea – but one of the modern interpretations I saw at the V & A may hold the key to understanding this legacy of Venus.

venus

David LaChapelle ‘Rebirth of Venus’ (2011)

Here, the shell has moved to the forefront, and is used to shield the viewer from the genitalia of Venus. Concha, the Latin for shellfish or mollusc, has been used as a slang or derogatory term for a woman’s vagina in numerous languages and cultures. I cannot help but wonder, if in this context, the shell depicted in the many images of Venus’s birth across the millennia hasn’t been a nod to her sexuality, her guise as the goddess of (physical) love, and in fact has little to so with her birth story per se. Perhaps this is why this version of Venus has so long been the obsession of artists.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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