The French Phallus

About a week ago I came across a post on Twitter of some phallic images that were produced in the eighteenth century in France. They immediately reminded me of the many anthropomorphised phalli that have been recovered from the ancient Vesuvian sites, and that got me to thinking about their use in French political propaganda, but also about the influence the artefacts of genitalia from Pompeii and Herculaneum had on the illustrators responsible for the images.

Small pamphlets known as libelles were used to spread rumour and invective against Marie Antoinette in the lead up to the French Revolution. From the mid 1780s onwards, these increasingly contained implications and accusations of her sexual misconduct, whether it be lesbian relationships or affairs with political supporters and members of the court. Regardless of whether or not any of these accusations were true was beside the point: the aim was to degrade the queen, her associates, and other members of the French aristocracy.

One particular means of depicting the perceived immoral nature of Marie Antoinette was via a phallic ostrich. The ostrich was thought to be a reference to her Austrian background, as the French words were similar (autrichienne f. / autruche). The cartoon below depicts her sometimes political supporter, the Marquis de La Fayette, riding the phallic bird with the queen in attendance. 

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More explicit examples of this type include a similar depiction of a man (in this case,  unidentified) riding a phallic ostrich, only this time Marie Antoinette is exposing her lower half, as if awaiting penetration.

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These avian sex organs are, of course, not at all that dissimilar from the bronze winged phalli that were used as tintinnabulum in the ancient Roman world. The difference, however, is that where the eighteenth century cartoons were meant to demean the French queen and were circulated in an effort to destory her and supporters of the monarchy, the Pompeian versions were apotropaic in nature, and meant to provoke laughter, offering protection from the evil eye or other nefarious spirits.

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The same comparison could be made to cartoons of the queen in the middle of sexual acts. These illustrations often depicted lesbian or multi-person encounters, not for titilation or the purposes of erotica, but again, to demonstrate the licentious and undesierable behaviour of the monarch. Here, she is depicted with one of her (supposed) lesbian lovers as well as another man.

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Whilst normalised sex acts (i.e. a heterosexual couple) were often depicted in the ancient world in wall paintings, or on objects such as lamps, mirrors, and vases in an allusion to intercourse, the more (for lack of a better term) deviant acts were also apotropaic. These could include reversals such as men performing cunnilingus, women acting as the aggressor, or multiple participants. Meant to provoke laughter and titilate in a non-sexual, but rather protection inducing manner, images such as the one below are found in locations such as the changing rooms of the Suburban Baths. This foursome (two men, two women) includes both hetero- and homo- acts simutaneously taking place. It is not erotic or derogatory; it is (to the Roman viewer) ridiculous.

Of course, what I find most compelling about these is the similarity between the French cartoons and the so-called erotica of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The initial exploration of Herculaneum via that now infamouus well shaft begain in 1709 – long before the first libelles appeared denouncing Marie Antoinette. Statuary and other objects were already being circulated by the nobility of Europe when Charles VII, the Bourbon king, took possession of the area in 1738. Although there were restrictions on recording or publishing any of the finds from the Vesuvian sites (except, of course, officially and produced as a gift of the king) most visitors endeavoured to contravene this embargo. A group of French nobles, begining in 1750, began a campagin of what they deemed ‘conscious archaeological espionage’ in order to view and record as much of what they saw as possible. The group was led by the Marquis de Marigny, who was travelling in Italy before he took up an appointment as the director general of the royal academy of the arts in Paris. With him was one Jerome-Charles Bellicard, an architect and engraver who had previously worked for Giovanni Piranesi in Rome. They would visit Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the royal museum at Portici by day, and spend the nights recording their observations. One of Bellicard’s notebooks from these evenings of work survives today, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Initially, short pamphlets and various images were published, but in 1753, the group simultaneously published a three volume set of books in both French and English: Observations upon the antiquities of the town of Herculaneum discovered at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Although none of the more phallic centred images of the ancient cities were reproduced in this work, I find it difficult to believe that drawings of those items weren’t also winging their way out of the protection of the court at Portici. After all, it was only about a decade after Marie Antoinette’s death that the practice of hiding away so-called pornographic objects began when a director of the museum, Michele Arditi, moved more than one hundred objects into the collection of the Gabinetto Segreto. In view of this, the visual similarities between the French cartoons and the phalli of Pompeii seem more than mere coincidence. In other words, the authors of French political satire were not as creative – or indeed as original – as they would appear. Wherever you go in time or place – ancient Pompeii or revolutionary France – dick jokes remain.

 

New Dipinti, Old Connections

I am sure I am not the only one who has been watching the progress of the new excavations in Regio V of Pompeii with great interest (and a wee bit of envy for not being a part of them). Finds have included some fine examples of wall painting, the remains of a number of horses, and the now infamous man crushed by a large stone block as he fled the eruption of Vesuvius in addition to some stunning architectural features. A few hours ago, the soprintendenza published additional photos of the excavation, which reveal new electoral dipinti. (Photos from the Pompeii Facebook page).

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Both of these men, running for the office of aedile in the Flavian period, are already well known to us from other electoral notices. Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus and Lucius Albucius Celsus are well documented candidates. Interestingly, I have looked extensively at them before, in the context that they both appear in electoral advertisements with other candidates. Traditionally, it is believed that the Romans did not campaign in the form of parties or work together, but evidence from Pompeii demonstrates otherwise. Helvius Sabinus campaigns with another candidate for aedile, as well as joining forces with two of the duovir candidates running at the same time.

AE 1902: 192 = CIL IV 6616
Cn(aeum) Helvium Sabinum et / M(arcum) Samellium Modestum aed(iles) d(ignos) r(ei) p(ublicae) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis).
‘I beg you to elect Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus and Marcus Samellius Modestus aediles, worthy of public office.’

CIL IV 843
Calventium IIv(i)r(um) i(ure) d(icundo) / Cn(aeum) Helvium Sabinum aed(ilem) o(ro) [v(os) f(aciatis)].
‘I beg you to elect Calventius duovir with judicial powers and Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus aedile.

CIL IV 1083
Cn(aeum) Helvium / Sabinum aed(ilem) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / L() Ceium Secundum IIvir(um) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / Recepta nec sine thalamo.
‘I beg you to elect Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus aedile and Lucius Ceius Secundus duovir, Recepta also with Thalamus.

I have previously written about Albucius Celsus in the context of women sponsoring electoral notices, but he also appears with other candidates.

CIL IV 1169
Samellium / aed(ilem) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) iuvenem p(robum) / L(ucium) Albucium aed(ilem).
‘I beg you to elect Samellius aedile, first amongst youth, and Lucius Albucius aedile.

CIL IV 3294 = CIL IV 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.’

What is particularly interesting here is that Albucius Celsus has notices for aedile with two different candidates, Marcus Casellius Marcellus and Marcus Samellius Modestus. This suggests he ran for this particular magistracy twice. From what we know of Roman political practices, it seems that one of Albucius Celsus’ campaigns for aedile was unsuccessful, causing him to run a second time with a different partner. These new inscriptions, naming Helvius Sabinus and Albucius Celsus, both of whom are also linked to Samellius Modestus, potentially in different electoral years, demonstrates the close knit nature of Pompeian politics in the later years of the city as well as the tendency for candidates to work together in campaigning for election. I was aware that there was a common link in Samellius Modestus, but the placement of these dipinti may indicate that there was a closer alliance than previously thought.

 

 

When in Melbourne

Back in September I had the great pleasure to go to Melbourne as the keynote speaker for the National Archaeology Student Conference (NASC). Whilst I was in town, I also spent an enjoyable couple of hours talking to Matt Smith of La Trobe University, who has produces podcasts on the ancient world. The first of our conversations, on the graffiti of Pompeii, is now available as Episode XXX of the When in Rome series. If you’ve got an hour to spare and want to learn a bit about the writing on the walls of an ancient city, you can find the podcast on iTunes and Soundcloud.

 

 

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.

Plan Pompeii 1943 Bomb Damage Bestand-Microfiche-D-DAI-ROM-1303_D06 neg 65.2004.jpeg

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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

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:

glad

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.

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.

 

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