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.



CFP: Reading and Writing for Rome



Call for Papers: Reading and Writing for Rome: Literacies of Administration

We invite proposals for papers for the panel ‘Reading and Writing for Rome: Literacies of Administration’ at the 11th Celtic Conference in Classics at the University of St. Andrews taking place July 11th-14th 2018.

This session aims to explore literacy, understanding, and perception of inscriptions with particular attention to administrative aspects, taking a contextual, multidisciplinary approach, and raising issues from the spread of Latin to the visual impact of inscriptions. We intend to produce an edited volume of the papers presented, aiming for publication by 2020.

Literacy in the Roman World has been debated for more than twenty‐five years since the publication of the first landmark study on the subject. Despite the knowledge that Roman cities (and the countryside as well) were full of things to read it is still commonly accepted that literacy was relatively low. This places question marks at the perception and understanding of text, especially those texts publically displayed and essential for the structure of the empire, such as legal inscriptions, road signs, boundary marking, taxes and the sale of goods. The epigraphic culture of the late Republic and early Empire is much studied, although often with a focus on religious or funerary commemoration and dedication. Through a focus on the administrative elements in milestones, fasti, election graffiti and dipinti, and other inscriptions related to regulation and commerce, this panel aims to discuss implied levels of literacy and/or general understanding as well as civic participation, touching on issues of globalisation, imperialism, agency and identity. This also raises questions about the spread and importance of Latin, multilingualism and translations, and the perception and understanding of Latin in relation to local languages.

We are inviting a range of scholars from different disciplines and backgrounds to connect issues of administration, taxation, civic duty, identity and community building, as represented in the public writing in the Roman world and to discuss implied levels of literacy and/or general understanding as well as civic participation, touching on issues of globalisation, multilingualism, imperialism, agency and identity. We particularly would like to encourage PhD students and early career researchers, and with that objective we are accepting abstracts for papers both 20 and 40 minutes in length. Please specify the desired paper length on your abstract.

Prof. William Johnson (Duke) will act as discussant for the panel, and confirmed speakers include Dr A. Mullen (Nottingham) Dr J. Howley (Columbia), Dr S. Stevens (Utrecht), Dr O. Olesti-Vila (Barcelona) and Dr A. Graham (Warwick), amongst others.

Please submit an abstract of max. 200 words by Friday 16 February 2018 to either of the organisers, and we will inform speakers as soon as possible after that. Finally, please note papers can be presented in English or French, traditionally the two official languages of the Celtic Conference.

Dr. Anouk Vermeulen (av22@st-andrews.ac.uk)
Dr. Virginia L. Campbell (virginia.campbell@open.ac.uk)





Post No Bills

Last night, BBC4 aired a documentary entitled ‘A Brief History of Graffiti.’ Presented by art historian Richard Clay, the programme explored not just the technical definition of graffiti (scratched, or inscribed texts or images such as those found in Pompeii), but all manner of markings left behind by someone who wanted to leave some trace of their existence. I’ve written before about the ubiquitous nature of recording one’s presence across millennia and thousands of miles. This habit is one hardly limited to the ancient Romans that are the focus of my research, and this programme illustrated this point over and over again.

When one defines graffiti as broadly as possible, as a man-made mark of some kind – painted, scratched, stenciled, written or figural – it quickly becomes clear that the claim that graffiti can be found wherever humans go is a truism. For the purposes of this programme, that ranges from the 30,000 year old cave paintings of southern France to modern street art in New York City. What remains the same is the urge to do this: what one NY graffiti artist referred to as an ‘innate human impulse’ to leave some trace behind. This is true of all the work profiled, whether the graffiti of local rivalries in Pompeii, the words of the revolutionaries of the Commune du Paris of the 1870s on the walls of the catacombs, or the images of the architect turned stencil artist Blek le Rat, whose work has inspired a whole generation of artists.

The element that has perhaps changed over time, again and again, is the attitude towards leaving such marks. A figure of a gladiator complete with sword, shield, and number of victories was inscribed on a wall inside a house in third century Lyon. This suggests a level of not just acceptance but permission for such a thing to appear. This is contradicted in the reaction to what Dr. Clay refers to as the industrialisation of graffiti, that is, the development of lithography and mass produced posters, in nineteenth century France when ‘défense d’afficher’ begins to appear on buildings. This attitude of viewing graffiti as subversive, revolutionary, vandalism, and a challenge to the status quo continues through the twentieth century, but certainly has no real effect on the production of graffiti. Indeed, despite this, street artists who once were at the vanguard of the underground movement, known for acts such as painting entire NYC subway cars, are now shown in galleries, painting on canvas, and selling their art. This is perhaps best illustrated by the ongoing exhibit of Terrains Vagues at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which developed a specific space for collaborative work by a number of graffiti artists.

What struck me again, repeatedly, throughout the programme, and indeed as I continue with my own research on inscriptions, is this need to record one’s place in the world, as however fleeting as that might be. I find something oddly comforting in the idea that this is an element of human nature, a shared need to leave one’s mark. It makes me want to buy some paint and find a blank wall to make my own.

Book Review: Written Space in the Latin West


For anyone interested in the relationship of inscriptions, movement, and space in the Roman city, the volume Written Space in the Latin West (2013), edited by Gareth Sears, Peter Keegan, and Ray Laurence contains a variety of papers that demonstrate clearly how important writing was in the ancient city. My full review, on the BMCR website, can be found here.