The Columns

Uncovering the Graffiti of Pompeii

— by on August 30th, 2009

Today, a kid spray painting a wall with graffiti would probably get arrested.

But 1,900 years ago in Pompeii, Italy, everybody was doing it. They wrote on the exteriors of houses up and down the street, in bath houses and in kitchens. Everything was fair game.

Rebecca Benefiel, assistant professor of classics at Washington and Lee University, has spent the last three years studying the more than 11,000 graffiti in Pompeii. “It’s the only site where we have an entire city’s worth of these messages,” she said.

The graffiti present a combination of writing and drawings, with writing being the more common form of expression. Benefiel said she sees the graffiti as the voice of the people and a lens through which to view ancient society.

* Watch a slide show from Pompeii

For example, while history has not treated the Emperor Nero kindly, he was in fact very popular with the locals in Pompeii. Benefiel came across numerous graffiti saying “Neroni Feliciter,” which roughly translates into “Long Live Nero.”

Of the 100 graffiti praising the different emperors, Benefiel estimates more than half were for Nero. “He was incredibly popular and people loved him. I found a lot of the graffiti at the entrances to houses of the wealthy (who would have had a stake in declaring their support of the imperial regime). But I also found them in places like kitchens and hallways where they could have been put up by servants of the house or slaves. However, after Nero kicked his pregnant wife, killing her and the baby, his popularity waned. But even so, the people didn’t go back and erase all their previous declarations of love.”
It’s the sort of discovery that fascinated and enchanted Benefiel about ancient graffiti.

Interest in the subject has also been surging among other academics. In the past three years, four conferences have been devoted to the topic. By fall 2009, Benefiel will have spoken at three of them.

USA Today also featured Benefiel’s work in an article during the summer of 2009, and she has been interviewed for two programs on the History Channel, due to be aired in early 2010. So far, she has two articles on graffiti in print, with four more articles forthcoming this year. She also has two books in progress and says she has ideas for 15 more articles.

You would think that graffiti nearly 2,000 years old would have been studied extensively by now and that there would be little left to write about.

The reality is that Benefiel is one of few scholars to really study this ancient graffiti of Pompeii. “The graffiti were basically ignored because as one scholar put it, “The graffiti are not written by the kind of people we are most interested in meeting,'” explained Benefiel.

She first came across them in 2005 while researching her dissertation. “They were fundamentally interesting, and I realized that the majority of them had never been studied,” she said.

A major international project begun in the late 1800s documented and cataloged all the Latin inscriptions from the ancient world in every country. Benefiel had worked earlier with stone inscriptions from Rome, but since coming to W&L has focused her studies on the wall-inscription from Pompeii. “They contain a wealth of details about popular culture of the Roman Empire,” she said.

Benefiel added that it was fortunate that the graffiti had been recorded, because many of them have now vanished as the wall plaster they were written on has crumbled.

Two-thirds of Pompeii has been uncovered and is now deteriorating from exposure to strong sunlight, rain, creeping vegetation and tourists. Benefiel said that the authorities have been putting a great effort into preserving the city in the last few years. “But you’re probably not going to see any brand-new excavations any time soon, for that reason,” she said.

Pompeii is unique in its preservation of life as it was in 79 A.D., when Mount Vesuvius erupted. It buried the city with a light pumice stone called lapilli that gradually covered the houses to about the second story during a period of 36 hours. “You can easily shovel the lapilli into a bucket,” said Benefiel. “In a matter of days you’ve got a whole building cleared.”

This means the first stories of buildings are very well preserved, and that is where Benefiel carries out some of her research.

“I really do love Pompeii,” she said. “You can walk through the spaces and feel that people lived here. You can go into someone’s garden or latrine and you know this space because it’s familiar. You’re standing in someone’s house. It’s wonderful for that sense of immediacy.”

These ancient houses all faced inward with an internal court containing a pool and gardens. That left a blank façade facing the street, explained Benefiel, and plenty of space for writing graffiti on what was seen as a public space. In fact all façades of buildings could be written on in every street.

“These walls were huge message boards,” said Benefiel. “What’s really fun is how interactive the graffiti was. It’s fascinating because it shows how engaged the people were in the writing process. They were reading the messages around them and writing responses.”

Benefiel found messages of love exchanged between a man (named Secundus or “Second”) and a woman (named Prima, or “First”) who lived at different ends of a city block.

She discovered a poetry competition with eight messages. “Someone starts off quoting a verse of poetry, and then someone else adds to it and so forth. It’s very interactive and you can see that there are different styles of handwriting.”

Benefiel explained that the graffiti is incised into the wall plaster and all anyone would need was a sharp implement. “It was pretty easy to carve the stucco,” she said. She also found that because it’s much easier to carve a vertical line into the grain of the plaster and harder to make a horizontal line, the three horizontal strokes of the letter E (a common letter in Latin) were turned into two vertical strokes.

The graffiti that is preserved is mostly legible, but Benefiel did need to use a light to cast a sideways shadow to see the incisions better. She said she spends her time measuring, sketching and photographing, but that photographing the graffiti at the same time as holding a light to one side to cast the shadow was impossible.

This past year, thanks to winning the Olivia James Traveling Fellowship from the Archeological Institute of America, Benefiel was able to spend 10 months of the year continuing her research on site. She was finding so much material that she applied for a Lenfest Grant for summer research in order to bring an undergraduate student Pompeii, Jacqueline DiBiasie ’09, to assist her over spring break. Having a second pair of hands and eyes was of tremendous help, allowing her to move more quickly in documenting the graffiti.

“Jackie even discovered a previously unknown graffito, a drawing of a man wearing only a loincloth and dancing,” said Benefiel. DiBiasie begins her Ph.D. in classical archaeology this fall at the University of Texas. When asked about the site, Benefiel said, “Pompeii is so extensive. It has so many nooks and crannies that I’ve spent a summer excavating there, I’ve visited it ten times, and I feel like I’m finally getting to know the city. There is still plenty I haven’t explored and I’m glad about that. There’s always room for discovery. Every time I go back I find something new.”