Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Holy Shit, Ancient Graffiti!

Graffiti, right? What a symbol of the decadence of modern times. Vandalizing the pristine walls of our cities with crudely drawn filth, for the most part. If only we looked to our precursors, from the days when respect for elders, institutions, and architecture were commonplace. What would we find if we looked to the glory days of, say, the Roman Empire?
Roman Graffiti

As it turns out, nostalgia isn't the best lens through which to look at history. Graffiti is nothing new, and the citizens of the Roman Empire were among the worst offenders we know of. That's not to say they were actually the worst offenders. We just know more about it. Because one of the most catastrophic natural disasters of the ancient world was a boon to Classicists and historians.

Still from Pompeii: The Last Day
Way to take one for the team, guys.

When Mt. Vesuvius blew its literal top and buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, and several other towns in superheated pyroclastic rock, the towns (and in many cases, the people) were preserved in pristine condition. That left us with walls containing a ton of unfaded graffiti.

Graffiti, the stuff that we sigh and shake our heads at today, ended up being one of the most important primary resources we have about life in Ancient Rome. It's an honest, uncensored glimpse of how literate Pompeiians interacted with each other. What official history book could ever give us that?
Romulus and Remus with the Capitoline Wolf
To be honest, any history that begins with infants suckling a wolf's teat should be taken with a grain of salt.

So what was Latin graffiti like? Let's just say it was colorful. Here are a few examples:
  • LUCIUS PINXIT - "Lucius wrote this." It's like they saw what tagging would be in 2000 years and decided to out-mundane us.
  • APOLLINARIS, MEDICUS TITI IMPERATORIS HIC CACAVIT BENE - "Apollinaris, doctor of Emperor Titus, took a good shit here."
  • VIRGULA TERTIO SU: INDECENS ES. - "Virgula to Teritus: You are a nasty boy." Saucy.
  • SUSPIRIUM PUELLAM CELADUS THRAEX - "Celadus makes the girls moan."
The moral of the story here is that there are hooligans in every culture throughout history, even revered cultures with gravitas and a rich legacy like Rome. That's not a bad thing, either, because it has the potential to preserve a culture much more honestly than official records might. While we're on the subject, though, let's not get too hung up on the gravitas of a culture that produced this:
Mercure from Pompeii
I mean...I know he's a god and all, but...come on.

That's the kind of thing high society commissioned in Pompeii. Someone got paid to paint comically oversized dongs on other people's walls.

Holy shit.

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