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From the very beginning, archaeologists noticed copious amounts of graffiti on the outsides of buildings throughout the ancient Roman world, including Pompeii. (The Art Archive / Alamy)

Reading the Writing on Pompeii’s Walls

To better understand the ancient Roman world, one archaeologist looks at the graffiti, love notes and poetry alike, left behind by Pompeians

“Graffiti is often produced very spontaneously, with less thought than Virgil or the epic poetry,” says Taylor, a lecturer in Greek history at Trinity College in Dublin. “It gives us a different picture of ancient society.”

Pablo Ozcáriz, a lecturer in ancient history at Madrid’s Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, has found thousands of medieval graffiti in the Cathedral of Pamplona and at the Abbey of La Olivia in Navarre. Taken as a whole, they often offer a more realistic underpinning to official histories. “It’s as if someone asks us to write two diaries,” Ozcáriz explains. “One will be published as a very important book and the other will be just for me. The first may be more beautiful, but the second will be more sincere.”

Benefiel’s study of Pompeii’s graffiti has revealed a number of surprises. Based on the graffiti found on both exterior walls and in kitchens and servant rooms, she surmises that the emperor Nero was much more popular than we tend to think (but not so much after he kicked his pregnant wife). She’s found that declarations of love were every bit as common then as they are today and that it was acceptable for visitors to carve their opinions about the city into its walls. She’s discovered that the people of Pompeii loved displaying their cleverness via graffiti, from poetry contests to playful recombinations of the letters that form Roman numerals.

And she’s found that Pompeians expressed far more goodwill than ill will. “They were much nicer in their graffiti than we are,” she says. “There are lots of pairings with the word ‘felicter,’ which means ‘happily.’ When you pair it with someone’s name, it means you’re hoping things go well for that person. There are lots of graffiti that say ‘Felicter Pompeii,’ wishing the whole town well.”

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