Main content start

Matthew Loar (2015)

Matthew Loar

Though trained formally as a Classical philologist, my research interests stray from the written page to the writing on the walls. Since 2014 I have been a member of the Ancient Graffiti Project (, which is working to record, document, and digitize ancient graffiti in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Among other things, the value of studying graffiti (specifically, writings that are incised into a wall or other hard surface) is that they afford a unique insight into the way that the ancient inhabitants of these cities interacted with each other and their environment. Unlike modern graffiti, which are more frequently considered counter-culture, unauthorized, and undesired, ancient graffiti were de rigueur, running the gamut from single names to sequences of numerals, from crass commentaries on sex and sexuality to complex literary quotations of famous works like Vergil’s Aeneid. We find graffiti on virtually every kind of surface in virtually every kind of building: on columns, wall paintings, and bricks; in houses, basilicas, and brothels. Classical scholars have thus far mined graffiti for a number of demographic projects: what can graffiti tell us about literacy levels, especially among slaves and women? What can they say about literary knowledge and training? What can they disclose about movement and social gatherings (i.e., where did graffiti cluster)? And what can they reveal about the character and humor of these ancient people?

These were the kinds of questions on my mind as I began my two-week Text Technologies Fellowship, during which time I made substantial progress on an article I am writing about the House of Marcus Lucretius, a richly decorated and well preserved elite residence in the ancient city of Pompeii (IX.3.5, 24). I had previously written on the house from the perspective of its visual program, which exhibits a sustained engagement with themes of banqueting and theatrical performance throughout a number of the principal rooms, but with the fellowship I wanted to shift my attention to the home’s ancient graffiti, about which next to nothing has been written – perhaps because none of these graffiti have survived in situ. I focused my research on eight graffiti in particular, which are found in two locations: four are at eye level on a pilaster in the corner of the home’s peristyle, and four are just above the pavement on a wall opposite the peristyle. The placement of the graffiti is significant because they occupy a point in the house that would have been accessible only to authorized visitors (including residents, slaves, and privileged guests). It is a point in the house, moreover, that would have been passed by anybody moving from the front of the residence to the back. The graffiti, in other words, were placed in a maximally visible location, which makes their politically and sexually subversive content all the more pointed: three refer to different individuals as a “cinaedus” (a term that refers to the penetrated male in a male-on-male sex act), two that refer to some of these same individuals as “Neronians” (referring to the much-maligned Roman emperor in the 60s CE), and one that depicts a drawing of a labyrinth with the caption “Labyrinthus // Hic Habitat // Minotaurus” (Labyrinth // Here dwells // the Minotaur — recalling that the minotaur was himself the offspring of illicit sexual congress between a bull and the woman Pasiphae). 

However, considering the content and location of these graffiti can only take us so far. Through conversations with Elaine Treharne, other scholars in the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, and attendees at a seminar I led, I began to think about other possible questions to ask of the graffiti: what about the size of the letters, the orthography, the grade of script, the grammatical complexity, the color of the wall plaster they are inscribed on, their proximity to other graffiti and decoration, and even their aesthetic value? What about sight lines or lighting conditions? What do these graffiti do in the house, to the space, to the viewer/reader? Ultimately, by re-approaching the graffiti as a specific kind of text technology, I have now refined and augmented my research questions: what can the graffiti tell us about the community of graffiti writers who left their mark in the house? How do the graffiti contribute to and/or redefine the performance theme that defined the other spaces of the house? How might the graffiti have conditioned future visitor’s engagements with the house? And, more tentatively, to what extent do these graffiti relate to larger socio-political dialogues of the first century CE? For the answers, stay tuned...