Scholars can tell, for instance, that a tavern was once beyond the wall where a welcoming greeting—“Sodales, avete,”—can still be read. Some graffiti describes how many tunics were sent to be laundered, while other inscriptions mark the birth of a donkey and a litter of piglets. People scribbled details of various transactions onto the walls of Pompeii, including the selling of slaves. They also shared snippets of literature (lines from The Aeneid were popular) and succinct maxims like, “The smallest evil, if neglected, will reach the greatest proportions.”
And then there was the trash talk.
“One speaks of ‘sheep-faced Lygnus, strutting about like a peacock and giving himself airs on the strength of his good looks,’” the London-based magazine Chambers’s Journal wrote, in 1901, of Pompeii’s well-preserved insults. “Another exclaims: ‘Epaphra glaber es,’ (Oh, Epaphras, thou art bald;) Rusticus est Cordyon, (Corydon is a clown or country bumpkin;) Epaphra, Pilicrepus non es, (Oh, Epaphras, thou art no tennis-player.)”
All of which is somewhat sophomoric, but certainly isn’t outdated per se. The social nature of ancient graffiti, including walls where there were clusters of inscriptions featuring people writing back and forth to one another, evokes social communication of the modern era: Facebook and Twitter, for instance. “I will say that the graffiti at Pompeii are nicer than the types of things we write today, though,” Benefiel told me.
That may be because many of the tropes associated with writing in public are by now so familiar that simply declaring “Claudius was here,” isn’t enough—in the digital space, anyway—to achieve what many people are aiming for. “Overall, people want to write on things to be known,” Roger Gastman, the author of The History of American Graffiti, told me in an email. “To be everywhere at once yet nowhere at all.”
But the wall-politicking that takes place on Facebook may be inherently different from graffiti in the physical world—even if it stems from the same basic human inclinations. “Writing your name on a [physical] wall is both a way of getting noticed but it’s also somewhat transgressive,” said Judith Donath, the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. But in order to get noticed online, where everyone can and is supposed to write on walls, you have to do more than mark down your own name and the date. The pressure, then, is to be more provocative, Donath told me. And an arms race for provocation in a world where there are more than 7,000 tweets published every second tends to debase civility pretty quickly.
“Especially Twitter,” Donath said. “If you’re not saying something, it’s like you’re not there at all; you don’t exist. You have to maintain your presence there. It’s more of a temporal issue, whereas in a city it’s more spatial.”