Pompeii’s Graffiti and the Ancient Origins of Social Media

From Roman walls to Twitter, humans have a long-standing obsession with leaving their mark.

Visitors walk in Pompeii, the city that was decimated in 79 A.D. by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, seen in the background. (Giampiero Sposito / Reuters)

The oldest known graffiti at Pompeii also happens to be among the simplest: Gaius was here. Or, more precisely, “Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here,” along with a time stamp, which historians have dated to October 3, 78 B.C.

It’s a classic. Literally—as in, it is an artifact from classical antiquity—but it’s also a classic in the larger category of Things People Write on Walls. So-and-so was here (see also: Kilroy) has been one of the messages humans have scrawled, etched, and eventually Sharpied and spray painted onto public spaces for millennia.

Much of the graffiti at Pompeii seems surprisingly modern this way. Ancient inscriptions include declarations of love (“Health to you, Victoria, and wherever you are may you sneeze sweetly.”); insults (“Sanius to Cornelius: Go hang yourself!”); and remembrances (“Pyrrhus to his chum Chias: I’m sorry to hear you are dead, and so, goodbye!”). There are also billboard-esque painted inscriptions that included political campaign messages, advertisements for Gladiatorial games, and other public notices—like the equivalent of a giant flyer for a lost horse. The commonplace nature of these inscriptions is part of what makes them so historically valuable.

“It recreates the life of the town,” said Rebecca Benefiel, a professor of classics at Washington and Lee University. “It’s the voices of the people who were standing there, and thinking this, and writing it. That’s why the graffiti are just so special and so enthralling.”

Ancient graffiti in Pompeii, in the style typical for a political campaign. (Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Flickr)

The fact that we can read the original inscriptions at all today is part-tragedy, part-miracle. Like most of what scholars know of Pompeii, the city’s extensive graffiti is so well preserved because it spent nearly 1,500 years entombed in ash after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. People have been fixated on the ancient etchings since Pompeii was rediscovered centuries ago. “Though nearly 20 centuries old, the thoughtless school-boy’s scrawls, the love-sick gallant’s doggerel, or the caricature of some friend, foe, or popular favorite, are still as clear as though executed by an idler yesterday,” The New York Times wrote in 1881.

But despite all this appreciation, Pompeii’s graffiti hasn’t been easy for most people to access. Even in the Internet age, a time when there’s a vague expectation that all of human knowledge has somehow coalesced online (it hasn’t), the inscriptions haven’t been comprehensively digitized. Scholars have to either piece together disparate texts found only in research libraries, or visit Pompeii in-person. But much of the graffiti—indeed, much of Pompeii’s history—has been looted, defaced, or destroyed over time. Ironically, some of that vandalism has come at the hands of people who’ve etched their own graffiti over the originals.

All this is why Benefiel is leading an effort to map the graffiti of Pompeii and Herculaneum, a nearby town that was also buried by the 79 A.D. eruption. With a grant from a National Endowment for the Humanities, she and other scholars are building a suite of tools to digitally catalogue, contextualize, and analyze these ancient inscriptions.

“I’m really interested in trying to look at the whole of what we have from these cities, and thinking a bit more broadly about how we can identify who’s writing messages and where they’re writing them,” Benefiel said. “Right now, that’s really hard to do just because of how they’ve been published, and how the map has completely changed because excavations got much more expansive.”

Digitizing what’s known about the graffiti at Pompeii—and making a searchable database that’s rich with metadata like height, writing style, language, and other details—is also a way of teasing out connections between inscriptions that aren’t otherwise apparent. Perhaps, for example, scholars will be able to identify common authorship among a variety of geographically disperse messages. Or maybe they’ll be able to understand what kinds of establishments are adorned with certain graffiti, based on the nature of the messages written there.

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.”

The ancient graffiti of Pompeii brings together these two domains, the spatial and the temporal, anchoring the ideas of a group of people in time to the physical space they occupy. Few artifacts are able to do this. Books and stone tablets, for example, aren’t typically preserved in situ. Which means the preservation of the convergence in Pompeii is remarkably rare, and made all the more astonishing for the fact that much of the graffiti there dates to sometime in the twilight decades of the city’s existence.

“You can walk through the entire town. You can peek into each house. You can get a sense that, wow, this is a space where people lived surrounded by color and imagery and decoration,” Benefiel said. “But I think what all of those elements give you is the space of the town. Then we have many inscriptions that are people’s names. We have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of inscriptions that are friends writing greetings to each other. The graffiti immediately brings you to the people of the town.The graffiti really evoke the people who lived there.”