What was the Graffiti of Pompeii?

You’ve heard of the ancient city and its ruins, but have you heard about the array of graffiti that covers its walls?

The historic city of Pompeii was a prosperous place before its tragic demise. The city was hidden for decades, fading from memory until its rediscovery. The city re-emerged from the darkness, with crumbling buildings, historic artefacts, and even human remains uncovered from the earth. Trapped in a natural time capsule, the city’s artefacts remained intact for modern day people to see. While uncovering Pompeii’s secrets, historians have discovered that although their customs and traditions are very different from our own, there are also similarities to our modern age practices. One of the most noteworthy practices is graffiti, which can be found scattered throughout the ancient city.

Our contemporary view of graffiti is forever changing, but much of it is looked upon with disapproval and controversy, with most graffiti artists choosing to do their art away from the public eye, in secret. The main tools used today are spray paint, stencils and marker pens to create bold and noticeable artistic pieces on the blandest of public walls or buildings. In order to make a public statement with their work, or show defiance, most graffiti is done in urban areas, which has led it to become visualised an an ‘urban problem’. Labelled as vandalism by the justice system, graffiti continues to be a controversial topic despite its growing popularity, as seen by the success of Banky, an anonymous street artist. It’s ongoing existence however is amazing considering it’s consistency over time. With over 11,000 graffiti samples found in Pompeii’s excavations, it’s clear that this art form is one of the people. Humankind cannot seem to help but make their mark, with even the most simple, yet typical, bits of graffiti like ‘(insert name) was here’, being found on the 2000-year-old walls. All sorts of graffiti has been found in virtually every space of the ancient city, including houses, public buildings, temples and tombs.

Here are just some categories of Graffiti found nowadays within the city.

  • Tagging Graffiti

    Contrary to popular belief tagging is not just a modern phenomenon related to social media but a trend that has been found throughout history, which involves leaving your own name on public walls. A large majority of Pompeii’s graffiti sections have at least one inscription of a name. The reason for writing a name can be for the individual desire of wanting to leave a trace of yourself on something, or perhaps because an individual feels a personal connection to a place. It can be used to commemorate a certain location, document an emotionally important time, or simply mark one’s their territory. The oldest known graffiti also happens to be amongst the simplest tag; ‘Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here.’ This is almost humorous in the way that it conjures the image of school children writing on tables or carving their initials into tree trunks.

  • Passionate Graffiti

    The fascinating part of graffiti is that it depicts the voices of the Pompeii’s people directly. Stating their feelings, thoughts, and passions in a short and sweet statement. Pompeii citizens have taken out their frustrations with neighbours through graffiti, with statements such as ‘Sanius to Cornelius: Go hang yourself,’ and at the House of the Citharist, a drawing of a man with a very large nose, with writing below stating ‘Amplicatus, I know that Icarus is buggering you. Salvius wrote this.’ Showing how some artists clearly weren’t afraid to declare their true feelings or claim ownership for their insults to others. Not all graffiti was crude however, with declarations of love also being discovered, such as ‘We two dear men, friends forever were here. If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus.’ or ‘Health to you, Victoria, and wherever you are may you sneeze sweetly.’ These short statements give us a sense of passion in these ancient citizens, with many more graffiti examples that depict the emotions and everyday issues that these people faced.

  • Ad Graffiti

    As well as illegal graffiti, public inscriptions were used to campaign messages to the public. Advertisements similar to billboards were used for politics, public events, and public announcements. Many have been discovered throughout the city, including an inscription publishing the next gladiator games in Pompeii. Some were even from young women who idolised some of the most famous gladiators, which is thought to be the case with Celadus the Thracian, whose name appears more than once throughout the city. There are also some inscriptions most likely written by tavern owners encouraging people to ‘Come and drink’ down at their tavern after the gladiator battles. Others simply state the time and place of a contest, such as: ‘The gladiator troupe of Aulus Suettius Certus will fight at Pompeii on 31 May. There will be a hunt and awnings’. As for political graffiti, these are usually simple one-liners asking people to vote for a particular person, such as ‘I ask that you elect Lucius Popidius Ampliatus’. These probably appeared during political elections as a way of voicing one’s views.

  • Graphic Graffiti

    Pompeii is famous for its open attitude towards sex, being quite open with their sexual needs and passions. Brothels were common throughout the city, and as a result, graphic graffiti appears frequently throughout the city. Numerous lewd inscriptions and drawings cover the public walls, indicating numerous randy acts or body parts. If you’re of a more conservative or modest nature you might find yourself often having to avert your eyes as you wander around Pompeii’s infamous ruins. Accompanied with explicit drawings the language of these inscriptions are very crude, blunt and to the point, leaving no confusion over the artists or authors meaning. This is not the place to repeat such inscriptions, so head to Pompeii yourself to witness these unusual, yet humorous bits of graffiti.

  • What this array of graffiti reminds us most of all is how the people of Pompeii were living, breathing human beings with their own thoughts and opinions, just like ourselves. It brings the town to life and voices the people who were standing there, thinking and writing it. This is what makes the graffiti so special and enthralling.

Check out our Pompeii & Mount Vesuvius Tour if you are in Pompeii.