By Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
How antiquity is perceived and received has always depended on the era. Sometimes it was due to the prevalence of a certain political program (the promotion of Roman Empire under the rule of Napoleon and the advantage given to the Roman Republic during French revolution, for example). Most of the time, however, it’s because we observe antiquity through “modern eyes”.
When learning something new, we usually make either conscious or subconscious assumptions that are based on our own experience… and this is a natural process. However, it can lead us to wrong conclusions, and make us oversee some points that are crucial for understanding (or, more likely, trying to understand) the ancient world.
The most convenient example may be ancient Greek comedy. The word “comedy” triggers a completely different image in the mind of a modern reader from the one in the mind of a man born in classical Greece. In other words, if a reader of modern comedy (presumably the one without the knowledge of ancient Greek drama) approaches Aristophanes’ work in anticipation of an easy-to-understand humor that will make them break out in laughter, they may end up disappointed.
This is by no means impossible to achieve, but does require some amount of time spent inquiring about 5th century Athens and its social customs (a good and extensive commentary can help, too). Reading the comedy after that can, besides laughter, gives us valuable insights into many details of the ancient world.
For these reasons comedy enjoyed the deserved attention of many scholars and many of its aspects have been thoroughly studied. For graffiti, on the other hand, we cannot say the same. Difficult to define, difficult to trace, and difficult to interpret, graffiti*** has always been on the margin of research, at least in comparison to other types of inscriptions.
Due to a wide variety of graffiti preserved in the ancient city of Pompeii, some attention, however, was given to the rich world of ancient graffiti… and things they can teach us about those times.
Here are some indications we can attest in the practice of graffiti that either challenge our view of antiquity, or show us once again how strongly conditioned we are by the world we live in and its notions:
The Social Significance of Graffiti
Nowadays we can see many types of inscriptions wherever we go, from public announcements to laundry commercials. And yet, there is something rude, even violent, when we see someone’s love confession on a wall of a public building. The reason? The love confession is completely private, and as such, it violates the public space. Moreover, there is no form of authority behind love scribbles!
This is one of the reasons that ancient graffiti is often disregarded as a viable source for studying antiquity. However, their presence in central and visible spaces (public spaces, inside houses, and around workspaces), suggests that ancient people did not share our views.
For ancient Romans, leaving a personal mark was commonplace in many writing practices – the names of people who paid for a monument to (oddly enough) ads for house rent. Therefore, we can conclude that such a strong division between public and private is, well, a modern phenomenon.
(In)formality and social classes as seen in Graffiti
Graffiti has always been represented as an informal way of self-expression, which led to thinking that in ancient times, graffiti was produced exclusively by lower social classes. However, there is a decent amount of graffiti in Pompeii that expresses political opinion as well as ones that can be even associated with military personnel. This teaches us that being a member of high society in ancient Rome did not necessarily mean being exclusively formal. Even though it is difficult for us to imagine a serious member of Roman high class writing nasty things about their political rivals, it sure is fun and casts a different light on our image of ancient people.
Literacy and Graffiti
When we think about modern graffiti, it is highly improbable that the first image that comes to us will be a quote from Shakespeare. And keep in mind: we live in an age where the lack of literacy is shocking. For ancient Romans, however, it was quite common. We don’t know the exact percentage of people that were (fully) literate, but the numbers are definitely not promising.
However, the peculiarly high amount of quotations present in ancient graffiti, along with brief poems and even wordplays, show that our image of ancient literacy is maybe different from the reality. This still does not mean that a significant number of Roman people were literate in the real sense of the word, but, as some scholars have suggested, there is a possibility of different kinds of literacies that existed throughout the empire.
For example, some quotes from Roman literature might have received the status of idioms, so people used them without actually understanding the original text. The question of literacy in ancient Rome is quite complex, but the abundance of materials found in graffiti certainly has the potential of casting some light on it.
Although it is fun to read silly and obscene graffiti that reminds us that ancient humans were more similar to us than we would have expected, we should not fail to recognize their value in the research on the cultural and quotidian aspects of life in ancient Rome.
***Editor’s Note: Depending on where you read about Graffiti, you may be surprised by this sentence. That is because often in formal writing settings, the word ‘Graffiti’ is the plural version of ‘Graffito’. However, while speaking, Graffiti is always used as a ‘mass noun’, requiring a singular verb. Ah! What’s an editor to do? While on the one hand, we feel it’s important to acknowledge the correct rules of grammar and a word’s true etymological roots, on the other hand, we want the reading experience to be enjoyable and easily understood. As we are dedicated to making the classics as accessible as possible, we purposefully choose the latter and made ‘Graffiti’ a mass noun, as most speak it.