Harry Mount

The lewdness and lyricism of ancient Roman graffiti

Credit: Natasha Lawson

Throw him to the lions! That’s what I thought when I saw the video of a grinning moron desecrating the walls of the Colosseum with the words ‘Ivan + Hayley 23’. He must have been referring to his girlfriend, standing by his side – and the year. It wasn’t just the fact that he’d defaced the greatest of all Roman buildings. It was that he’d written something so depressingly banal. He could at least have written the year in Roman numerals – MMXXIII. And he could have borrowed some themes from the Romans – the rudest graffiti artists ever.

‘Ivan’ could at least have borrowed some themes from the Romans – the rudest graffiti artists ever

We like to think of the Romans as highfalutin, high-minded gods. But they swore like us. They were obsessed with sex, like us. And they wrote their rudest thoughts on walls – in a much more obscene way than we do. Just look at the Pompeii house of Claudius Eulogus in Via Dell’Abbondanza. The graffiti artist there echoed my feelings about the idiot in the Colosseum: ‘Move te, fellator.’

They’re still excavating rude graffiti at Pompeii. Archaeologists recently dug up a thermopolium – or snack bar – revealing the words ‘Nicia cinaede cacator’ – ‘Nicias [probably a freedman from Greece], you catamite shitter!’ On the wall of Pompeii’s basilica, you’ll find the words ‘Lucilla ex corpore lucrum faciebat’ – ‘Lucilla made money from her body’. Nearby, a prostitute has written ‘Sum tua aeris assibus II’ – ‘I’m yours for two bronze coins’. That was about the price of two glasses of wine in Pompeii.

Dirty pictures were everywhere, too. The biggest queues in Pompeii are of tourists staring at the frescoes of a couple experimenting in the bedroom. The most popular room in the Naples National Archaeological Museum is the Gabinetto Segreto (‘Secret Cabinet’), with rude artefacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

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