Jul 16, 2007

Vox Populi

Graffiti. Everyone has tried it once and occasionally read others graffiti’s out of curiosity. However, graffiti left by citizens of Ancient Rome is proving to be a historical treasure trove. With a stylus, Romans scratched writings on the plastered walls of private residences and public pavements, walls etcetera.

“Oh wall,” noted one citizen in Pompeii, “I am surprised you have not collapsed and fallen, seeing that you support the loathsome scribbling of so many writers.”

More than 180,000 of these inscriptions are catalogued in the Corpus Inscriptonium Latinarum, a gargantuan database maintained by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Every year 500 inscriptions are added to this database as excavations for hotels and restaurant foundations reveal new epigraphic treasures. These throw open the window to the civil Roman society which achingly reminds us of our own lifestyle, revealing ragged edges of normal life- from inscriptions on parents grieving of their son or the prices prostitutes charged their clients.

British classicist Keith Hopkins has estimated that 28% of Roman children died before they completed 12 months. Yet epigraphists found relatively few inscribed tombs for Roman infants in Italy- just 1.3% of the total percentage. This discrepancy suggests that parents in ancient Rome refrained from raising an expensive monument for a child, unwilling to mourn publicly or privately. Though some Romans could not refrain from it as they openly celebrated a baby’s birthday with “Cornelius Sabinus has been born,” a message said where passer-bys and neighbors could see it easily.

Other graffiti’s supported grieving widows, “Glauco was born at Mutina. Fought seven times, died in the eighth. He lived 23 years, 5 days.” As studies of epitaphs show, skilled gladiators rarely survived more than 10 matches, dying at an average age of 27. At the end of each fatal clash, stretcher-bearers took the body to the local morgue. There the officials slit the throat to ensure that the gladiator is truly dead. Then they handed it over to the family for mourning.

One surviving poster describes how Deminus Lucretius Satrius Valeris, a priest of Nero, and another prominent Roman sponsored a major event in Pompeii. This expensive attractions included “20 pairs of gladiators,” the “customary wild beast hunt,” and “awnings” to shade spectators from the sun.

The Roman citizens might never have imagined the clues to historians they have provided by ranting their feelings on the wall. Perhaps we should continue to do what humans do best- gain public empathy with- THE WRITINGS ON THE WALL.

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