Graffiti in the age of gladiators

In Pompeii, in the first century CE, graffiti was everywhere. Over 11,000 examples have been found scrawled on the walls of houses and public buildings, and that’s just the stuff that survived! Yep, if you wanted to know something in downtown Pompeii, you didn’t look to Twitter, Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat – mostly because none of those things had been invented yet. In terms of social media, the writing really was (don’t say it) very definitely (please don’t say it) ON THE WALL. 

Today we’re all aware that the things we say and do online can go viral, last forever, and be seen by THOUSANDS of people. I bet these chatty Hatties had no idea their throwaway thoughts would still be around for people to read nearly 2,000 years later! 

Brazen Bullying

Let’s start with the insults. Sometimes Pompeians scribbled cruel drawings and comments about another’s appearance. Others wrote things like, ‘Epaphra is not good at ballgames’, or ‘the man I am having dinner with is a barbarian’. Sometimes they were MUCH ruder. Yep, that’s right, sadly, even two millennia ago, trolls were A THING. 

Happy Thoughts

It’s true Pompeii did have trolls, but most Roman graffiti was kinder. Friends scrawled good luck notes to owners of shops, ‘To Campanus, the gem-maker: wishing you well. May things go happily for you!’ Aw, lovely. 

Robot8A, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Love notes

Just as today, loved-up couples might use the walls around them to tell the world how they felt. ‘Sabinus, handsome chap, Hermeros loves you’, wrote one starry-eyed admirer.

Crime stoppers

Without a police force, people had to find other ways to fight crime. As a victim of theft you could advertise for your stuff back: ‘A copper pot went missing from my shop. Anyone who returns it to me will be given 65 bronze coins (sestertii). Twenty more will be given for information leading to the capture of the thief.’ If that failed, Romans could always scribble a vicious curse on the perpetrator, or pray to a god for the criminal’s punishment.

Celebrity gossip

Forget about statesmen and emperors, gladiators were the real stars of the Roman world. You couldn’t have posters of your heroes on your bedroom walls. Papyrus was found in Herculaneum but sticky tack presumably wasn’t. You could draw a rough sketch of them on public walls though. One example says, ‘The girls’ heartthrob, the Thracian Celadius – 3 wins, 3 trophies!’

Too much? No such thing as too much

One wall was found smothered in writing by many different people. One person even added, ‘I am amazed, O Wall, that you haven’t fallen into ruins, you who have held up so much boring scribblings of so many writers.’ (Everyone’s a critic, ed). Yep, someone must have been desperate to get rid of these social media addicts. Another message says, ‘This is not a place to idle. Shove off loiterer’.

Archeologists are not so judgmental; in fact they’re thoroughly delighted with all this great graffiti. All these pictures and scribbled notes show just how very like ourselves the Romans were. They loved and hated, got cross, played games, shopped, showed off, and wanted to be noticed, just like we do. Just think, how much more we could discover if the Pompeiians had smartphones


Mentnafunangann, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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Words: Gillian Hovell.