There has been a remarkable wave of outputs recently, traditional and web-based, that conceptualised the wish to find ancient Roman fore-runners of the walls of social media, counterparts for toilet graffiti and related witticisms, or at least some proto-memes by ‘the other 99% of the ancient world’ – preferably from the walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This is, of course, in addition to the usual, unstoppable flood of popular media outpourings that present ancient erotic art and its reworkings as some kind of mysterious, strangely appealing, yet ultimately revolting freak show.
Whence this most recent wave of publications that indulge in the promotion of (mostly) Erotica Pompeiana – those texts that seem to come straight from a Corpus Inscriptionum Latrinarum? (Here is hoping my former colleagues in Berlin at the CIL will eventually forgive me for this inevitable pun!)
It may be indicative of the process of new generation’s (re-)appropriation of classical material – material that in actuality has been known and studied for a long time. (None of the texts or artefacts that were discussed recently were altogether new or unknown or, in fact, inaccessible even to a general audience: they have been in the public domain a long time.)
It may also be an expression of the desire to find some historical meaning, precedence, and light relief to this generation’s own, busy times, reminding of the essentials of the human experience in a humorous fashion.
… or it may just be the beautifully childish desire to say something obscene, loudly and in public, and still not take responsibility for it – just because it feels like such an enormous (even physical) relief?
In order to achieve relief, it is useful fully to digest – intellectually, of course – what one has taken in, as a famous inscribed painting from Ostia, Rome’s ancient harbour, appropriately points out. In a gnome of lasting philosophical value, it commemorates the wisdom of Solon, one of the legendary seven sages of ancient Greece:
Vt bene cacaret uentrem palpauit Solon.
‘In order to have a good shit, Solon rubbed his belly.’
Of course, there is nothing really surprising or particularly remarkable in the fact that the Ancient Greeks and Romans, too, enjoyed writing obscenity and defacing walls by means of graffiti, painted inscriptions, and satirical drawings. The detection of a more or less unbroken continuity of everyday human practice does not really bear any significance for its modern counterpart(s): it does not add any deeper meaning, it does not provide any justification, it does not add any measurable value to its continuation(s).
Yet, there appears to be something profoundly liberating and comforting about the (unsurprising, predictable, and minimal) insight that we are all human, sharing basic needs and desires, including the fatuous wish to be able to say something utterly frivolous and to get away with it. An even more comforting experience (to many) is the observation that this type of mischievous behaviour, too, is a human constant.
After all, everyone likes a fart joke!
What else could be the explanation for a second panel from the aforementioned inscribed painting from Ostia – this time a panel displaying the Greek sage Chilon – like Solon one of the proverbial seven sages! – sitting on a latrine, while the inscription spells out Chilon’s sagest advice yet:
Vissire tacite Chilon docuit subdolus.
‘Crafty Chilon taught how to fart silently.’
Does it not feel reassuring to be part of a community of practice that has been in existence from the beginning of time?
No, really, everyone likes a fart joke – preferably in conjunction with the demolition of an otherwise unreachable idol (an idea that has resulted in numerous pastiches on YouTube).
From the perspective of a Classical Scholar who has worked on this material for many years, it is nothing short of delightful to see not only how the products of high culture of the ancient Mediterranean continue to unfold their potential, but also how all those seemingly insignificant, everyday practices and utterings continue to fascinate and to inspire a wide audience.
At the same time, however, it makes one wonder where Classical Scholarship is going with the wealth of inscribed material that the walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum provide.
Yes, some outstanding linguistic work on this material has been produced.
Yes, there is an ongoing effort to understand more about the spatial arrangements, about written multi-user communication, and about access to inscribable wall-space. Yes, an effort is being made to harvest the onomastic data and put it in perspective with what else we know about the inhabitants of the ancient settlements.
Will that be it? What will be the Classicists’ response to the unbroken fascination that emerges from the ever-recurring popular publications (and their sometimes rather deplorable quality, one should add)? Have we even begun to approach and conceptualise the psychology of writing in the public domain, on material that is less than ideal for use as stationery, for example? Have we even begun to appreciate the aesthetics of writing on walls, for example?
Perhaps we, as academics, can try a little harder, without (like popularising outputs) only ever repeating the same twenty-odd texts over and over again – those few handfuls of texts that get mentioned when one talks about the graffiti of the ancient world.
Or as Thales famously said:
Durum cacantes monuit ut nitant Thales.
‘Thales instructed those who have difficulties to shit to strive.’