Grand Theft Pompeii

Pompeian mosaic advising to 'beware of the dog' (cave canem): did it help to keep the petty thieves out...?

Pompeian mosaic advising to ‘beware of the dog’ (cave canem): did it help to keep the petty thieves out…?

Just off Pompeii’s principal street, the so-called Via dell’Abbondanza (‘Street of Abundance’), painted onto a pilaster between two doorways, the following (somewhat fragmentary) inscription was discovered (CIL IV 64):

Vrna aenia pereit de taberna.
Sei quis rettulerit dabuntur
HS LXV, sei furem
dabit unde [re]m
servare po[ssimus] HS XX[- – -].

A metal vessel disappeared from this tavern. If someone retrieves it, 65 sesterces will be given; if the thief is tipped off, so that we can salvage our property, 20(?) sesterces…

The inscription appears to date back to the Republican or early Imperial period – certainly a text of the first century B. C., as the spellings (and the letter shapes) make clear.

While this inscription is not entirely clear about the question as to whether the metal vessel (presumably made of copper or bronze) was actually stolen, accusations of theft and thievery are not altogether uncommon on the walls of Pompeii. The spectrum covers –

(i) simple insults, with or without names mentioned, such as the following ones:

  • CIL IV 1715: furuncule (‘petty thief!’)
  • CIL IV 3150: fures (‘thieves!’)
  • CIL IV 4764: Perari fur es (‘Perarius, you are a thief!’)
  • CIL IV 4776: Labicula fur est (‘Labicula is a thief!’)

(ii) somewhat overblown, humorous insults such as CIL IV 1949:

Oppi emboliari fur furuncule.

Oppius, you clown [or: poofter?], thief, petty thief!

– and, of course, (iii) fully fledged accusations (CIL IV 3990 col. 1):

L(ucius) Statius
(mulieris) l(ibertus)
fur est 

Lucius Statius Philadelphus, freedman of a woman, is a thief.

(There may, of course be further evidence hiding in other inscriptions, such as CIL IV 1319, but the reading is less clear.)

At any rate, this set of inscriptions can be supplemented by texts that can be understood as precautionary measures. A number of times, one reads short texts that translate as ‘Thief, beware!’, e. g. in CIL IV 6701: Fur caue | SIQ (?). The same text, however, also features inscribed on portable objects:

  • CIL IV 6253: Fur caue mal(um)
  • CIL X 8067.6a: [F]ur caue || [m]alum.
  • CIL X 8067.6b: Fur cau(e) || malu(m).

More remarkable still, however, is a graffito that was inscribed in a triclinium of a relatively humble dwelling (CIL IV 4278):

faras (!)
frugi intro.

Thieves out, honest folk come in!

The presence of thieves and brigands can also be surmised from at least two rather remarkable campaigning posters. The former ‘promotes’ the election of Vatia to aedile (CIL IV 576):

Vatiam aed(ilem)
furunculi rog(ant).

Vatia for aedile: supported by the petty thieves.

The second one, less well known perhaps, purports to be in support of Popidius Ampliatus (CIL IV 7851):

L(ucium) Popidium L(uci) f(ilium) Ampliatum
aed(ilem) Montanus cliens
rogat cum latrunculari(i)s.

Lucius Popidius Ampliatus, son of Lucius, for aedile: supported by his client Montanus in conjunction with the brigands.

What any of the afore-mentioned thieves, whether petty or on a larger scale, actually stole, we cannot know. We cannot even be certain that they stole anything. It may just have been a common insult without any actual reference to larceny.

The latter aspect has been stressed a lot with regard to the electoral propaganda before (also in the light of similar insults hurled against Vatia in particular), suggesting that this was but a form of discrediting the candidate in question. But can one really be all that sure?

Is it altogether out of the question to assume that those phrases, furunculi and latruncularii, refer to bands that sought to acquire their street credibility through a somewhat thuggish-sounding name, for example – the modern counterpart of the motorcycle club Bandidos springs to mind? Or is such thinking too anachronistic for first-century Pompeii?

Perhaps this goes too far.

A rather sweet theft (and the thief’s amends) is recorded in the following example from the house of Fabius Rufus (NFPompei 66):

Vasia quae rapui quaeris formosa puella.
accipe quae rapui non ego solus ama
quisquis amat valeat.

The kisses that I stole you demand back, beautiful girl: take back what I stole (and not I alone!): love me! Whoever loves, may prosper!

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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