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17.11.21 Pompeii Revisited

Fresco from Pompeii (Credit: Public Domain).

Pompeii is a place that I keep coming back to, humbled and impressed by its preservation of real human lives from two thousand years ago. If you were to ask me what I mean when I refer to ‘the Latin of ordinary people’, I mean something close to this: a busy crossroads in that town, with different kinds of people leading different kinds of lives. They’re each passing through, stopping to chat, and using language in unique and varied ways; they are rich, poor, up, down, privileged and bereft, but each of them in some way fits into the part of the Venn diagram labelled ordinary people. I remember hearing Arundhati Roy speak in Dublin a few years ago, when she said, in a considered and gentle offhand remark, that perhaps we can think of the whole world as a kind of cemetery. She was talking about the setting of her second novel, but implicitly – I took her to mean – about life in times of climate change. If you consider that humans, in geological terms, haven’t been around for very long, then the people of Pompeii who lost their lives in the eruption of 79 CE are not some distant species but our near neighbours, and I feel connected to them beyond any academic restraint.

Luckily for us, the townspeople wrote and painted all over their walls and houses, looking for votes, advertising their businesses, attacking their enemies, and writing love poems. The famous fresco, pictured above, of a couple staring out at the viewer and holding up proudly their writing implements, appears to have been completed just before the eruption, as the house in which it was painted was still under renovation. Elsewhere, a tongue-in-cheek apology: ‘We’ve wet the bed, I admit it, we’ve messed up! Host, if you ask why: there was no pot.’ Another reads, incomplete: ‘my life, my sweetness, let’s play, for a little while, this bed …’.

In 1888 archaeologists discovered a seven-line love poem etched into the wall of an entrance hallway in Pompeii. As is often the case, there are problems associated with deciphering the text, but the content is clear and familiar: the author declares their desire, remembers a beloved, and seems to lament things not working out. What’s unusual, however, is that both the writer and addressee of this text appear to be women, something we can glean from the gendered ending of two words in the piece: pupula (‘poppet’, ‘darling’) and perdita (‘distraught’). Here is Luca Graverini’s translation; the pronouns in brackets in the first line register an ambiguity in the Latin.

Would that I might hold my (your) arms embraced around your (my) neck and give kisses with my tender lips. Go now, poppet, and entrust your joys to the winds. Believe me, men’s nature is fickle. When in my desperation I was lying awake in the middle of the night, often, thinking over things with myself, (I said) ‘Many whom Fortune has raised aloft, these she subsequently oppresses, suddenly hurled down headlong. Similarly after Venus has suddenly united the bodies of lovers, daylight separates them.

And there the poem breaks off, except that someone came along later and added a barely legible bit of text, which some scholars (but not others) take to be a fragment of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: paries quid ama. In Ovid’s poem Pyramus and Thisbe are young lovers from Babylon who live in neighbouring houses, whose parents have forbidden them to see each other. But they find a way, noticing a crack in the adjoining wall through which they can send hushed messages and kisses to each other. They’re grateful for the opportunity, but can’t help complain about their enforced separation. ‘Stupid wall’, they used to say, ‘why do you stand in the way of lovers?’ Or, in Latin: ‘invide’ dicebant ‘paries, quid amantibus obstas? Later in the story, Pyramus and Thisbe manage to sneak out and arrange a meeting, but come to tragic end, providing for Shakespeare the inspiration for his own pair of star-crossed lovers.

This graffito, known by the name CIL 4. 5296, is one of many humane survivals on the walls of Pompeii. The picture isn’t clear cut and, as ever, we would like to know more than we do. Is that really a line from Ovid at the end? Is this someone writing up poorly remembered fragments of other people’s poems? A man adopting a woman’s persona? Or a woman soliloquising to herself? The possibility remains, however, that this is a love poem written by one woman to another. If so, it becomes a useful reminder that there have always been women who’ve loved women, as well as men who’ve loved men, despite the best efforts of prudish historians and repressive political forces to deny and change that fact over the centuries. It’s one of the things that the ancient Greek and Roman worlds do well: giving us the tools to question narrow ideas of human sexuality, by diving into the past.

Further Reading

  • Clarke, J. 2003. Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 BC – AD 315 (Berkeley: University of California Press).
  • Courtney, E. 1995. Musa Lapidaria: A Selection of Latin Verse Inscriptions (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press), no. 92.
  • Graverini, L. 2013. ‘Ovidian Graffiti: Love, Genre, and Gender on a Wall in Pompeii. A New Study of CIL IV. 5296 – CLE 950’, in Incontri di filologia classica 12: 1–28, available here.
  • Milnor, K. 2014. Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii (Oxford), pp. 196–201.