1/09/2017 Peter Durantine

Seeing The Common Roman Through Roman Graffiti

From the catacombs of Rome to the volcanic hills of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius, a Franklin & Marshall College student-scholar of the classics explored the chiseled engravings of Roman graffiti to learn what life was like in an empire that existed 2,000 years ago.

“That’s very important to study because graffiti is the language of the common Roman citizen,” said junior classical languages and literature major Jennifer Deasy, who spent two weeks this past summer visiting Rome, Naples. Pompeii and Herculaneum near Mount Vesuvius.  

“The historical writings that you see in books, plays, essays and poems are written mostly by the upper class – rich men who were part of the government and very wealthy shop owners, but not from the common, middle class Roman men, women and children,” Deasy said. “This gives a very unique insight into the average middle class Roman population.”

Most of the graffiti she found was in Pompeii because the volcanic ash had preserved the markings on the walls of shops and schools, where children drew gladiators fighting and a horse from a chariot race.

“That was the main site,” Deasy said. “There was some graffiti in Rome in the Imperial Forum, as well there was some in Herculaneum beside a school house, and in the Naples Archaeological Museum as well.”

Deasy said the etchings revealed a population not unlike societies today.

“The common Roman man is very hard to capture in society, but the graffiti really showcased their life,” Deasy said. “I got to see that times really haven’t changed a whole lot; they valued and liked the same things that we like and value now, especially with the children’s school house graffiti.”

In Rome, Deasy went into the St. Sebastian Catacombs, where she examined graffiti written by early Christians, offering a different perspective to the Roman.

“Where the Roman graffiti was kind of light hearted, funny, crude, the early Christian graffiti is very devout,” she said, showing a photo of etching from the catacomb walls. “This one says: ‘St. Peter, St. Paul pray for us, pray for me.”

Politics, too, is little different today then what it was in Roman times.

“They advocated political expression through their shops,” Deasy said. “Some of the rich shop owners would graffiti who they were supporting right outside their shop – ‘Hey, we’re supporting Cornelius, you should too.’ Kind of the equivalent of putting signs in your front yard.” 

  • For her research, Jennifer Deasy spent two weeks last summer visiting Rome, Naples. Pompeii and Herculaneum near Mount Vesuvius. Image Credit: Deb Grove
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