Pliny the Elder, the Roman savant who compiled the eclectic 37-book encyclopedia Historia Naturalis nearly 2,000 years ago, was obsessed with the written word. He pored over countless Greek and Latin texts, instructing his personal secretary to read aloud to him even while he was dining or soaking in the bath. And when he traveled the streets of Rome, he insisted upon being carried everywhere by slaves so he could continue reading. To Pliny, books were the ultimate repository of knowledge. "Our civilization—or at any rate our written records—depends especially on the use of paper," he wrote in Historia Naturalis.
Pliny was largely blind, however, to another vast treasury of knowledge, much of it literally written in stone by ordinary Romans. Employing sharp styli generally reserved for writing on wax tablets, some Romans scratched graffiti into the plastered walls of private residences. Others hired professional stonecutters to engrave their ramblings on tombs and city walls. Collectively, they left behind an astonishing trove of pop culture—advertisements, gambling forms, official proclamations, birth announcements, magical spells, declarations of love, dedications to gods, obituaries, playbills, complaints, and epigrams. "Oh, wall," noted one citizen of Pompeii, "I am surprised that you have not collapsed and fallen, seeing that you support the loathsome scribblings of so many writers."
More than 180,000 of these inscriptions are now cataloged in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a mammoth scientific database maintained by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. The Corpus throws open a large window on Roman society and reveals the ragged edges of ordinary life—from the grief of parents over the loss of a child to the prices prostitutes charged clients. Moreover, the inscriptions span the length and breadth of the empire, from the Atlantic coast of Spain to the desert towns of Iraq, from the garrisons of Britain to the temples of Egypt. "It would be impossible to do most of Roman history without them," says Michael Crawford, a classicist at University College London.
The Corpus was conceived in 1853 by Theodor Mommsen, a German historian who dispatched a small army of epigraphists to peruse Roman ruins, inspect museum collections, and ferret out inscribed slabs of marble or limestone wherever they had been recycled, including the tops of medieval bell towers and the undersides of toilet seats. Working largely in obscurity, Mommsen's legions and their successors measured, sketched, and squeezed wet paper into crevices (see "Graffito Preservation," page 64). Currently, Corpus researchers add as many as 500 inscriptions each year to the collection, mostly from Spain and other popular tourist destinations in the Mediterranean where excavations for hotel and restaurant foundations reveal new epigraphic treasures.
Packed with surprising details, the Corpus offers scholars a remarkable picture of everyday life: the tumult of the teeming streets in Rome, the clamor of commerce in the provinces, and the hopes and dreams of thousands of ordinary Romans––innkeepers, ointment sellers, pastrycooks, prostitutes, weavers, and wine sellers. The world revealed is at once tantalizingly, achingly familiar, yet strangely alien, a society that both closely parallels our own in its heedless pursuit of pleasure and yet remains starkly at odds with our cherished values of human rights and dignity.
THE GIFT OF BACCHUS
To most Romans, civilization was simply untenable without the pleasures of the grape. Inscriptions confirm that wine was quaffed by everyone from the wealthy patrician in his painted villa to soldiers and sailors in the roughest provincial inns. And although overconsumption no doubt took a toll, wine was far safer than water: The acid and alcohol in wine curbed the growth of dangerous pathogens.
Epicures took particular delight in a costly white wine known as Falernian, produced from Aminean grapes grown on mountain slopes south of modern-day Naples. To improve the flavor, Roman vintners aged the wine in large clay amphorae for at least a decade until it turned a delicate amber. Premium vintages—some as much as 160 years old—were reserved for the emperor and were served in fine crystal goblets. Roman oenophiles, however, could purchase younger vintages of Falernian, and they clearly delighted in bragging of its expense. "In the grave I lie," notes the tombstone of one wine lover, "who was once well known as Primus. I lived on Lucrine oysters, often drank Falernian wine. The pleasures of bathing, wine, and love aged with me over the years."
Estate owners coveted their own vineyards and inscribed heartfelt praises for "nectar-sweet juices" and "the gift of Bacchus" on their winepresses. Innkeepers marked their walls with wine lists and prices. Most Romans preferred their wine diluted with water, perhaps because they drank so much of it, but they complained bitterly when servers tried to give them less than they bargained for. "May cheating like this trip you up, bartender," noted the graffito of one disgruntled customer. "You sell water and yourself drink undiluted wine."
So steeped was Roman culture in wine that its citizens often rated its pleasures above nearly all else. In the fashionable resort town of Tibur, just outside Rome, the tomb inscription of one bon vivant counseled others to follow his own example. "Flavius Agricola [was] my name. . . . Friends who read this listen to my advice: Mix wine, tie the garlands around your head, drink deep. And do not deny pretty girls the sweets of love."
PLEASURES OF VENUS
Literary scholars such as C. S. Lewis (who wrote, among many other things, The Chronicles of Narnia) have often suggested that romantic love is a relatively recent invention, first surfacing in the poems of wandering French and Italian troubadours in the 11th and 12th centuries. Before then, goes the argument, couples did not know or express to one another a passionate attachment, and therefore left no oral or written record of such relationships. Surviving inscriptions from the Roman Empire paint a very different portrait, revealing just how much Romans delighted in matters of the heart and how tolerant they were of the love struck. As one nameless writer observed, "Lovers, like bees, lead a honeyed life."
Many of the infatuated sound remarkably like their counterparts today. "Girl," reads an inscription found in a Pompeian bedroom, "you're beautiful! I've been sent to you by one who is yours." Other graffiti are infused with yearning that transcends time and place. "Vibius Restitutus slept here alone, longing for his Urbana," wrote a traveler in a Roman inn. Some capture impatience. "Driver," confides one, "if you could only feel the fires of love, you would hurry more to enjoy the pleasures of Venus. I love a young charmer, please spur on the horses, let's get on."
Often, men boasted publicly about their amorous adventures. In bathhouses and other public buildings, they carved frank descriptions of their encounters, sometimes scrawling them near the very spot where the acts took place. The language is graphic and bawdy, and the messages brim with detail about Roman sexual attitudes and practices. Many authors, for example, name both themselves and their partners. In Rome, men who preferred other men instead of women felt no pressure to hide it.
A large and lucrative sex trade flourished in Roman cities, and prostitutes often advertised their services in short inscriptions. One of the stranger aspects of Roman life is that many wealthy families rented out small rooms in their homes as miniature brothels, known as cellae meretriciae. Such businesses subsidized the lavish lifestyles of the owners. At the other end of the sex trade were elegant Roman courtesans. In Nuceria, near present-day Naples, at least two inscriptions describe Novelli Primigenia, who lived and worked in the "Venus Quarter." So besotted was one of her clients that he carved: "Greetings to you, Primigenia of Nuceria. Would that I were the gemstone (of the signet ring I gave you), if only for one single hour, so that, when you moisten it with your lips to seal a letter, I can give you all the kisses that I have pressed on it."
Most Roman citizens married, and some clearly enjoyed remarkably happy unions. One inscription unearthed just outside Rome records an epitaph for a particularly impressive woman, composed by her adoring husband. Classicists have fervently debated the identity of this matron, for the epitaph recalls the story of Turia, who helped her husband escape execution during civil unrest in the first century B.C. The inscription has crumbled into fragments, however, and the section containing the name of the woman has been lost, but it is clear her cleverness and audacity saved the day for her spouse. "You furnished most ample means for my escape," reads the inscription, elegantly carved by a stonecutter. "With your jewels you aided me when you took off all the gold and pearls from your person, and handed them over to me, and promptly, with slaves, money, and provisions, having cleverly deceived the enemies' guards, you enriched my absence."
A prominent French historian, Philippe Ariès, has theorized that it was not until the beginning of industrialization—which boosted the standard of living in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries—that parents began bonding deeply with their babies. In earlier times, infant mortality rates were staggering, leading parents to distance themselves emotionally from babies who might perish from malnutrition or infection before learning to walk.
Intriguingly, studies of Roman tomb inscriptions lend credence to Ariès's idea. The British classicist Keith Hopkins has estimated, based on comparative demographic data, that 28 percent of all Roman children died before reaching 12 months of age. Yet epigraphists have found relatively few inscribed tombs for Roman infants in Italy: Just 1.3 percent of all funerary stones mark such burials. The statistical discrepancy suggests to many classicists that parents in ancient Rome refrained from raising an expensive marble monument for a child, unwilling to mourn publicly or privately.
Some Romans, however, could not and did not repress the love they felt for their infants. As many graffiti reveal, they celebrated a baby's birth in an openly sentimental manner recognizable to parents today. "Cornelius Sabinus has been born," announced a family in a message carved in a residential entranceway, a spot where neighbors and passersby could easily see it. Others went further, jubilantly inscribing the equivalent of baby pictures. "Iuvenilla is born on Saturday the 2nd of August, in the second hour of the evening," reads one such announcement; nearby, someone sketched in charcoal a picture of a newborn.
The epitaphs composed for infant tombs also disclose a great deal about the intense grief some parents suffered. One inscription describes a baby whose brief life consisted of just "nine sighs," as if the parents had tenderly counted each breath their newborn had taken. Another funerary inscription describes in poignant detail a father's grief. "My baby Acerva," he wrote, "was snatched away to live in Hades before she had her fill of the sweet light of life. She was beautiful and charming, a little darling as if from heaven. Her father weeps for her and, because he is her father, asks that the earth may rest lightly on her forever."
Other carved messages supply details about schooling. As children learned to write, local walls served as giant exercise books where they could practice their alphabets. On one, a young student scrawled what seems to be a language arts drill, interlacing the opening letters of the Roman alphabet with its final ones—A X B V C T. In another inscription, a Roman couple marveled at the eloquence of their 11-year-old son, who had entered a major adult competition for Greek poetry. The boy took his place, they noted, "among 52 Greek poets in the third lustrum of the contest, [and] by his talent brought to admiration the sympathy that he had roused because of his tender age, and he came away with honor." The young poet died shortly after his performance.
THE SPORTING LIFE
The Romans loved to be entertained, and few things riveted them more than the spectacle of gladiatorial combat. Sports fans fervently tracked the career records of the most skilled gladiators and laid wagers on their survival, while well-to-do female admirers stole into gladiator barracks by night, prompting one combatant, Celadus, to boast in an inscription that he was "the girls' desire." That most gladiators were slaves forced to fight to the death for an afternoon's entertainment of the public did not trouble most Romans: They believed that a demonstration of bravery in the arena brought nobility to even the lowliest slave and that the price—death—was worth it.
So ingrained were gladiatorial games in Roman culture that senior government officials dug into their own pockets and emptied public purses to stage them. To pack an arena, the sponsor often advertised the games with an edicta munerum, an inscription painted by teams of professional artists on walls near the local amphitheater. One surviving poster describes how Decimus Lucretius Satrius Valeris, a priest of Nero, and another prominent Roman sponsored a major event in Pompeii spanning five consecutive days before the ides of April. The expensive attractions included 20 pairs of gladiators, the "customary [wild] beast hunt," and "awnings" to shade spectators against the summer sun.
The gladiators steeled themselves for the battle ahead, practicing their deadly swordplay. The devout among them prayed to gods for a victory. In a North African barrack, Manuetus the Provocator, a gladiator who fought with a short, straight sword, made a last vow, promising to "bring Venus the gift of a shield if victorious." Outside the gladiators' barracks, scribes painted walls with announcements and programs for the upcoming event, listing the combatants' names and career records.
On the day of the games, raucous and bloodthirsty crowds flooded the arena. At Rome's Colosseum, each spectator held a tessera, a ticket corresponding to a number inscribed on one of the building's 80 arcades. Each arcade then led ticket holders to a staircase and a specific section of seating. As spectators waited for the bloody combat matches to begin, they snacked on bread or cakes purchased from stalls outside the arena. Local chefs baked breads especially for the games, employing molds bearing designs of dueling gladiators and the name of the baker.
At the end of each fatal match, stretcher bearers hustled out on the floor of the arena to collect the fallen gladiator and carry his body to a nearby morgue, or spoliarium. There officials slit the man's throat to ensure that he was truly dead: Roman bettors despised fixed matches. Friends and family members then claimed the body and, if they possessed sufficient funds, raised a tomb in his memory. "To the reverend spirits of the Dead," inscribed one grieving widow. "Glauca was born at Mutina, fought seven times, died in the eighth. He lived 23 years, 5 days. Aurelia set this up to her well-deserving husband, together with those who loved him. My advice to you is to find your own star. Don't trust Nemesis [patroness of gladiators]; that is how I was deceived. Hail and Farewell."
As studies of epitaphs show, skilled gladiators rarely survived more than 10 matches, dying on average at the age of 27.
ANCIENT PIPE DREAMS
Some of the humblest inscriptions shed surprising light on one of the glories of Roman technology, revealing just how close ancient metalworkers came to a major coup––the invention of printing. In the Roman waterworks, messages were raised in relief on the lead pipes that fed fountains, baths, and private homes. As a rule, these short texts recorded the name of the emperor or the municipal official who had ordered and paid for the expansion of the water system.
To form these inscriptions, workers first created small individual molds for each letter in the Latin alphabet. They then spelled out the name of the emperor or official by selecting the appropriate letter molds, placing them into a carved slot in a stone slab. Ensuring that the molds lay flush with the surface of the stone, they locked the type into place and laid the stone slab on a large flat tray. Then they poured molten lead across slab and tray, forming a large metal sheet. Once cooled, the sheet could be rolled into a cylinder and soldered at the seam. On the pipe's contour, the emperor's name appeared in elevated letters.
The pipemakers' ingenuity in using movable type to form a line of text is eerily similar to the method used by Johannes Gutenberg and other European printers more than 1,000 years later. As Canadian classicist A. Trevor Hodge has noted, this overlooked Roman technology "tempts one into speculating how close the ancient world was to making the full-scale breakthrough into printing." But the Romans failed to capitalize on this remarkable invention.
Perhaps they were simply too immersed in the culture of carved and painted words to see the future of print—the real writing on the wall.