In archaeological terms graffiti (plural of graffito) is a mark, image or writing, scratched or engraved into a surface. There have been numerous examples found on sites of the Roman Empire, including taverns and houses, as well as on pottery of the time. In many cases the graffiti tend toward the rude, with a line etched into the basilica in Pompeii reading "Lucilla made money from her body," phallic images, as well as erotic pictures. Studying the graffiti left behind from the Roman Period can give a better understanding of the daily life and attitudes of the Roman people with conclusions drawn about how everyday Romans talked, where they spent their time, and their interactions within those spaces.
Inscriptions cover a range of topics from poems, advertisements, political statements, to greetings. There are two forms of graffiti: painted inscriptions (usually public notices) and inscribed inscriptions (spontaneous messages).
Over 11,000 graffiti samples have been uncovered in the excavations of Pompeii. Archaeologists have been studying and recording graffiti in Pompeii since the 1800s. These documentations remain the best evidence of over 90 percent of recorded graffiti from the area, which has not survived the elements.
This domestic residence shows that ancient graffiti was not limited to the public sphere, as graffiti is in modern day. This site, discovered in the 1960s has benefited from preservation efforts leaving the graffiti samples in their original context and remain legible. There is a unique feature of eleven graffiti containing multiple lines of poetry. For the most part the poems are arranged vertically and respect the space of the others. This mix of original work and common phases are not a miscellaneous group because of the number and composition, instead it appears that a conversation has formed.
One passage on the staircase reads:
vasia quae rapui, quaeris formosa puella
accipe quae rapui non ego solus; ama.
quisquis amat valeat
Which translates to:
Beautiful girl, you seek the kisses that I stole.
Receive what I was not alone in taking; love.
Whoever loves, may she fare well.
An example here demonstrates a familiarity with Virgil and hexameter verse. On the doorpost of the shop near pictures of Aeneas and Romulus is written:
Fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumque.
I sing of cloth-launderers and an owl, not arms and a man.
The owl is a signifier of Minerva, the goddess who has been said to be protector over the profession of fullones.
Mary Beard notes that there are more than fifty examples of graffiti referencing Virgil in Pompeii, alone, but also notes that the majority of the references are to the opening lines of Book 1 or Book 2 of the Aeneid, suggesting that these lines may have been widely known in the fashion "To be, or not to be" is known today.
Graffiti is often meant to be seen and expects to be read. A dialogue is formed between the reader and the inscription and can be simple as they speak directly to the readers in forms such as “if anyone sits here, let him read this before everything else…" as well as “He who writes this is in love… and I who reads this am a prick."
There are also dialogues where one passage answers another. These responses take the forms of greetings, insults, prayers, etc.
Successus textor amat coponiaes ancilla(m)
nomine Hiredem quae quidem illum
non curat sed ille rogat illa com(m)iseretur
scribit rivalis vale
Translates to :
Successus the weaver is in love with the slave of the
Innkeeper, whose name is Iris. She doesn't care about
him at all, but he asks that she take pity on him.
A rival wrote this
A response to this translates to:
You're so jealous you're bursting. Don't tear down
someone more handsome―
a guy who could beat you up and who is good-looking.
Word squares (magic square) and riddles are also common forms of the culture of graffiti. These show a level of mental agility and flexibility of language.
Examples of handwritten alphabets are common graffiti in Pompeii and could be evidence of children practicing their alphabet. This lends to the argument that children were responsible for much of the graffiti. However, the height of the inscriptions and location may contradict this.
Writing around 100 A.D., Plutarch wrote of graffiti: "There is nothing written in them which is either useful or pleasing – only so-and-so 'remembers' so-and-so, and 'wishes him the best', and is 'the best of his friends', and many things full of such ridiculousness".
21st Century scholars have found more to study and enjoy in the visual art and intertextuality of Roman graffiti.
More than simply text and thought, Roman graffiti give insight into the use of space and how people interacted within it. Studying the motivation behind the marks reveals a trend for the graffiti to be located where people spend time and pass most frequently as they move through a space. Common places for graffiti are staircases, central peristyle, and vestibule. The use of graffiti by Romans has been said to be very different from the defacing trends of modern day, with the text blending into the walls and rooms by respecting the frescoes and decoration with the use of small letters. In this way, the environment influences the graffiti by subject and organization, and the graffiti in turn changes and influences the environment.
Typical techniques when studying graffiti include drawing each inscription and taking photographs if special attention is required. When only a shadow of the engravings are visible to the naked eye, other methods of observance are needed to decipher the engravings.
Using 3D Laser Profilmetry to analyze the roughness of a surface, archaeologists have been able to determine the tools used in engraving. This technique merged with photographs taken with oblique light, different lighting conditions, and results from electrostatic detection devices have increased the readability of illegible inscriptions.