Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.09.63 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.09.63

Kristina Milnor, Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Pp. xvi, 311.  ISBN 9780199684618.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Sarah Levin-Richardson, University of Washington (


In her new book, Milnor explores the roles of literary elements (quotations of canonical literature, as well as literary language, content, and form) in Pompeian graffiti, applying literary criticism to graffiti studies and the material study of graffiti to literary studies. Each chapter investigates a handful of metrical graffiti on a particular theme, allowing Milnor to combine her skill at critical reading1 with comparisons to other graffiti and literature, and examination of physical context. Ultimately finding that individuals remixed elements of oral and written culture in graffiti for their own artistic and social purposes, Milnor advances our understanding of what literature meant to the general populace, while contributing to recent scholarship on the social and material contexts of ancient graffiti.2

Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii offers something for everyone. A novice to ancient graffiti (or even antiquity) will appreciate Milnor’s clear prose, ample introductory material to the culture of ancient graffiti writing, and the infrequency of untranslated Latin or Greek. Others will enjoy Milnor’s discussion (embedded throughout the book) of how literary texts represent and engage with materiality. This includes not only the portrayal of graffiti in literature (e.g., erotic wall graffiti in Pseudo-Lucian’s Erotes (p. 21); graffiti as political dissent in Cicero, Suetonius, Strabo, and others (p. 97-101, 119); graffiti as dangerous to wise men in Plutarch (p. 273-4)), but also, for example, Catullus’ disavowal of the epitaph format for his poem on the death of his brother (p. 62). I myself value her emphasis on the ways in which graffiti act upon readers, from how second-person forms within graffiti prohibiting dumping made them more effective (p. 53-4), to how the commendation of M. Terentius’ amicitia in CIL 4.4456 solidified bonds of beneficia between the writer and Terentius (p. 121-2).

Chapter 1 (“Landscape and Literature in the Roman City”) describes some of the fundamental characteristics of the written landscapes of ancient cities. Noting the proliferation of inscriptions commissioned by public officials and private benefactors, Milnor reminds us that ancient graffiti belong within this larger epigraphic context, rather than outside it (as she suggests is the case with modern graffiti, p. 53). She then shows some of the ways graffiti meld various epigraphic and literary genres and engage in complex dialectics with other texts and images in the cityscape. For example, she suggests that poetic quotations painted in the garden of the Caupona of Euxinus rounded out the Hellenistic, bucolic feel of the existing decoration and landscaping, with the effect of turning the space into a “literary landscape” which “allow[ed] the guests briefly to inhabit a pastoral idyll” (p. 93).

“Poetic Politics, Political Poetics” (chapter 2) explores how Pompeian politics, poetry, and wall writing intersect in ways we might not expect from reading literary sources that show graffiti being used for political dissent. For example, Milnor notes several instances where either oral or written poetry has been added to formulaic programmata to help advertise a candidate for office. Some include snippets of what may be political chants or popular poems, another adds a possible “jingle” in hexameter, and two programmata append elegiac couplets (CIL 4.6625 and 7201) that (like literary epigram, Milnor argues) help craft the personas of the candidates and model the ideal relationship between reader and candidate. While graffiti with overtly political content are rare at Pompeii, Milnor shows how they gain power through their resonances with political oratory, the comic stage, and even Greek tragedy, and how this authority can in turn be called upon by other graffiti nearby.

In her third chapter (“Authorship, Appropriation, Authenticity”), Milnor argues that Pompeian graffiti display a popular conception of authorship valuing anonymity, appropriation, and communal composition alongside the more conventional sense of an author as sole and proprietary composer. Even for a set of poems with the seemingly traditional authorship claim Tiburtinus epoese (CIL 4.4966-73), Milnor shows how the word epoese might evoke different modes of authorship, including the Hellenistic tradition of anthologizing, as well as both manufacturing and painting Greek pottery. In other cases, a set of poems written by an unknown individual (CIL 4.1893-6, 1898) combines existing poetry (Ovid and Propertius) with other verses to create new, thematically and linguistically connected poems, and some poems appear in multiple versions with unique endings added by individual writers. Raising the provocative question of whether we (or the ancient writer or reader) can determine where generic conventions end and personal sentiment begins in seemingly individualized, context-specific graffiti, Milnor demonstrates that there are marked similarities between some graffiti and private letters (both literary and those found at Vindolanda).

Chapter 4 (“Gender and Genre: The Case of CIL 4.5296”) turns to one of the most contested graffiti at Pompeii, a poem found inside the doorway of a small house that seems to be written from the perspective of a woman wooing another woman in the tradition of exclusus amator poetry. Milnor deploys literary analysis to critique past approaches that turn the poetic scenario into something other than female same-sex desire, convincingly arguing through close reading that that is exactly how we ought to read the poem. She emphasizes the poem’s careful and deliberate construction, the use of diminutives to indicate both a female speaker and feminine object of desire, and the representation of men (rather than women) as fickle lovers, which points to a female speaker. Milnor concludes by discussing spatial aspects pertaining to the graffito, including its placement within the decorative scheme of the entranceway and its relationship to other graffiti in that space.

While other scholars interpret Pompeian quotations of Virgil as evidence of Virgil’s role in the educational curriculum, or as indicating widespread literary engagement with the Aeneid, Milnor argues in her last chapter (“A Culture of Quotation: Virgil, Education, and Literary Ownership”) that Virgilian quotations were “broken down in the digestive system of Roman popular culture” (p. 262) and turned into oft-repeated taglines just like others at Pompeii.3 For example, she notes that a programma’s placement of Aeneid 1.1 (CIL 4.7131) below the abbreviation D.I.D.O. shows awareness of Dido’s role in the Aeneid; at the same time, 1.1 is not related to Dido, suggesting incomplete familiarity with the Aeneid. Here the quotation extends the visual footprint of the programma and draws upon the esteem granted by literature. A more creative engagement can be seen in the remix fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumque, “I sing the fullers and the screech owl, not arms and the man” (CIL 4.9131), which seems to respond to a nearby fresco of Aeneas and a programma where a certain Fabius Ululitremulus (“owl-fearer”) supports candidates for office. The fact that the majority of other quotations from the Aeneid and Eclogues come from speeches both displays interest in the communicative potential of literary genres and perhaps explains the absence of the Georgics, which has comparatively few speeches. An appendix of all Virgilian quotations from Pompeii follows.

Occasionally, I found that Milnor would push an argument beyond what seems plausible (to me). For example, while I was convinced by most of her analysis of epistolary appropriation in graffiti, I was not persuaded that the nearly 170 graffiti of the type “x sends greetings to y” should necessarily be read as “suggest[ing] not only that a certain number of people were familiar with the forms and traditions of epistolography, but that they were able to transfer the sense of themselves as authors which they found there—and which finds its most succinct verbal expression in the letter’s opening formula—to the writing of graffiti” (p. 167). In addition, I had hoped for Milnor to present non-literary graffiti with the same nuance as she does literary graffiti. So, for example, when she summarizes that “Pompeian graffiti writers show an abiding interest….not just in crude erotic words and images, but in ‘poetic’ expressions of desire which ring familiar from more overtly literary contexts” (p. 192), Milnor glosses over the complexity of sexual graffiti.4 Likewise, I wished for Milnor to engage more fully with current scholarship on Pompeian graffiti,5 as in her discussion of how CIL 4.5296 respects the decorative scheme of the entrance hallway (p. 219-20); this could have been framed within Benefiel’s work on the ubiquity of graffiti in houses, including this very phenomenon.6 In both cases, readers may come away with an impression of Pompeian graffiti and scholarship thereon as less complex and nuanced than they are.

Factual errors and infelicities are few: e.g., Vetii for Vettii (p. 92), boarder for border (p. 128 and 220), CIL 4.6641 is said to be outside the Nocera rather than Vesuvius gate (p. 52, although the caption to figure 1.1 is correct); the index lists CIL 4.10070 on p. 197, but it is on p. 240.

In sum, Milnor’s book is a welcome addition to the field of graffiti studies. Of greatest value are her discussions of Pompeii’s non-canonical notion of authorship, and the use of formulaic or even entirely appropriated texts in seemingly personalized graffiti.


1.   For which, see Milnor, K. 2002. “Sulpicia’s (Corpo)reality: Elegy, Authorship, and the Body in [Tibullus] 3.13.” Classical Antiquity 21: 259-82.
2.   Recent volumes include Baird, J. and C. Taylor, eds. 2011. Ancient Graffiti in Context. New York: Routledge; Keegan, P. 2014. Graffiti in Antiquity. New York: Routledge.
3.   Building from her analysis of the Aeneid in Milnor, K. 2009. “Literary Literacy in Roman Pompeii: The Case of Virgil’s Aeneid.” In Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, eds. W. A. Johnson and H. N. Parker, 288-319. New York: Oxford.
4.   See Varone, A. 1994. Erotica pompeiana: Iscrizioni d’amore sui muri di Pompei. Rome: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider.
5.   There is a rich body of work on topics such as political subversion and the popular voice (Zadorojnyi, A. 2011. “Transcripts of Dissent? Political Graffiti and Elite Ideology Under the Principate.” In Ancient Graffiti in Context, eds. J. Baird and C. Taylor, 110-33. New York: Routledge), the role of graffiti in the domestic sphere (Benefiel, R. 2010. “Dialogues of Ancient Graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii.” American Journal of Archaeology 114: 59-101), children’s graffiti (Huntley, K. 2011. “Identifying Children’s Graffiti in Roman Campania: A Developmental Psychological Approach.” In Ancient Graffiti in Context, eds. J. Baird and C. Taylor, 69-89. New York: Routledge), female authorship (Levin-Richardson, S. 2013. “fututa sum hic: Female Subjectivity and Agency in Pompeian Sexual Graffiti.” Classical Journal 108: 319-45), and play with personas and rhetoric (Williams, C. 2010. Roman Homosexuality. Second Edition. New York: Oxford; Levin-Richardson, S. 2011. “Facilis hic futuit: Graffiti and Masculinity in Pompeii’s ‘Purpose-built’ Brothel.” Helios 38: 59-78).
6.   See n.5.

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