BMCR 2022.02.26

Oltre Pompei. Graffiti e altre iscrizioni oscene dall’Impero Romano d’Occidente

, , Oltre Pompei. Graffiti e altre iscrizioni oscene dall'Impero Romano d'Occidente. The seeds of Triptolemus. Roma: Deinotera Editrice, 2021. Pp. 150. ISBN 9788889951293. €16,00.

This volume is the first of a series called The Seeds of Triptolemus published under the scientific supervision of the University of Pavia and the University of Cyprus. It is an anthology of 23 epigraphical documents characterized by the use of vulgar and obscene words typical of the spoken language. This kind of expressions is well known in the Vesuvian cities, but less known in other parts and eras of the Roman world. Thus the aim of this study is to provide a testimony of this kind of language beyond Pompeii, as the title suggests, in order to document the use of popular and vulgar Latin all across the Empire and the centuries. The inscriptions are not always easy to understand despite their brevity, and they are accompanied by an Italian translation that has the merit of maintaining the original meaning of the words without censorship: i.e. culus is translated as culo, cunnus as figa, mentula as cazzo, merda as merda, futuere as scopare, and so on.

But what did obscene mean in the ancient world? This topic is clarified in the Introduction. The obscenitas is mainly connected with sexual behaviours and physiological functions and their description is rendered through vulgar words. As Marcus Terentius Varro wrote in his De Lingua Latina 7, 96 «Quare turpe ideo obscaenum, quod nisi in scaena palam dici non debet»: only during theatrical performances could that kind of language be used, in the sphere of entertainment, amusement, satire and joke, but it was exploited also in order to offend, insult and attack somebody.

In parts 2–5 of the Introduction the authors provide information on the typology, chronology, places and language of the inscriptions. The majority of these consist of graffiti by ordinary people that are found in private and public buildings and cover a time frame from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD. Their geographical distribution includes Rome and other cities in Italy, but the authors provide examples also from provinces like Pannonia Superior, Germania Superior, Gallia Belgica, Lusitania and Numidia. In part 3, Luoghi e Protagonisti, there are eight themes (1, speaking objects representing the erected penis; 2, public and private toilets and cacatores; 3, baths; 4, sanctuaries; 5, houses; 6, figlinae; 7. bellum perusinum and the funditores; 8. a history of a meretrix from Bulla Regia). Despite the partitioning of themes, inscriptions are presented in the anthology through geographical criteria, from southern to northern Italy, and from eastern to western and northern to southern provinces.

Chapter 2 contains the 23 documents, presented with comments focusing on philological and linguistical aspects with many interesting remarks, and here we can cite some of them as examples. The first epigraphical document concerns a person who, after defecating in a latrina in Stabiae, chose to stay dirty: cacavi et culu(m) non extersi, i.e. I shat and didn’t wipe my ass. In the comment is pointed out how culus is seldom used in Latin texts and appears only in obscene contexts, while the expression culu(m) … extersi seems to be a unique testimony. This graffiti is accompanied by a drawing of a person who seems to be portrayed while doing what is being described in the text. But what does it mean? There are many possibilities pointed out by the authors: it could be a simple joke, or perhaps it could be a kind of protest due to a lack of water supply or the unavailability of a sponge.

In the Iseum under the basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome, in a context of religious graffiti, we have some with erotic contents illustrated in Texts number 7. In the first one, the verb irrumo indicates a fellatio that a man wants to impose on other men. Here is the cognomen Faustus, the nomen Oppius and the cognomen Rufus.  These are not necessarily three different men, they might as well have been two: the first might have been Faustus and the second Oppius Rufus. The other graffito is left-handed and the anonymous author begs to be buggered (rogo te, pedica me). This is quite interesting, since the opening with the use of the verb rogo could be associated to a prayer in the religious context of the Iseum.

Text number 10 is an inscription in which a pavimentarius named Aurelius wishes a good life to those skilled in sexual activities (Aurelius pavimentar/ius bene futuentibus / vitam; CIL XI, 6730,3). The noun pavimentarius is very rare and refers to the maker of a pavimentum; we know that in Rome there was a collegium pavimentariorum (CIL VI, 243).

At number 11 we have a bullet belonging to the bellum perusinum period (41-40 BC) thrown by Octavianus’ troops at Antonius’ army. It contains an insult directed towards Antonius’ wife Fulvia: peto / [la]ndicam / Fulviae (CIL XI, 6721,5), which might translate into “I head to Fulvia’s clitoris.” Despite Fulvia not being in Perusia during the siege, it is clear that the insult was meant to mock Antonius. We also have documents belonging to the other side, for example the bullet CIL XI, 6721,7: pet(̣o) / Octav[i]a(ni) / culu͡m, i.e. “I head to Octavianus’ ass.”

Number 17 is a bas-relief of a penis from Vindonissa (Germania Superior), where a graffito engraved maybe at a later stage by an anonymous wayfarer contains a message of sexual arousal: abui (!) treṃ/orem. Also at number 18 we have a penis, but in this case it was perhaps an oscillum or a lucerna, made by an unknown Maturix. Here the graffito insists on the huge dimensions of the gonad of an unknown Mainaxus (AE 2005, 1054; AE 2017, 984): this is the only known testimony of this cognomen.

The volume ends with a rich bibliography, epigraphical and literary indexes and some white pages where readers may write down their own annotations.

Oltre Pompei is an interesting essay that may be included in the field of historical study of the Latin language. The comments are attentive to syntactic and phonetic issues, and they pay attention to the different contexts were the obscene words are used. In conclusion, Oltre Pompei is a work that finds its ideal collocation next to the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae due to the authors’ effort to deal with complex philological, grammatical and lexicographical aspects.