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."