Etched in the ruins of cities leveled by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius are words and phrases. In some cases, the marks are simple greetings and political endorsements. In others, the words suggest a game where one person began a line of text and others followed, collectively writing a story line by line. And sometimes, only a single word remains, but it signals that a poem from Virgil or Ovid likely once graced the walls.
Hannah Maddy, ’16, spent her summer looking for these fragments of poetry among the surviving pillars and plaster of ancient Rome. Her work largely involved sifting through the tens of thousands of records in a catalog called the CIL. Every record includes sketches of graffiti, as well as notes on their locations and possible meaning.
Much of Maddy’s records research began with one simple question: Is this poetry?
“A lot of the graffiti records are just someone’s name, and some are pictures and numbers, and sometimes they just wrote alphabets out on the walls. You can easily eliminate those,” she says. “I always stop to look at ones that are in lines; it kind of looks like poetry.”
“A lot of them aren’t in meter. They could be just one word, but it’s recorded as meter because it’s a word from a really famous poem.”
Maddy learned to spot the text of true poetry thanks to an earlier summer project with classics professor Erika Zimmerman Damer, who is working on a book about the human body in Roman love poetry. Maddy assisted Damer by combing through poems in search of words like blood, arms, crying, and heart. Her spreadsheet quickly filled with hundreds of references, each representing a poet’s use of the physical body to give life to their feelings of love.
“It’s really interesting because it seems very lovey. The language is nice and it seems, at first, that it’s very romantic,” Maddy says. “But it’s not. The poets are distraught with love for this one girl, usually. It seems really cute, but it gets a little crazy.”
As Maddy later searched for references to these and other poems in the CIL, she also looked for clusters — instances where the same works were featured repeatedly in areas of Pompeii. As an Undergraduate Humanities Fellow, she’s continuing her research this semester by plotting each instance of poetry on a digital map of the city started by archaeologist Eric Poehler. Users will be able to zoom in on a region, city block, or individual doorway and see the text of a single instance of graffito.
No one really knows why these poems began appearing on the walls of Roman homes. Graffiti was common in many households, considered part of the décor. But the frequency that Maddy found poetry in graffiti suggests a higher than expected level of literacy among the ancient citizens.
“Literature is written by educated people, but graffiti is not necessarily,” she says. “It could have been educated people writing on their walls, but at the same time, things in the streets could have been anyone. It could have been slaves. It could have been women. It could have been children. That tells you something. Maybe they didn’t read them, but maybe they heard them somewhere. You don’t think of lower classes as having that kind of knowledge, but this suggests they might have.”