When you think about graffiti, what mental associations come to mind? For some people graffiti is a medium to express an artistic outlet, while for others graffiti is associated with juvenile delinquency. In the world of archeology, unearthing graffiti from an older period is a cherished discovery. The graffiti pictured below is a caricature of an ancient Roman emperor. In ancient Roman times, wearing a wreath symbolized that the person was a victor or powerful person. Ancient Roman generals often wore laurel wreaths in victory parades and emperors would often be minted on coins with a laurel wreath. What’s interesting about this graffiti is that the person left his signature above his unflattering portrait of the emperor. As of yet this person may be one of the first caricature artists in the world!
The ancient Romans were definitely not shy when it came to insulting people. This graffiti reads as “Dominus est non gradus anus rodentum”, which can be interpreted as “The Lord/Sire is not worth a rat’s a**”. There are lots of examples of graffiti of this kind, where people vented their frustrations and hatred of other individuals. In some ways, the graffiti of ancient Rome is like a mirror into people’s thoughts. Through the graffiti we know the morals of the time. For example, there are several graffiti scratchings that were uncovered in Pompeii. Some of these were sexual in nature and used to insult individuals. From these scratchings we have some idea of what the ancient Romans thought about certain sexual practices.
Graffiti is also important to scholars because they confirm events that occurred in history. This drawing and inscription of a Viking ship was found in Pompeii. Perhaps someone saw a Viking ship and decided to draw it in a public space; or perhaps the person overheard a rumor about a Viking ship and wanted to warn others. It’s sometimes difficult to understand the motivation for why someone would be compelled to draw or write something; especially when it’s left for others to view. However, these types of graffiti are significant to scholars because they bring up the possibility that certain events may have occurred in ancient Roman history. In this particular case, it may be that the person drew a Viking ship in the mist of an invasion by the Vikings. Of course, one can’t be terribly sure because no dates were left near the drawing.
One of the reasons why ancient Roman graffiti is so valuable to scholars is because it was created by a segment of society that was hardly mentioned in the epic poetry, literature and culture of ancient Rome. Let’s face it; the lower classes did not write epic poetry or literature. That’s because writing poetry full time was only possible if you had a generous patron. Therefore, one of ways we can get a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of the plebian class is through the graffiti.