The Romans, believe it or not, had sex. What’s more they liked to tell each other about, in the form of graffiti. This graffiti is more than just vandalism, as it gives us an insight to the current thoughts of that person, as in that moment they decided to honour us with their sexual conquests. [i]
Compared to modern day, graffiti in Roman times was much more challenging, as there was time and effort put into carving out your sexual slurs on the side of your local brothel. We’ve all seen life of Brian and understand the difficulties of complex Latin grammar.
There was a variety of graffiti in Roman times, ranging from inscriptions to wall paintings depicting erotic scenes. All of this gives a great insight into what made your average Roman laugh. There is however major a major difficulty when it comes to understanding the complexity of Roman humour as the range of sources provides a variety of insights. This issue is due to the grotesque abusive nature of which men discuss graphically their latest sexual ventures. This makes it difficult to understand the humour as in modern context it is socially and morally unacceptable.[ii] What is more is we get to see the value of women amongst Roman society, as these inscriptions suggest that they were not necessarily of the highest social class.
It is very difficult to get a true idea of women in Rome and their laughter, as in Roman literature their humour is relatively scarce. It is safe to say that the abusive tone of some of the inscriptions present around Pompeii would have most definitely not made them laugh. The most that we know about women is that they did not laugh, but ‘giggle’ and their voiceless presence in inscriptions.[iii] There is a mutual understanding that it safer to truly display your humour in inscriptions rather than in literature as you were able to remain anonymous.
Inscriptions have less restrictions and limits in regards to reliability, as they are essentially done by your average Roman pleb; with the assumption that they were mostly written by men. We also get a lot of Roman inscriptions from Pompeii, which demonstrate the level of literacy of the anonymous writer, and allow historians to distinguish the possible class of the author, and relate to the influence of oral pronunciation on spelling. [iv]
When comparing the presentation of women in literature to the representation of women in inscriptions you get a massively different image. You rarely hear about higher class women in inscriptions, as they mostly discuss things of a sexual nature, meaning the women they mention are most likely prostitutes/mistresses. In an inscription found in the house of Vetti, to the right of the doorway reads;
“Here I now fucked a girl with a beautiful body, praised by many, but there was muck inside”[v]
There is a major boastful voice to this inscription, as they brag about sleeping with a girl (most likely a prostitute) with such a beautiful body.[vi] However the tone changes towards the end, as she is describe as a beautiful woman on the outside is not very beautiful inside. This is possibly alluding to some form of STD, or perhaps insinuating she has slept with multiple people. This vulgarity would have made the Romans laugh purely due to the sexual nature, and just generally impressed.
The inscription demonstrates the values of Romans and their priorities, as instead of being concerned about what this woman may possibly have, this mad is more focused on alerting others on his ‘achievements.’ It obviously not one hundred percent assured that this was written after having intercourse with a woman, it could merely be for the purpose of making someone laugh as they pass by and read this inscription. However the boastful proud voice suggests that he was focused on telling others of his achievements.
So, how does this differ to modern day? Surprisingly there are some parallels in the form of social media, as message sent via apps such as Facebook, Snapchat, Whatsapp etc are all out there for the world to see and risk being exposed to everyone. A major difference being the Romans told everyone in the town by choice, only anonymously. For example, you might not expect for your lads group chat to get exposed to the whole nation as it may contain things you did not necessarily want others to see.
So I guess what I am saying is have the views on women really been changed? As the value of women has certainly increased but there is still a theme of women being treated as objects, only not necessarily done so for the purpose of humour.
The presence of Roman graffiti certainly holds great precedence in Roman society, and tells us a lot about the more vulgar and graphic humour of the average pleb.
[i] Gach () 287
[ii] Richlin (1992) 81
[iii] Beard (2014) 157
[iv] Levin-Richardson (2019)
[v] Dutsch and Suter (2015) 240
[vi] Richlin (1992) 82
Beard, M. (2014) Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking up. University of California Press.
Gach, V. (1973) ‘Graffiti,’ College English Vol. 35. No. 3. Pages 285-287.
Levin-Richardson, S. (2019) The brothel of Pompeii, Sex class and gender at the Margins of Roman society. Cambridge University press.
Richlin, A. (1992) The garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor. Oxford University Press.