Roman mail coach

There was no postal service or mail delivery in ancient times. A person who wrote a letter had to track someone down who was heading to the same destination as the letter and that someone had to be persuaded and given incentive or money to deliver it.

One letter received in the A.D. 2nd century read: "I was delighted to get your letter, which was given to me by the sword maker; the one you say you sent with Platon's son, I haven't got." Another read; "I sent you two other letters, one by Nedymos and one by Kronios, the armed guard. I've received the one you sent with an Arab."

One daughter in Egypt wrote her mother: "I found no way I could get to you, since the camel-drivers didn't want to go to Oxyrhynchus. Not only that, I also went up to Antinoe to take a boat, but didn't find any. So now I've thought it best to forward the baggage to Antonoe and wait there til I can find a boat and sail. Please give the bearers of this letter 2 talents and 300 pay for transportation...If you you don't have it at hand borrow it...and pay them, since they can't wait around even an hour."

There were no addresses and only the main streets had names. People dropping off letters had to be given careful instructions on where to deliver it. One set of instruction read, "From Moon gate walks as if toward the granaries...and at the first street in back of the baths turn left...Then go west. Then go to the steps and up the other steps and turn right. After the temple precinct there is a seven story house with a basket-weaving establishment. Inquire there from the concierge...Then give a shout."

The only postal system was for government couriers, who were often slaves. The words diplomacy and diploma come from the Greek word diploma , which means "doubled" or "folded." This was a reference to how special messages were folded and sealed to be kept secret. The Romans placed important documents on a bronze diptych and were folded shut and sealed. Bronze seals with names of homeowners and administrators have been found.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Codes and Signals in the Roman Empire

Roman signal station

Adam Hart-Davis wrote for the BBC: “The Romans had clever signalling systems. On Hadrian's Wall an alphabetic system was used based on two groups of five flags, which allowed them to send messages letter by letter, and was similar to the system developed in England at the end of the eighteenth century. [Source: Adam Hart-Davis, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The Romans also had a coded system, with which they could send only one of a dozen fixed messages, depending on the time for which they showed a flag. The sender and receiver would have the same code book and identical water clocks, marked perhaps with numbers. |::|

“To send message VI in the book, raise your flag (or flaming torch at night), wait until the receiver raises a flag to acknowledge, then lower your flag, and raise it again, starting your clock as you raise the flag. When your flag points to VI, lower your flag again. The receiver should have started the clock when the flag went up for the second time, and stopped it when the flag went down; the number VI will reveal the message. The idea of using codes like this was taken up by the French, also at the end of the eighteenth century.” |::|

Letters in the Roman Era

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Sending Letters. For long distances, especially over seas, sending letters by special messengers was very expensive, and, except for the most urgent matters, recourse was had to traders and travelers going in the desired direction. Persons sending messengers or intending to travel themselves made it a point of honor to notify their friends in time for letters to be prepared; they also carried letters for entire strangers, if requested to do so. There was great danger, of course, that letters sent in this way might fall into the wrong hands or be lost. It was customary, therefore, to send a copy of an important letter (litterae eodem exemplo, uno exemplo), or at least an abstract of its contents, by another person and, if possible, by a different route. It was also possible to disguise the meaning by the use of fictitious names known to the correspondents only or by the employment of regular cipher codes. Suetonius tells us that Caesar simply substituted for each letter the one that stood three places lower in the alphabet (D for A, E for B, etc.), but elaborate and intricate systems were also in use. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

letter on a writing tablet from the British military outpost of Vindolanda

“Writing the Letter. The extensive correspondence carried on by every Roman of position made it impossible for him to write with his own hand any but the most important of his letters or those to his dearest friends. The place of the stenographer and writing machine of today was taken by slaves or freedmen, often highly educated, who wrote at his dictation. Such slaves were called in general terms librarii, more accurately servi ab epistulis, servi a manu, or amanuenses. Notes and short letters were written on tablets of firwood or ivory of various sizes, often fastened together in sets of two or more by wire hinges (codicilli, pugillare). The inner faces were slightly hollowed out, and the depression was nearly filled with wax, so as to leave a raised rim about the edges, much like the frame of an old-fashioned slate. Upon the wax the letters were traced with an ivory, bone, or metal tool (stilus, graphium) which had one end pointed like a pencil, for writing, and the other broad and flat, like a paper cutter, for smoothing the wax. With the flat end mistakes could be corrected or the whole letter erased and the tablets used again, often for the reply to the letter itself. Such tablets were used not only for letters, but also for the schoolboy’s exercises and for business documents. For longer communications the Romans used a coarse “paper” (papyrus). Upon it they wrote with pens made of split reeds and with a thick ink made of soot (lampblack) mixed with resinous gums. Paper, pens, and ink were poor, and papyrus expensive, and the bulky tablets, which could be used again, were preferred for all but the longest letters. Parchment did not come into general use until the fourth or fifth century of our era. |+|

“Sealing and Opening of Letters. For sealing the letter, thread (linum), wax (cera), and a seal (signum) were necessary. The seal not only secured the letter against improper inspection, but also attested the genuineness of those written by the librarii; autograph signatures seem not to have been thought of. The tablets were put together face to face with the writing on the inside, and the thread was passed around them and through small holes bored through them, and was then securely tied. Upon the knot softened wax was dropped and to this the seal was applied. Letters written on sheets of papyrus (schedae) were rolled longitudinally and then secured in the same way. On the outside was written the name of the person addressed, with, perhaps, the place where he was to be found, if the letter was not sent by a special messenger. When the letter was opened, care was taken not to break the seal; the cutting of the thread gave access to the contents. If the letter was preserved, the seal was kept attached to it in order to attest its authenticity. In the fifth chapter of the Third Oration against Catiline Cicero describes the opening of a letter.” |+|

Roman Social Media

Tom Standage wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The exchange of media along social networks of friends and acquaintances is in fact much older than Facebook, Twitter or MySpace. Consider the situation in the late Roman republic, in the 1st century B.C. At the time there were no printing presses and no paper. Instead, information circulated among the intermarried families of the Roman elite through the exchange of papyrus rolls. The correspondence of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, the best preserved collection of letters from the period, shows that he and his friends wrote to one another constantly, recounting the latest political machinations, passing on items of interest from others and providing commentary and opinion. [Source: Tom Standage, Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2013. Standage is the digital editor at the Economist and author of “A History of the World in 6 Glasses and Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years” (Bloomsbury USA, 2013), ***]


““I sent you on March 24th a copy of Balbus’ letter to me and of Caesar’s letter to him,” Cicero wrote to a friend in one typical example. Letters were commonly copied, shared and quoted in other letters. Some missives were addressed to several people and were intended to be read aloud or posted in public. When Cicero or another politician made a noteworthy speech, he would distribute it by making copies available to his associates, who would read it and pass it on to others. Many more people might then read the speech than had heard it being delivered in person. “Books circulated in a similar way, as sets of papyrus rolls passed from one reader to the next. Anyone who wished to retain a copy of a speech or book would have it copied by scribes before passing it on. People in Rome also sent their friends excerpts from the state gazette, a bulletin posted in the Forum each day containing official announcements and summaries of political debates. ***

“With information flitting from one person to another, this informal system enabled information to reach the farthest corners of the Roman world within a few weeks. News from Rome took about five weeks to reach Britain in the west and seven weeks to reach Syria in the east. Merchants, soldiers and officials in distant parts would circulate information from the heart of the republic within their own social circles, sharing extracts from letters, speeches or the state gazette with their friends and passing news and rumors from the frontier back to their contacts in Rome. This was a world in which people gathered, filtered and distributed information for their friends. It was, in short, a social media system. ***

“In many respects, the emergence of Internet-based social media in recent years is therefore a return to the way things used to be. These similarities can be instructive because it turns out that ancient forms of social media prompted many of the same questions that Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the rest have raised today. Do new forms of social media lead to a trivialisation and coarsening of public discourse, for example? How should those in authority respond when they face criticism in social media? To what extent can social media help bring about political change? Is it all just a distracting waste of time? The deepest lesson is that when you send a tweet or share a link on Facebook, you are continuing a deep and rich tradition of person-to-person sharing that goes back to Roman times, more than 2,000 years ago. Social media does not simply link us to each other today - it also links us to the past.” ***

As Cicero said: “Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.”

Spread of Information in the Roman Era

Tom Standage wrote in his book “Writing on the Wall”: “In July 51 B.C. the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero arrived in Cilicia, in what is now southeast Turkey, to take up the post of proconsul, or regional governor. Cicero had been deeply reluctant to leave the bustle of Rome, where he was a central figure in the plotting and counterplotting of Roman politics, and he intended to return as soon as was decently possible. The burning question of the day was whether Julius Caesar, commander of Rome’s armies in the west, would make a grab for power by marching on the city. Cicero had spent his career trying to defend the political system of the Roman republic, with its careful division of powers and strict limits on the authority of any individual, from Caesar and others who wished to centralize power and seize it for themselves. But a new anticorruption law required Cicero and other trustworthy elder statesmen to take up posts as provincial governors. Fortunately, even in distant Cilicia, Cicero had the means to stay in touch with the goings- on in Rome— because the Roman elite had developed an elaborate system to distribute information.

“At the time there were no printing presses and no paper. Instead, information circulated through the exchange of letters and other documents which were copied, commented on, and shared with others in the form of papyrus rolls. Cicero’s own correspondence, one of the best- preserved collections of letters from the period, shows that he exchanged letters constantly with his friends elsewhere, keeping them up to date with the latest political machinations, passing on items of interest from others, and providing his own commentary and opinions. Letters were often copied, shared, and quoted in other letters. Some letters were addressed to several people and were written to be read aloud, or to be posted in public for general consumption.

“When Cicero or another politician made a noteworthy speech, he could distribute it by making copies available to his close associates, who would read it and pass it on to others. Many more people might then read the speech than had heard it being delivered. Books circulated in a similar way, as sets of papyrus rolls passed from person to person. Anyone who wished to retain a copy of a speech or book would have it transcribed by scribes before passing it on. Copies also circulated of the acta diurna (the “daily acts,” or state gazette), the original of which was posted on a board in the Forum in Rome each day and contained summaries of political debates, proposals for new laws, announcements of births and deaths, the dates of public holidays, and other official information. As he departed for Cilicia, Cicero asked his friend and protégé Marcus Caelius Rufus to send him copies of each day’s gazette along with his letters. But this would be just part of Cicero’s information supply. “Others will write, many will bring me news, much too will reach me even in the way of rumor,” Cicero wrote.

“With information flitting from one correspondent to another, this informal system enabled information to penetrate to the farthest provinces within a few weeks at most. News from Rome took around five weeks to reach Britain in the west and seven weeks to reach Syria in the east. Merchants, soldiers, and officials in distant parts would circulate information from the heart of the republic within their own social circles, sharing extracts from letters, speeches, or the state gazette with their friends and passing news and rumors from the frontier back to their contacts in Rome. There was no formal postal service, so letters had to be carried by messengers or given to friends, traders, or travelers heading in the right direction. The result was that Cicero, along with other members of the Roman elite, was kept informed by a web of contacts— the members of his social circle— all of whom gathered, filtered, and distributed information for each other. To modern eyes this all seems strangely familiar. Cicero was, to use today’s Internet jargon, participating in a “social media” system: that is, an environment in which information was passed from one person to another along social connections, to create a distributed discussion or community. The Romans did it with papyrus rolls and messengers; today hundreds of millions of people do the same things rather more quickly and easily using Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other Internet tools. The technologies involved are very different, but these two forms of social media, separated by two millennia, share many of the same underlying structures and dynamics: they are two- way, conversational environments in which information passes horizontally from one person to another along social networks, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source.”

Propaganda and Barbarians

chained Germanic barbarian

Propaganda is regarded as a relatively modern invention, but over 2,000 years ago Romans were already raising 'spin' to a high art. Dr Neil Faulkner wrote for the BBC: “All empire-builders have to justify what they do - to themselves, to their own people, and to those they dominate. The Romans developed a sophisticated world-view which they projected successfully through literature, inscriptions, architecture, art, and elaborate public ceremonial. [Source: Dr Neil Faulkner, BBC, February 17, 2011. Dr Faulkner is an honorary lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. |::|]

“Some elements of this world-view evolved during the existence of the empire, most notably with the adoption of Christianity in the early fourth century AD. Other themes remained constant. Perhaps the most important of the latter was the idea that Rome represented peace, good government, and the rule of law. The societies with which Rome was in conflict were caricatured as barbaric, lawless and dangerous. |::|

“Julius Caesar, in his famous account of the Gallic Wars of the 50s B.C., provided readers at home with a blood-curdling description of the Germanic tribes he encountered in battle: 'The various tribes regard it as their greatest glory to lay waste as much as possible of the land around them and to keep it uninhabited. They hold it a proof of a people's valour to drive their neighbours from their homes, so that no-one dare settle near them. No discredit attaches to plundering raids outside tribal frontiers. The Germans say that they serve to keep young men in training and prevent them from getting lazy.' |::|

Roman Mission: Civilizing the Uncivilized

Dr Neil Faulkner wrote for the BBC: “Barbaricum was not only a place of perpetual strife. There was also grinding poverty and cultural backwardness. Describing the Caledonian tribes of ancient Scotland in the early third century AD, Dio Cassius wrote: 'They inhabit wild, waterless mountains and lonely, swampy plains, without walls, cities, or cultivated land. They live by pasturing flocks, hunting, and off certain fruits. They live in tents, unclothed and unshod, sharing their women and bringing up all their children together.' [Source: Dr Neil Faulkner, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Clearly, the implication seems to be, such people could not but benefit from Roman rule. But even those already civilised - those, indeed, whom many Romans recognised as more civilised than themselves - stood to gain. |There is a famous passage in Virgil's Aeneid, written in the reign of the first emperor, Augustus (30 B.C. - 14 AD), where the achievements of the Greeks are acknowledged, but their need of Roman government asserted. |::|

“'Others [that is, Greeks] shall hammer forth more delicately a breathing likeness out of bronze, coax living faces from the marble, plead causes with more skill, plot with their gauge the movements in the sky and tell the rising of the constellations. |'But you, Roman, must remember that you have to guide the nations by your authority, for this is to be your skill, to graft tradition onto peace, to spare those who submit, but to crush those who resist.'” |::|

Hadrian: Propaganda. Commonwealth and Consolidation

Hadrian dressed like a Greek

Dr Neil Faulkner wrote for the BBC: “At first, the principal audience for Roman imperial propaganda had been only a minority of the empire's population - mainly soldiers, the inhabitants of Rome and Italy, and Roman citizens living in colonies and provincial towns. |At this time, the empire was still expanding, and the role of the emperor as generalissimo was emphasised. But from the time of the emperor Hadrian (117 - 138 AD), aggressive wars all but ceased, and the empire was consolidated on existing frontiers. “As well as stressing the role of the emperor as civil ruler, Roman propagandists henceforward developed a more rounded and inclusive view of what it meant to be part of the empire. [Source: Dr Neil Faulkner, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Greek culture was embraced more wholeheartedly than before, and the resultant blending of themes and motifs produced a distinctive Graeco-Roman or 'classical' culture during the second and third centuries AD. Hadrian and his successors actively promoted the idea that the empire, while embracing a diversity of peoples and religions, was united by an overarching set of values and tastes - and therefore by loyalty to the imperial state which safeguarded these. This conception of empire as a commonwealth of the civilised - in contradistinction to both barbarians beyond and subversives within - was monumentalised in stone on the frontiers and in the cities. |::|

“Hadrian's Wall was not a defensive structure. The Roman army at the time did not fight behind fixed defences. 'He set out for Britain', Hadrian's biographer tells us, 'and there he put right many abuses and was the first to build a wall 80 miles long to separate the barbarians and the Romans.' Equally, if it was intended as a line of customs and police posts - a controlled border - it was an extraordinarily elaborate and expensive one. So what was is for? |::|

“There seems little doubt that the wall, like other great Roman frontier monuments was as much a propaganda statement as a functional facility. It was a symbolic statement of Roman grandeur and technique at the empire's furthest limit, and a marking out of the point in the landscape where civilisation stopped and the barbarian wilderness began. |::|

“Hadrian's travels took him across the empire. Everywhere - in Rome, France, Spain, Africa, Greece, Turkey, Egypt - he raised great monuments. Instead of battles, he gave the empire bath-houses. Instead of trophies, temples and theatres. Most of the ruins we see today visiting the great classical cities of the Mediterranean are of public buildings erected in the second century golden age of imperial civilisation inaugurated by Hadrian. Each one made a set of statements. In its functionality, it helped define the Roman lifestyle and what it meant to be 'civilised'. In its towering size and richness, it spoke of the wealth and success of empire. |Through images on fresco, mosaic and sculpted panel, it promoted a cultural identity and shared values. And in the very fact of its existence, it redounded to the credit of the regime whose guiding hand had made it possible.” |::|

Setting a Example, Bloody, Pagan Roman Style

Roman military punishment of dismemberment

Dr Neil Faulkner wrote for the BBC: “But beneath the veneer of gentility, there was a chilling note of warning. Myths depicted men ripped apart for defying the gods or challenging those who - like the emperors - enjoyed divine protection. Legends from Rome's past told of enemies vanquished, lands laid waste and thousands sold to slavery. And in the amphitheatre, dramas of life-and-death were acted out which symbolised the gulf between friend and enemy, citizen and barbarian, freeborn and slave, loyalist and dissident. Gladiators fought to the death dressed to mimic historic enemies like Samnites, Gauls and Britons. Christians were eaten alive by half-starved beasts. Rebels and outlaws were burnt at the stake. The arena offered a pageant of 'the war on terror' Roman-style. [Source: Dr Neil Faulkner, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Much imperial propaganda consisted of traditional themes endlessly repeated. But one big change was of truly world-shaking importance: the adoption of Christianity by the Roman state. Paganism had been the living heart of Roman propaganda for a thousand years. Every significant act demanded sacrifice to appease a god. No new enterprise could be entertained without divine favour. |::|

“The legions marched into battle carrying the eagle of Jupiter, patron god of Rome, on their standards. Governors, generals and emperors led the holy rites at temples. Rulers were imagined ascending into heaven to take their places among the gods after death. Yet, the religion of the empire remained tolerant, inclusive and diverse. The existence of one god, however powerful, did not preclude that of many others. But because of this, because paganism was polytheistic, it was unable to offer the empire a unifying religious ideology.” |::|

Message But Not Media Changes When Rome Embraces Christianity

Dr Neil Faulkner wrote for the BBC: “When Constantine the Great ordered his men to fight as Christians in 312 AD, he began an ideological revolution.By the end of the century, paganism was effectively outlawed, and Christianity was the dominant religion of the state, the army, the elite and the towns. Donations of land and wealth flowed to the church. [Source: Dr Neil Faulkner, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“When we examine the archaeology of Late Roman cities, we find many of the old monuments ruined and their walls cannibalised to build new cathedrals and churches. We find the mosaicist employed making Christian tombstones, the silversmith engraving Christian motifs, the fresco-painter decorating Christian chapels. Roman emperors were represented as the agents of God on Earth, charged with crushing paganism and heresy. |::|

“The bishops reciprocated the favour shown the Church by preaching loyalty to the secular power. An alliance was forged between church and state, and henceforward Roman emperors were represented as the agents of God on Earth, charged with crushing paganism and heresy, with defending Christendom against its enemies. We see them depicted - on coins, jewellery, silverware, frescos and mosaics - alongside the symbols of the Christian church - the Cross or the Chi-Rho monogram (the first two letters of Christ's name in Greek). |Here was a new motif in the propaganda of power, one destined to have a long and bloody history: the ruler as crusader.

Fake News in Ancient Rome: Octavian’s Misrepresentation of Marc Antony

Octavian’s strong but fabricated narrative — especially about Marc Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra — helped him defeat Mark Antony. Izabella Kaminska wrote in the Financial Times: “A long time ago, in a republic far away, a civil war broke out igniting a fake news crisis. It started when Julius Caesar appointed himself dictator for life in 44BC, a move that unnerved traditionalist republican factions which considered it an attack on Roman liberty. Led by Brutus and calling themselves “the liberators”, the group’s members conspired to assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March, stabbing him 23 times until he died on the senate floor. But rather than re-establish the republican system, all this did was unleash a brutal power struggle between two of Caesar’s most prominent supporters: Mark Antony, his loyal confidant and general, and Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and self-styled successor. [Source: Izabella Kaminska, Financial Times, January 17, 2017 ]

Antony and Cleopatra

“What followed was an unprecedented disinformation war in which the combatants deployed poetry and rhetoric to assert the righteousness of the respective campaigns. From the outset, Octavian proved the shrewder propagandist, using short, sharp slogans written upon coins in the style of archaic tweets. His theme was that Antony was a Roman soldier gone awry: a philanderer, a womaniser and a drunk not fit to lead, let alone hold office. Most importantly, he asserted Antony had been corrupted by his love affair with Cleopatra, the leader of a foreign land.

“As Cleopatra’s puppet, no one could be sure if Antony was truly loyal to Rome or if his allegiance was to Egypt, a nation that had long resisted Romanisation. Antony had spent too much time in the eastern empire and become overly enamoured of the idea of Hellenistic monarchy — anathema to the Roman republican mind, or so the propaganda went. While Antony’s plebeian roots and libidinous nature jarred with the image of the virtuous Roman statesman, there was no denying his natural charisma or flair for military leadership. Octavian knew his troops adored him precisely because of his appetite for luxury, drink and sexual excess. And in the provinces these traits had even helped to establish him as nothing less than a god.

“To win the information war, Octavian would have to turn these strengths into weaknesses. Domestic discontent about the demise of traditional Roman values in the face of cultural contamination from the colonies was already brewing. Octavian knew that if he could convince the public he stood for everything Roman, virtuous and traditional — and that Antony represented everything foreign, barbarian and illiberal — he would be able to tap into an exceptionally powerful political mood.

“Rome’s republicans never fell for the rhetoric because they saw it for what it was: fake news. In the end, they sided with Octavian not because they trusted him more than Antony but because they viewed him as the lesser of two evils. The power struggle between the men culminated in the Battle of Actium in 31BC, which Octavian won decisively. Yet, from the perspective of the Roman constitution, the battle had been waged unconstitutionally against a fellow citizen. Octavian understood that this could be used against him one day. A counter-narrative would have to be constructed.

“Commenting on the war, the eminent ancient historian Ronald Syme, author of the classic 1939 book, The Roman Revolution, observed that “of the facts there is and was no authentic record”. Octavian’s official version of events decreed that “a degenerate Roman was striving to subvert the liberties of the Roman people to subjugate Italy and the west under the rule of an oriental queen”. Everyone knew the account was fraudulent but it was still enough to consolidate Octavian’s rule and open the door to his reinvention as Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Fake news had allowed Octavian to hack the republican system once and for all.”

Graffiti in the Roman Era

Graffiti — mainly in the form of inscriptions, chiseled messages and writings left upon the walls of buildings — at Pompeii and other sites in the Roman Empire provide some remarkable and enlightening evidences of the ordinary life of the townsmen. Some of these writings hardly rise above the dignity of mere scribblings. They are most numerous upon the buildings in those places frequented by the crowds. There we find advertisements of public shows, memoranda of sales, cookery receipts, personal lampoons, love effusions, and hundreds of similar records of the common life of this ancient people. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Describing the impression one gets of Romans by reading their graffiti, Heather Pringle wrote in Discover magazine, “The world revealed is at one 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 value of human rights and dignity."

On inscribed graffiti at Pompeii, the historian William Stearns Davis wrote: “There are almost no literary remains from Antiquity possessing greater human interest than these inscriptions scratched on the walls of Pompeii (destroyed 79 A.D.). Their character is extremely varied, and they illustrate in a keen and vital way the life of a busy, luxurious, and, withal, tolerably typical, city of some 25,000 inhabitants in the days of the Flavian Caesars. Most of these inscriptions carry their own message with little need of a commentary. Perhaps those of the greatest importance are the ones relating to local politics. It is very evident that the so-called "monarchy" of the Emperors had not involved the destruction of political life, at least in the provincial towns. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 260-265]

Inscriptions from Pompeii with some words of wisdom: 1) “The smallest evil if neglected, will reach the greatest proportions.” 2) “If you want to waste your time, scatter millet and pick it up again.”

Pompeii Graffiti

Adrienne LaFrance wrote in The Atlantic: “The oldest known graffiti at Pompeii also happens to be among the simplest: Gaius was here. Or, more precisely, “Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here,” along with a time stamp, which historians have dated to October 3, 78 B.C. It’s a classic. Literally—as in, it is an artifact from classical antiquity—but it’s also a classic in the larger category of Things People Write on Walls. So-and-so was here (see also: Kilroy) has been one of the messages humans have scrawled, etched, and eventually Sharpied and spray painted onto public spaces for millennia. [Source: Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic, Mar 29, 2016 |^|]

Pompeii graffiti

“Much of the graffiti at Pompeii seems surprisingly modern this way. Ancient inscriptions include declarations of love (“Health to you, Victoria, and wherever you are may you sneeze sweetly.”); insults (“Sanius to Cornelius: Go hang yourself!”); and remembrances (“Pyrrhus to his chum Chias: I’m sorry to hear you are dead, and so, goodbye!”). There are also billboard-esque painted inscriptions that included political campaign messages, advertisements for Gladiatorial games, and other public notices—like the equivalent of a giant flyer for a lost horse. The commonplace nature of these inscriptions is part of what makes them so historically valuable. |^|

““It recreates the life of the town,” said Rebecca Benefiel, a professor of classics at Washington and Lee University. “It’s the voices of the people who were standing there, and thinking this, and writing it. That’s why the graffiti are just so special and so enthralling.” Ancient graffiti in Pompeii, in the style typical for a political campaign. (Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Flickr) |^|

“Scholars can tell, for instance, that a tavern was once beyond the wall where a welcoming greeting—“Sodales, avete,”—can still be read. Some graffiti describes how many tunics were sent to be laundered, while other inscriptions mark the birth of a donkey and a litter of piglets. People scribbled details of various transactions onto the walls of Pompeii, including the selling of slaves. They also shared snippets of literature (lines from The Aeneid were popular) and succinct maxims like, “The smallest evil, if neglected, will reach the greatest proportions.”|^|

“And then there was the trash talk. “One speaks of ‘sheep-faced Lygnus, strutting about like a peacock and giving himself airs on the strength of his good looks,’” the London-based magazine Chambers’s Journal wrote, in 1901, of Pompeii’s well-preserved insults. “Another exclaims: ‘Epaphra glaber es,’ (Oh, Epaphras, thou art bald;) Rusticus est Cordyon, (Corydon is a clown or country bumpkin;) Epaphra, Pilicrepus non es, (Oh, Epaphras, thou art no tennis-player.)” |^|

“The fact that we can read the original inscriptions at all today is part-tragedy, part-miracle. Like most of what scholars know of Pompeii, the city’s extensive graffiti is so well preserved because it spent nearly 1,500 years entombed in ash after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. People have been fixated on the ancient etchings since Pompeii was rediscovered centuries ago. “Though nearly 20 centuries old, the thoughtless school-boy’s scrawls, the love-sick gallant’s doggerel, or the caricature of some friend, foe, or popular favorite, are still as clear as though executed by an idler yesterday,” The New York Times wrote in 1881. |^|

Pompeii’s Graffiti as a Form of Social Media

Adrienne LaFrance wrote in The Atlantic: “All of which is somewhat sophomoric, but certainly isn’t outdated per se. The social nature of ancient graffiti, including walls where there were clusters of inscriptions featuring people writing back and forth to one another, evokes social communication of the modern era: Facebook and Twitter, for instance. “I will say that the graffiti at Pompeii are nicer than the types of things we write today, though,” Benefiel told me. [Source: Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic, Mar 29, 2016 |^|]

political graffiti from Pompeii

“That may be because many of the tropes associated with writing in public are by now so familiar that simply declaring “Claudius was here,” isn’t enough—in the digital space, anyway—to achieve what many people are aiming for. “Overall, people want to write on things to be known,” Roger Gastman, the author of The History of American Graffiti, told me in an email. “To be everywhere at once yet nowhere at all.” |^|

“But the wall-politicking that takes place on Facebook may be inherently different from graffiti in the physical world—even if it stems from the same basic human inclinations. “Writing your name on a [physical] wall is both a way of getting noticed but it’s also somewhat transgressive,” said Judith Donath, the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. But in order to get noticed online, where everyone can and is supposed to write on walls, you have to do more than mark down your own name and the date. The pressure, then, is to be more provocative, Donath told me. And an arms race for provocation in a world where there are more than 7,000 tweets published every second tends to debase civility pretty quickly. |^|

““Especially Twitter,” Donath said. “If you’re not saying something, it’s like you’re not there at all; you don’t exist. You have to maintain your presence there. It’s more of a temporal issue, whereas in a city it’s more spatial.” |^|

“The ancient graffiti of Pompeii brings together these two domains, the spatial and the temporal, anchoring the ideas of a group of people in time to the physical space they occupy. Few artifacts are able to do this. Books and stone tablets, for example, aren’t typically preserved in situ. Which means the preservation of the convergence in Pompeii is remarkably rare, and made all the more astonishing for the fact that much of the graffiti there dates to sometime in the twilight decades of the city’s existence. |^|

““You can walk through the entire town. You can peek into each house. You can get a sense that, wow, this is a space where people lived surrounded by color and imagery and decoration,” Benefiel said. “But I think what all of those elements give you is the space of the town. Then we have many inscriptions that are people’s names. We have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of inscriptions that are friends writing greetings to each other. The graffiti immediately brings you to the people of the town.The graffiti really evoke the people who lived there.” |^|

Graffiti From Aphrodisias

Graffiti messages have been discovered and deciphered in the ancient city of Aphrodisias, in present-day Turkey, revealing what life was like there in Roman times. "Hundreds of graffiti, scratched or chiseled on stone, have been preserved in Aphrodisias — more than in most other cities of the Roman East(an area which includes Greece and part of the Middle East)," said Angelos Chaniotis, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton New Jersey.

Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science: “The graffiti touches on many aspects of the city's life, including gladiator combat, chariot racing, religious fighting and sex. The markings date to a time when the Roman and Byzantine empires ruled over the city. “"Graffiti are the products of instantaneous situations, often creatures of the night, scratched by people amused, excited, agitated, perhaps drunk. This is why they are so hard to interpret," Chaniotis said. "But this is why they are so valuable. They are records of voices and feelings on stone." [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, June 15, 2015]

“The graffiti includes sexual imagery, with one plaque showing numerous penises. "A plaque built into the city wall has representations of phalluses of various sizes and positions and employed in a variety of ways," Chaniotis said.

Graffiti on Love, Sex and Chariot Racing

Many pieces of love-related graffiti seem to have been written by love-struck young men. “Girl," reads an inscription found in a Pompeii bedroom, “you're beautiful I've been sent to you by one who is yours." Others express missing a loved one in timeless fashion. “Vibius Restitutus slept here alone, longing for Urbana." Others expressed urgency. “Driver," one said. “If you could feel the fires of love, you would hurry more to enjoy the pleasures of Venus. I love a younger charmer, please spur on the horses, let's get on."

Men often boasted of their love-making adventures on the walls of baths and other public buildings. Graffiti scrawled on the wall of a Pompeii bar claimed: 'I fucked the landlady.' Graffiti was often filled with bawdy and graphic details. The writers were not shy about naming names and even saying the time and place that encounters took place. Men who preferred men seemed just as emboldened to list their conquests and as men who preferred women.

On Roman-era graffiti found at Aphrodisias in present-day Turkey, Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science: “The city had three chariot-racing clubs competing against each other, records show. “The south market, which included a public park with a pool and porticoes, was a popular place for chariot-racing fans to hang outthe graffiti shows. It may be "where the clubhouses of the factions of the hippodrome were located — the reds, the greens, the blues," said Angelos Chaniotis, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton New Jersey, referring to the namesof the different racing clubs. The graffiti includes boastful messages after a club won and lamentations when a club was having a bad time. "Victory for the red," reads one graffiti; "bad years for the greens," says another; "the fortune of the blues prevails," reads a third. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, June 15, 2015]

Graffiti Related to Gladiators

Many of the graffiti inscriptions in Pompeii are related to gladiators, such as one from A.D. 1st century that indicates the outcome of a match between gladiators Severus and Albanus Many of them announce upcoming events. “Twenty pairs of gladiators provided by Quintus Monnius Rufus are to fight at Nola May First, Second, and Third, and there will be a hunt.” There are virtually no accounts written by gladiators themselves presumably at least in part because few of them could read or write. Not even Spartacus, the most famous of all gladiators, spoke for himself. Most of what we know about gladiators is based on descriptions by Roman historians and writers, Roman-era images (many of them mosaics), and bits and shreds of archaeological evidence. A surprising amount of transportation has been gleaned from Roman-era graffiti.

Natasha Sheldon wrote in “Graffiti and other archaeological evidence tell us a great deal about the lives and life expectancy of Roman gladiators in Pompeii. Despite the Pompeian’s appetite for blood, their life expectancy was not as low as one would expect. In the main, gladiators were slaves purchased for their strength by local businessmen. They were trained in troupes and then hired them out to fight in the games. Many gladiators had single names like ‘Princeps’ and 'Hilarius’ which indicated that they were slaves. Some gladiators were also free. The gladiator Lucius Raecius Felix was probably a freedman. Felix was a common slave name and his other two names were probably adopted from his former master’s name and added after his freedom. Some gladiators were also freeborn. Graffiti in Pompeii records the name of a gladiator Marcus Attilius. His name is not that of a slave and does not indicate he was a freedman, suggesting he signed up to the arena for profit. [Source: Natasha Sheldon,]

Professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University wrote for the BBC: “Regardless of their status, gladiators might command an extensive following, as shown by graffiti in Pompeii, where walls are marked with comments such as Celadus, suspirium puellarum ('Celadus makes the girls swoon'). Indeed, apart from the tombstones of the gladiators, the informal cartoons with accompanying headings, scratched on plastered walls and giving a tally of individual gladiators' records, are the most detailed sources that modern historians have for the careers of these ancient fighters. [Source: Professor Kathleen Coleman, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Sometimes these graffiti even form a sequence. One instance records the spectacular start to the career of a certain Marcus Attilius (evidently, from his name, a free-born volunteer). As a mere rookie (tiro) he defeated an old hand, Hilarus, from the troupe owned by the emperor Nero, even though Hilarus had won the special distinction of a wreath no fewer than 13 times. |::|

“Attilius then capped this stunning initial engagement (for which he himself won a wreath) by going on to defeat a fellow-volunteer, Lucius Raecius Felix, who had 12 wreaths to his name. Both Hilarus and Raecius must have fought admirably against Attilius, since each of them was granted a reprieve (missio). |::|

Gladiator Graffiti From Aphrodisias

Hundreds of graffiti messages engraved into stone in the ancient city of Aphrodisias, in modern-day Turkey, have been discovered and deciphered, more than in most other cities of the Roman East (an area which includes Greece and part of the Middle East)." Many of the inscriptions rale to gladiators.

Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science: “The graffiti also includes many depictions of gladiators. Although the city was part of the Roman Empire, the people of Aphrodisias mainly spoke Greek. The graffiti is evidence that people living in Greek-speaking cities embraced gladiator fighting, Chaniotis said. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, June 15, 2015]

Angelos Chaniotis, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton New Jersey, said a lecture at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum: “"Pictorial graffiti connected with gladiatorial combat are very numerous," he said. "And this abundance of images leaves little doubt about the great popularity of the most brutal contribution of the Romans to the culture of the Greek east."

““Some of the most interesting gladiator graffiti was found on a plaque in the city's stadium where gladiator fights took place. The plaque depicts battles between two combatants: a retiarius (a type of gladiator armed with a trident and net) and a secutor (a type of gladiator equipped with a sword and shield). One scene on the plaque shows the retiarius emerging victorious, holding a trident over his head, the weapon pointed toward the wounded secutor. On the same plaque, another scene shows the secutor chasing a fleeing retiarius. Still another image shows the two types of gladiators locked in combat, a referee overseeing the fight.

“"Probably a spectator has sketched scenes he had seen in the arena," Chaniotis said. The images offer "an insight (on) the perspective of the contemporary spectator. The man who went to the arena in order to experience the thrill and joy of watching — from a safe distance — other people die."

Pompeii Inscriptions and Graffiti About Politics and Elections

Some inscriptions and graffiti about politics and elections from Pompeii: “The dyers request the election of Postumius Proculus as Aedile.” [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 260-265]

“Vesonius Primus urges the election of Gnaeus Helvius as Aedile, a man worthy of pubic office.”

“Vesonius Primus requests the election of Gaius Gavius Rufus as duumvir, a man who will serve the public interest — do elect him, I beg of you.”

“Primus and his household are working for the election of Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus as Aedile.”

“Make Lucius Caeserninus quinquennial duumvir of Nuceria, I beg you: he is a good man.”

“His neighbors request the election of Tiberius Claudius Verus as duumvir.”

“The worshipers of Isis as a body ask for the election of Gnaeus Helvias Sabinus as Aedile.”

“The inhabitants of the Campanian suburb ask for the election of Marcus Epidius Sabinus as aedile.”

“At the request of the neighbors Suedius Clemens, most upright judge, is working for the election of Marcus Epidius Sabinus, a worthy young man, as duumvir with judicial authority. He begs you to elect him.”

“The sneak thieves request the election of Vatia as Aedile.

Graffiti Reflects Competition Between Religions in the Roman World

On Roman-era graffiti found at Aphrodisias in present-day Turkey, Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science: Graffiti was one way in which religious groups “competed. Archaeologists have found the remains of statues representing governors (or other elite persons) who supported polytheistic beliefs. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, June 15, 2015]

"Christians had registered their disapproval of such religions by carving abbreviationson the statues thatmean"Mary gives birth to Jesus," refuting the idea that many gods existed. Christians, Jews and a strong group of philosophically educated followers of the polytheistic religions competed in Aphrodisias for the support of those who were asking the same questions: Is there a god? How can we attain a better afterlife?" said Angelos Chaniotis, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton New Jersey, told Live Science.

“Those who followed polytheistic beliefs carved graffiti of their own. "To the Christian symbol of the cross, the followers of the old religion responded by engraving their own symbol, the double axe," said Chaniotis, noting that this object was a symbol of Carian Zeus (a god), and is seen on the city's coins. Aphrodisias also boasted a sizable Jewish population. Many Jewish traders set up shop in an abandoned temple complex known as the Sebasteion.

“Among the graffiti found there is a depiction of a Hanukkah menorah, a nine-candle lamp that would be lit during the Jewish festival. "This may be one of the earliest representations of a Hanukkah menorah that we know from ancient times," said Chaniotis.

“Most of the graffiti Chaniotis recorded dates between roughly A.D. 350 and A.D. 500, appearing to decline around the time Justinian became emperor of the Byzantine Empire, in A.D. 527. In the decades that followed, Justinian restricted or banned polytheistic and Jewish practices. Aphrodisias, which had been named after the goddess Aphrodite, was renamed Stauropolis. Polytheistic and Jewish imagery, including some of the graffiti, was destroyed.”

Ancient Roman Graffiti Shows the Novelty of Early Christianity

Christain graffiti

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “One of the major implications that we get from this material in the early second century such as the letters of Pliny describing the Christians is that the Christians at this stage are still something new, something novel from the perspective of the Romans. The Romans don't really know quite what to make of them. They're odd. They sort of look like Jews. The Christians don't do certain things but they really don't know what they believe and what they stand for and why they're different. They're just different. They're foreign. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“[W]e have a good example of this kind of pagan perspective on Christians from a little graffiti found in Rome from the Palatine Hill. It shows a man hanging on a cross and below it is an inscription scratched very crudely into the wall.... It's quite literally graffiti in the modern sense of the term and it says Alexamenos worships his god. In the picture we see Alexamenos bowing down before the man on the cross, but the unusual thing is that the man on the cross has the head of a donkey. From the perspective of these pagans there was this unusual belief attached to Christianity. They're worshipping a crucified man, that in of itself is probably something that they would have thought odd, and secondly the identity of this crucified man is somehow confused with animal deities... some sort of peculiar half animal, half man person. The pagans really don't know quite what to do with all this.

“Even if we hear a fair amount of pagan attack on Christianity as stupid or criminal and we do know that some persecutions occur, we shouldn't necessarily assume that all Christians were against the Roman government, were marginal parts of society. In many cases, Christians did participate in social activities and were good citizens. Indeed the Christians often claim, "We are the most ethical part of your empire. We behave better than the rest of you. Why would you want to persecute us?"”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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