chapter  33
8 Pages

EPIGRAPHY AND SOCIETY

ByJames Franklin

As August Mau drew his, now famous, survey of ancient Pompeii to a close, heturned in his final chapters to the writing that had been recovered at the site. Dividing that writing into its three major types-signs and inscriptions (both carved in stone and painted on walls), graffiti, and the business receipts of Caecilius Iucundus preserved on largely carbonized wax tablets1-he described each, noting its curiosities and the direct evidence it provided for reconstructing the daily life of this ancient city. Like so much of his volume, these descriptions remain the best short survey of the materials even today. Yet Mau’s deceptively definitive presentation was also discouraging. In his very first paragraph he asserted, “It would be an exaggeration to say that they [the varieties of writing] contribute to our knowledge of antiquity much that is new.”2 And again, “Taken as a whole, the graffiti are less fertile for our knowledge of Pompeian life than might have been expected.”3 Mau’s approach was descriptive and direct, and his straightforward treatment is admittedly the strength of these chapters, indeed of his entire volume. But for him the evidence of value was the words that the writing preserved; he did not, perhaps could not, foresee the use of those words as data that could be manipulated to address such broader issues as, for example, the level of literacy in the town. Only in the final two paragraphs of his last chapter did he proceed to observe that signacula (breadstamps) found in a number of houses could, in fact, be used to help identify their owners, thus suggesting the deep potential value of analysis rather than description of these written sources.