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Women’s Graffiti from Pompeii

ByElizabeth Woeckner

In view of the paucity of women’s writing in Latin that survives from the classical period, I am particularly excited to be able to contribute the following graffiti recovered during the nineteenth-century excavation of Pompeii. As most people know, Pompeii and several neighboring towns in the Campanian countryside were destroyed by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E.1 Today Pompeii is one of the most important resources for the study of Roman history and archaeology, not least because its walls were literally covered with writing of all kinds: from formal dedicatory inscriptions and election notices to graffiti, the subject of this discussion. Here I focus on two examples published in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, volume 4.2

Surprisingly, given recent interest in women in antiquity, to date there has been no systematic effort to identify women’s graffiti from Pompeii.3 As part of a larger project I have collected about a dozen graffiti that were almost certainly written by women, and, by and large, nearly all of them relate to the sex industry. Some are advertisements that list prices, services, and locations where available women would have been found.4 In others, women who were presumably prostitutes salute the sexual prowess of their customers.5 The problem is to differentiate between actual, if rather earthy, advertisements and insults. If we stop to recall the graffiti in modern bathrooms, it immediately becomes evident that not every notice is a bona fide offer of sexual activity. This effort is further complicated by our ignorance of the organization of the trade: did the prostitutes themselves create the advertisements or did the pimps?