In honor of the patron saint of romances, St. Valentine, whose day rapidly approaches, I thought I’d bring you something very different today–the expressions of love carved upon the walls of Pompeii some 2000 years ago. This proved to be a little trickier than you might expect at first blush, for many of the Pompeiian inscriptions are wonderfully raunchy. The Romans really loved sex and weren’t at all bashful about publicizing their talents in the sack. So I had to be a little selective.
First a word about where I found these wonderful translations. The Italian archaeologist and epigrapher Antonio Varone, who works in an office building tucked away on the grounds of Pompeii, has written a superb book on the inscriptions: Erotica Pompeiana: Love Inscriptions on the Walls of Pompeii. While nearly everyone who visits the ancient resort town notices all kinds of graffiti scratched on the stone of villas and public buildings, very few possess sufficient knowledge of the Latin language or Roman culture to decipher the inscriptions. Thank you Antonio Varone for opening our eyes.
Ok, bring on the inscriptions. First the lovesick:
“Vibius Restitutus slept here alone, longing for his Urbana.”
“Girl, you look lovely to Ceius and many others.”
Next, the tender:
“So may you forever flourish, Sabina; may you acquire beauty and stay a girl for a long time.”
Who is it that spends the night with you in happy sleep? Would that it were me. I would be many times happier.
“Warmest regards from Puddle to her Fishlet.”
“Virgula to her Tertius: you are loathsome.”
“Erotarin, you jealous old fool.”
“No one’s a real man unless he’s loved a woman while still a boy.”
“Restitutus has often seduced many girls.”
The feminist version:
“Euplia was here with thousands of good-looking men.”
“I would not sell my husband…for any price…”
The proud new parents:
“Cornelius Sabinus has been born.”
What I love most about these inscriptions is their immediacy. I feel as if I know these people, as if for a moment or two, I can share their thoughts across the great dark chasm of time.