The Political Value of Anonymity

Political graffiti and lampoons preserved in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars are traditionally associated with popular anti-hegemonic voices. In the Roman world the graffiti on Brutus’ statue (Suet. Iul. 80.3) and the couplet mocking Antoninus Pius (CLE 881) suggest that anonymity is conceived of as a radical political act.

The surviving epigraphic evidence from Rome and Pompeii demonstrates how in an autocratic climate these texts functioned as elite and non-elite vehicles for political dissent. The Pompeian graffiti scratched on the House of Gaius Julius Polybius (IX.Xiii.1-3), which mock Nero’s offerings of pearls to Venus (AE 1985, 283), constitute an exceptional case-study of urban political invective.

The tragic consequences of authored poetic invectives are exemplified by the controversial case of the consul Ablabius (326-337). In his fifth book of Epistles (5.8.2-3), Sidonius Apollinaris reports that Ablabius posted an elegiac couplet against Constantine, comparing him in veiled terms to Nero. For this reason, he was murdered by the emperor.

‘It seems to me that no greater power of satiric suggestion was shown by the consul Ablabius when in a couple of verses he stabbed at the life and family of Constantine and put his tooth into them with this distich posted up secretly (clam) on the door of the palace!

Who would want now the golden age of Saturn?

Ours is a diamond age – of Nero’s pattern.

(Saturni aurea saecla quis requirat?

 sunt haec gemmea, sed Neroniana)

He wrote this, of course, because the aforesaid Augustus had almost simultaneously got rid of his wife Fausta with a hot bath and his son Crispus with cold poison. But you must cultivate fearlessly at any rate the witty effects of satire. For your writings will find material in the flourishing vices of our tyrant-governed citizens’.

As Courtney (1993) notes, Constantine’s reign is hailed as a golden age by Porfyrius (aureis temporibus). To be a jewelled age would be good, if the jewels did not recall those christened neronianae. It seems that Ablabius is thinking of Nero’s murder of Britannicus by poisoning and of Octavia.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding authorial ascription of the verses, Ablabius paid for his political opposition and mordant satire with his own life, since he was put to death by Constantine. Intentional anonymity in political discourse functions, as this case shows, as a safe vehicle for political dissent and a means to escape imperial censorship.

In contrast to Ablabius’ fortune, the author(s) scribbling graffiti which contained satirical statements about Nero’s excessive offering of pearls to Venus remains unpunished, precisely because he exploits the political value of anonymity:

AE 1977: 217 = AE 1985: 283 = AE 2001: 801 = AE 2004: 404 (EDR076753)

Munera Poppaea misit Veneri sanctissimae berullum helencumque unio mixtus erat.

‘Poppaea sent as gifts to most holy Venus a beryl, an ear-drop pearl, and a large single pearl.’

AE 1977: 218 = AE 1985: 284 = AE 2001: 801 = AE 2004: 404 (EDR076754)

Caesar ut ad Venerem venet sanctissimam ut tui te vexere pedes
caelestes Auguste millia milliorum ponderis auri fuit

 ‘When Caesar came to most holy Venus and when your heavenly feet brought you there, Augustus, there was a countless weight of gold.’

Both graffiti are found in the House of Gaius Iulius Polybius in Pompeii, in dialogue with a metrical graffito quoting tragedy and an acclamation for the mime actor Paris. Both graffiti testify to the power of, and role performed by, anonymity in political contexts.


Courtney, E. (1993) The Fragmentary Latin Poets. Oxford.

Courtney, E. (1995) Musa Lapidaria. A Selection of Latin Verse Inscriptions. Atlanta.

Cugusi, P. (1979) ‘Spunti politici e sociali in alcuni epigrammi latini’ in Studi di poesia latina in onore di Antonio Traglia II. Rome. 879-893.

Cugusi, P. (2008) ‘Poesia ‘ufficiale’ e poesia ‘epigrafica’ nei graffiti dei centri Vesuviani’ Studia Philologica Valentina 11.8: 43-102.

Del Giovane, B. (2021) ‘Et sine auctore notissimi versus: unauthored poetry and Rome’s authoritarian turn’ in E. Giusti and T. Geue (eds) Unspoken Rome: Absence in Latin Literature and its Reception. Cambridge. 142-164.

Geue, T. (2019) Author Unknown. The Power of Anonymity in Ancient Rome. Cambridge (MA).

Zadorojnyi, A. V. (2011) ‘Transcripts of dissent? Political graffiti and elite ideology under the principate’ in Baird and Taylor (eds) 110-133.

Negotiating Gender Relations in Epigraphic Poetry

In a largely male dominated world, the rediscovery of the poetess Sulpicia, whose elegies have been long ascribed to the Appendix Tibulliana and thought to be written by a male poet, exemplifies how gender has persistently shaped cultural and poetic reception. Since the production of epigraphic texts was chiefly controlled by men, uncovering authentic female voices within epigraphic poetry has proved challenging. There are many graffiti and inscriptions which ventriloquise female voices and use female adjectival forms to identify the anonymous authors as women.

Pompeii constitues an exceptional site from which to uncover the overlooked voices and agencies of female authors and to question the political assumptions at play in the still common practice of interpreting female writers as male authors in disguise.

Across Pompeii quotations from Latin literary texts populate the city fabric alongside quotidian messages, similar graffiti are repeated in different locations, while poetic syntagms are recombined with new hemistichs and re-signified in different material and literary contexts. One point in case is CIL IV 1520, an erotic poem which bears an unconventional signature and sheds important light on our interpretation of the complex negotiation of authorial claims in graffiti.

Candida me docuit nigras odisse

puellas. / Odero si potero; si non,

invitus, amabo.

Scripsit Venus Fisica Pompeiana

‘A fair girl taught me to scorn dark girls. I will scorn them if I can; if not … I will reluctantly love them. Venus Fisica Pompeiana wrote this’.

The graffito is key to understanding the intersectionality between graffiti poetry, gender relations, and race. The text polarises a contrast between a candida (a ‘bright brown woman’) and a nigra (a ‘bright black woman’) puella, suggesting that ‘skin color was one of many factors in the Roman construction of difference’ (Haley 2009: 30). In her article Haley (2009) discloses the unquestioned scholarly assumptions about themes of gender and race and the implications of the hypothesis about male authorship. The reading of the present graffito along with the Venus plagiaria of CIL IV 1410, its attribution to a Venus fisica, however, bound us to question the male-authored nature of the text and to take into serious consideration how the unconventional ascription to the goddess challenges the ways in which we conceive of the gendered mechanics of this poem.

Venus, who boasts to have produced her own witty remake of popular loci from Latin literature, by appending her own signature to the graffitied poem (scripsit Venus Fisica Pompeiana), becomes the mouthpiece for the mechanisms of literary contamination, appropriation, and adaptation that are proper to graffiti writing culture, a locus for re-reading gender relations in graffiti poetry. The authorial status attributed to Venus in this graffito offers a new three-dimensionality to the semantics of plagiaria we find in CIL IV 1410:

Venus enim


est; quia exsanguni

meum petit,

in vies tumultu

pariet: optet

sibi, ut bene


quod et

Ario sua r(ogat)

‘Venus is a weaver of webs; from the moment that she sets out to attack my dearest, she will lay temptations along his way: he must hope for a good voyage, which is also the wish of his Ario’.

Not only is Venus a weaver of amatory webs, endowed with seductive force. She is also capable of weaving complex literary links. The graffito has engendered a live scholarly debate, not least because of the difficult interpretation of plagiaria and exsangune. In this text, Venus features as the goddess who ensnares men in her alluring nets, whose seductive powers bewilder human mind. How to interpret the epithet plagiaria remains open to speculation. The scholarly consensus accepts Gigante’s reading of the word plagiaria as deriving from the word plaga, namely ‘net’.  Therefore, we could translate Venus plagiaria as Venus ‘weaver of webs’. This interpretation well captures the goddess’s seductive arts.

Interestingly, Amedeo Maiuri advanced the hypothesis that plagiaria is linked to the crimen plagi, the juridical terminology used for the kidnapping of slaves. In this sense, Venus could be appropriately interpreted as ‘the one who commits indebt appropriation’, Venus the ‘thief’ (ladra), who enslaves Ario’s lover through the arts of seduction. Although Maiuri’s argument has acknowledged less fortune than Gigante’s, it is not possible to exclude this interpretation a priori. A unique attestation of plagiarius as the technical term for literary plagiarist appears in one of Martial’s epigrams (1.52), which belongs to the so called ‘impostor’ cycle in Book One. In the light of the comparative reading with Martial’s epigram, it is intriguing to interpret Venus plagiaria of CIL IV 1410 as articulating the processes of literary appropriation within the graffiti culture of quotation.

 As Milnor (2014: 136) suggests, the graffiti culture of quotation entails ‘an aesthetics of fragmentation’ according to which ‘tags were repeated and recombined in different ways to express different ideas’. The poem’s repetition across the wall and its unique interaction with quotations from Virgil leads us to imagine radically different responses from readers/viewers entering both the caupona and the House of the Scientists. On a further level, one which centres on the problematic gendered dimension of the text, important question arise:

How should we interpret Venus’s act of meta-poetically becoming the mouthpiece and author of this invective? How can a female reader take on the subjectivity of the graffito? How does this claim of authorship put into question the implicit suggestion that we should identify the female characters as mere passive objects of desire?

Venus’ fictive authorship, we might be tempted to suggest, conquers back the space of male discourse and masculine identity for women’s identification and assertion of subjecthood. The fictional authorial signature and the anonymous status of the graffito author allow us to reconsider traditional scholarly interpretations about the gendered relations negotiated within the graffito and to imagine how it disrupts conventional modes of consuming the text, affording a space to recover un-heard female voices from antiquity.


Gigante, M. (1979) Civiltà delle forme letterarie nell’antica Pompei. Naples.

Haley, S. P. (2009) ‘Be not afraid of the dark: critical race theory and classical studies’ in L. Nasrallah and E. Schüssler Fiorenza (eds) Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies. Minneapolis. 27-50.

Hauser, E. (2016) ‘Optima tu proprii nominis auctor: the semantics of female authorship in ancient Rome, from Sulpicia to Proba’ Eugesta 6: 151-186.

Kayachev, B. (ed.) (2021) Poems without Poets: Approaches to Anonymous Ancient Poetry. Cambridge.

Maiuri, A. (1945) “Due iscrizioni veneree pompeiane” Saggi di varia antichità: 299-302.

Milnor, K. (2014) Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii. Oxford.

Varone, A. (2002) Erotica Pompeiana. Iscrizioni d’amore sui muri di Pompei. Rome.

The Poetics of Anonymity

As Richard Hunter (2021) points out, the ‘principle of anonymity’, which is integral to epigraphic communication, challenges models of individual authorship, suggesting that epigraphic poems are the product of collective authorship. The Pompeian graffito CLE 957 (= CIL 4, 1904; EDR158840; AGP-EDR158840), scratched on the Basilica (VIII.i.1), and repeated in different occurrences across the walls of the Large Theatre (VIII.vii.21, CIL 4, 2461) and the Amphitheatre (, CIL 4, 2487), exemplifies some of the crucial questions raised by anonymous texts:

Admiror paries te non cecidisse ruinis qui tot
scriptorum taedia sustineas

‘I am surprised, wall, that you have not collapsed and fallen, seeing that you support (sustineas) the tedious effusions of so many writers’.

This couplet contains a double pun on the verb sustinere: the wall cannot ‘bear’ the tedium of effusions of writers and, literally, it cannot ‘support’ the weight of the numerous erotic graffiti which appear in the immediate material surroundings. As Milnor (2014: 29) argues, this example is particularly interesting for its self-consciousness of and critical stance against graffiti as a writing category.

By interacting with the physical context of the northern wall of the Basilica, where a great deal of erotic graffiti and poetic quotations proliferates, the graffito functions as a meta-poetic joke. Yet, it also reveals the complex interfaces between literary and epigraphic writing. Indeed, the verb sustinere plays with Horace’s opening statement in Epist. 2.1.1, where Caesar is said to ‘carry the weight of so many charges’ (cum tot sustineas et tanta negotia solus), furthering our understanding of the literary literacy of graffiti authors and poetic culture and reception in Pompeii.

In this context, anonymity works on a double level: it enables any reader-viewer to mimetically identify with the anonymous creator of the text and to perform the dialogue with the wall. Furthermore, it invites reflection on mechanics of creative appropriation that characterise the epigraphic realm. The syntagm tot scriptorum gestures towards an acute awareness of graffiti as actively partaking in and contributing to shaping a wider discourse of literary production and consumption.

Reference to the plural scriptores enables us to challenge the monolithic idea of single authorship and to postulate a system of multiple authors and writers. With mordant wit, the couplet appears scrawled by different hands as a refrain across the city walls. Putting into question individual modes of authorship, the syntagm encapsulates an allusion to a collaborative form of authorship, where graffiti interact in dialogue with one another and invite responses from any viewer/reader, who participate in poetic creation. Ultimately, the present metrical graffito suggests that the circulation and consumption of poetry is guaranteed by a public of multiple anonymous writers/readers (scriptores), who make poetry moveable, portable and therefore accessible to a wider audience of individuals along the social scale.


Bruun, C. and Edmondson, J. (eds) (2015) The Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy. Oxford.

Courtney, E. (1995) Musa Lapidaria. A Selection of Latin Verse Inscriptions. Atlanta.

Hunter, R. (2021) Greek Epitaphic Poetry. Cambridge.

Milnor, K. (2014) Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii. Oxford.

Schmidt, M. G. (2015) ‘Carmina Latina Epigraphica’ in Bruun and Edmondson (eds) 765-782.

Varone, A. (2012) Titulorum graphio exaratorum qui in C.I.L. vol. IV collecti sunt imagines. Rome.

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