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Etching out a Place for Venus: Graffiti and the Creation of Sacred Space at Pompeii

Bryan Brinkman

This paper examines a particular class of religious graffiti from Pompeii and suggests the role these graffiti played in the creation of sacred space within ostensibly mundane public places. Focusing on graffiti that explicitly invoke Venus, the most visible deity at Pompeii, I demonstrate how these informal writings challenge certain notions of the relationship between ex voto texts and sacred space. There are a number of graffiti from public spaces at Pompeii that explicitly invoke Venus. For example, written in a corridor in the theatre complex is the following: “Methe of Atella, the slave of Comina, loves Chrestus. May Venus of Pompeii be propitious to each of their hearts, and allow them to live forever in harmony” (Methe Cominiaes atellana amat Chrestum corde [si]t utreisque Venus Pompeiana propitia et sem[per] concordes veivant; CIL 4.2457). Similarly, on the wall of the Basilica was scribbled the simple line, “Agato, the slave of Herrennius prays to Venus” (Agato Herrenni servus rogat Venere; CIL 4.1839). Beyond categories of “civic” or “household” as loci of devotional practices, these texts reveal how public space was utilized as a site for votive performance. These behaviors are indicative of what Stanley Stowers refers to as the religious mode of “everyday social exchange” in which religious behaviors are aspects of the practical skills utilized on a daily basis (Stowers, 2011). What is more, these inscribed prayers were often located in places with a high frequency of graffiti (such as the corridor in the theatre). I suggest that the inscribing of a graffito in one of these locations was likely viewed as an efficacious means of producing dialogue, given the inherent dialogic function of public graffiti (Benefiel, 2010). As such, the graffito was seen as an appropriate medium through which to communicate with divinities who, like other inhabitants of the city, had access to the “public forum” afforded by these texts. Finally, I discuss how these graffiti may have provided an alternative means of votive practice for otherwise disenfranchised individuals in the city. As the two examples above demonstrate, a number of these graffiti prayers were written by individuals who identify themselves as servile or of otherwise subaltern status. These graffiti prayers illuminate certain religious practices that are otherwise difficult to identify and, in particular, add nuance to the relationship between sacred space and public dialogue.

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Graffiti and Their Supports: Informal Texts in Context

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