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Propertius and Ovid on Pompeii’s Walls: Elegiac Graffiti in Context

Kyle Helms

As research on ancient graffiti presses forward, their complexity and diversity continues to impress. Among the graffiti preserved at Pompeii, the appearance of literary texts has not gone unnoticed (Gigante 1979, Milnor 2009), but research opportunities remain. This paper presents two case studies of Pompeian graffiti that preserve epigrams containing combinations and modifications of verses from Propertius and Ovid. Several contexts are crucial to understanding these graffiti: the context of the verses in their source texts, their physical contexts and nearby graffiti that interact with them (graffiti in dialogue: Benefiel 2010, 2011), and their typological context as graffiti, that is, as exhibiting characteristics found elsewhere in this medium, like playfulness (cf. Castrén 1972, Bagnall 2011: 7-26). This paper combines this contextual approach with other methodologies used in studying inscribed and literary epigram (Baumbach, Petrovic and Petrovic 2010, Bing 2009). I argue that these graffiti can reveal some of the ways that Pompeians read and interpreted elegy, used canonical elegy to create new poems, and interacted with one another on the city’s walls in a kind of learned play.

            First, from the north wall of Pompeii’s Basilica come CIL 4.1893-1894. These graffiti contain two couplets, Ov. Am. 1.8.77-78 and Prop. 4.5.47-48, written in what appears to be the same hand and presented on the wall as a single text — a kind of elegiac pseudo-cento. The verses are not arbitrarily paired. In addition to the latter being the likely model of the former, both couplets derive from anti-amator speeches of scheming lenae, suggesting that Pompeians, like modern scholars (cf. Sara Myers 1999), read such passages as common generic units. Also intriguing is the presence of CIL 4.1895 nearby. While 1893-1894 preserve verses written to the detriment of amatores, 1895 preserves what seems to be a response drawn from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (1.475-476), arguing that even obstinate women will eventually yield, like rocks to persistent water. Thus, these graffiti appear to be a literary case of the increasingly well-documented phenomenon of graffiti in dialogue.

            The second case study considers CIL 4.1520, a graffito from an elite private residence, the Casa degli Scienziati (VI.14.43). This graffito, like 1893-1894, is also combination of Propertius and Ovid. Here, Prop. 1.1.5 is modified and combined with Ov. Am. 3.11b.35 to produce a new epigram, actually attested elsewhere at Pompeii (CIL 4.9847; cf. Kruschwitz 2006). 1520 also contains features similar to those of 1893-1894, including a correspondence in the contexts of their source texts, and an apparent literary playfulness. Additionally, the nearby CIL 4.1527 may be in dialogue with 1520, as it seems to correctly identify a prominent Virgilian instance of a motif present in 1520, namely, the amatory antithesis regarding the attractiveness of fair skin versus dark skin. In sum, as we continue to try to understand ancient graffiti, the elegies scratched into Pompeii’s walls have much to add to the conversation.

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Graffiti and Their Supports: Informal Texts in Context

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