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This paper offers an analysis of genre manipulation in Pompeia​n graffiti for the creation of humor. Building on recent work by Benefiel 2010 and Milnor 2009, I re-contextualize ​graffiti within Roman cultural discourse and show that Pompeians were knowledgeable of graffiti genres and adept at manipulating them in order to create jokes. In particular, I combine a cultural approach to graffiti with the study of visual humor (cf. Clarke 2003), and emphasize attention both to the graffito as a text and to its location as a determinant of humor and meaning. I demonstrate the widespread nature of this phenomenon through examples from various graffiti genres. Finally, I argue that the graffito’s location, when taken in context, can add further nuance to the humor found within the text.

This paper’s main example is CIL IV.1384,which was found outside a supposed brothel (though identification is not clear) in Region VI.11.16 in Pompeii. The graffito is in the format of a programma, or political advertisement, and urges the reader to vote for Isidorus, though his qualifications for office are most unusual (ISIDORUM AED II V(os) (f)AC(iatis)/OPTIME CUNULINCET IV . . . T . .). Most programmata ask voters to vote for the candidate as he is dignum r(ei)p(ublicae) but this graffito emphasizes his sexual abilities instead. The graffito contains several features of the programma (candidate’s name in the accusative followed by the office, abbreviations, qualification for office, located on façade) but blends it with several features of the brothel graffito (sexual services, name of prostitute). The location of this graffito adds to the humor as it faces several other graffiti of the ‘brothel genre’ which advertise Isidorus’ services as a prostitute (CIL IV 4699, 4441).

The author of this graffito, I argue, has effectively blended the programma and brothel graffiti genres to make fun not only of Isidorus, but also of the genre of electoral programmata. The format and language of the programma invite the reader to expect the political message that usually accompanies this genre. The reader is therefore surprised when the qualifications for office are divulged; this reversal of expectation creates humor. Further, this graffito uses the generic devices of an upper-class genre, the programma, to display a sub-elite message; as such, it offers an example of intergroup humor that is used as a weapon of social conflict and as a means to retain the ascendency of one group over another (Clarke 2003).

This is not an isolated example; other graffiti (CIL IV 575, CIL IV 9131, CIL IV 1177, CIL IV 10619, and CIL IV 5244) prove that examining graffiti and the genres within them calls for a more nuanced approach than has been used previously. In conclusion, I show that analyzing graffiti genres allows the humor of these graffiti, often obscured by examining them out of context, to emerge. Their unique location within urban space allowed for a wide dispersal and audience for the jokes. Thus, analyzing their context allows for a deeper understanding of the purpose for the graffiti and the genre types being manipulated for humor's sake.