Easily the best thing I’ve seen on the internet in a while I found late last week while cruising around Tumblr. It was a link to Pompeiana.org, a website from some classics scholars interested in educating the public on Pompeii, which was destroyed in the first century by Mount Vesuvius. The whole site is interesting, if not a little dated aesthetically, but what I found most intriguing was the graffiti page.
Indeed, in an effort to more deeply understand Pompeii, researchers have delved not only into the city’s architecture and frescoes, but also all the graffiti to be found throughout its ancient walls. But before you go assuming the ancient Pompeiians vandalized with only the most brilliant bons mots—“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” everywhere, perhaps—I suggest reading exactly what the excavators have dug up. Here, a list of some of my favorites:
Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds.
Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates.
I screwed the barmaid.
Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here.
I screwed a lot of girls here.
Sollemnes, you screw well!
If you’d like to read all the graffiti (and I recommend you do), you can do so here. But you needn’t read it all to see one thing very clearly: Despite whatever beliefs you may have about the dignity of the Roman Empire, a whole host of Romans, it seems, were foul-mouthed, hyper-sexual, and frequently prone to sophomoric humor. The Pompeiians were a smart people, of course, and they built a beautiful city well ahead of its time. But it turns out that they were also kind of juvenile. Go figure.
In and of itself, the graffiti is interesting. Juxtaposed with today’s society, however, the silly musings say a lot about the tired conservative talking point that modern culture has somehow fallen into immorality and chaos. Rick Santorum was once quoted as saying, “Satan has his sights on the United States of America.” Elsewhere, David Cameron blamed 2011’s London riots on a “moral collapse.” In an American Conservative piece from last year titled “America’s Moral Decline,” the author ends with: “Neither Democrats or Republicans have the exclusive rights to morality, American or otherwise. But both parties continue to do grave damage to some of the most cherished values that have always made this country great.” Do a simple Google search for “America’s moral decline” and you’ll encounter thousands upon thousands of shrill rants from people convinced that our “sex-crazed” society is rapidly decaying. For decades now, the professional right has made a big business out of pretending that TV, the rise of gay culture, rap music, and dozens of other things have contributed to the fall of a once greatly moral world, all the while seeming to forget that Thomas Jefferson is known to have taken sexual advantage of his slaves and Benjamin Franklin is believed by some to have been part of a drunken orgy club.
It may make you feel nice to pretend that the societies that gave rise to the modern world were ones of pure honor and decency, but that’s not reality. The world isn’t on a moral decline, because there was never a time when the world was particularly morally superior. If we can glean anything from the Pompeiian graffiti, it’s that even citizens of history’s most immaculate and important civilizations liked their sex and poop jokes. And that fact is as humbling as any magnificent and ancient temple.