Vandalism As Literature


Emily Gowers is captivated by Kristina Milnor’s Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii:

Milnor reads the graffiti as carefully as any literary text, picking out clever manipulations of lines from Ovid and Virgil and the rhymes hidden in abbreviations that speak of subtle play on the aural and read experience of words. She also takes account of the original location of graffiti, which was often placed so as to initiate a dialogue with adjacent visual images. Along with crudity, she finds delicate sequences of erotic poems and even – wishful thinking, perhaps – Rome’s only personal declaration of lesbian desire. Her project fits well with other recent explorations of the fuzzy areas at the margins of canonical Latin literature: paratexts, pseudepigrapha (fakes ascribed to famous authors) and centos. In her view, one reason graffiti should intrigue us is because it shows how permeable the borders were between elite and popular culture. Street songs influenced higher genres; conversely, letter-writing etiquette and the metrical conventions of epic, drama and elegy were widely known among ordinary scribblers.

(Photo of Pompeiian graffiti via Wikimedia Commons)