Episode 7: If These Walls Could Talk

Social Media is not just for modern folk. In ancient Pompeii, people also shared what they thought, who they met with, what they ate... It’s just, they had to use different technology.

Photograph by Tino Soriano
Photograph by Tino Soriano

Episode 7: If These Walls Could Talk

Social Media is not just for modern folk. In ancient Pompeii, people also shared what they thought, who they met with, what they ate... It’s just, they had to use different technology.

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Social Media is not just for modern folk. In ancient Pompeii, people also shared what they thought, who they met with, what they ate... It’s just, they had to use different technology.


PETER GWIN (HOST): I remember this faded reference book when I was a kid. It was about Pompeii. It had photos of villas that were filled with colorful frescoes, stone walls and marble columns and there were also all these plaster white figures frozen into all sorts of weird positions by the volcanic ash that buried the city. For a long time I thought, that’s Pompeii. Done and dusted. I mean, people have been digging it up for centuries. By now, we should know all there is to know about the city of Pompeii. Right?

REBECCA BENEFIEL (PROFESSOR): Oh my gosh, Pompeii has so much more to offer us.

GWIN: Rebecca Benefiel teaches Latin literature and Roman archeology at Washington & Lee University in Virginia. And she says, some of the most telling details about Pompeii are written all over the city’s walls. Literally written.

BENEFIEL: People didn't notice them for a while because ancient graffiti are really small.

GWIN: Really small but also all over the place.

BENEFIEL: People are writing everywhere. They're writing for their family and their friends and visitors.

GWIN: And all of that writing is bringing the people of Pompeii into focus like never before.

BENEFIEL: What are they thinking about? What are they doing? What matters to them? This is something that we can use to see into the lived experience, to see what the Pompeiians themselves were like.

GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin and this is Overheard at National Geographic. A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, the social media of ancient Pompeii. It took the form of words scratched into plaster walls and today, it’s helping reveal some of Pompeii’s secrets.

More on that, after the break.

[midroll break]

GWIN: Rebecca Benefiel spends her summers scouring the walls of Pompeii for graffiti. She says most of the graffiti isn’t very big. Think about handwriting on a post-it note.

BENEFIEL: So we're talking about very delicate writing in most cases and that to me was just so eye opening. It made me realize, okay. Our modern ideas about graffiti are, are nothing like what was going on in the first century.

GWIN: Okay so, no spray painting on subway cars and overpasses.

BENEFIEL: Vandals and teenagers! Really that's not what was going on in Pompeii.

GWIN: But it turns out, it’s not entirely separate from what was going on in Pompeii either.

BENEFIEL: Graffiti is actually an adjective meaning scratched in Italian. And so graffiti was born as a technical term for scratched, handwritten inscriptions in Roman ruins.

GWIN: Oh, wow. So the term itself actually comes from, from this place.

BENEFIEL: It does.

GWIN: Oh, my gosh. I had no idea.

BENEFIEL: It does. It does.

GWIN: Rebecca says you can find ancient graffiti in other Roman cities, but Pompeii? It’s a treasure trove thanks to Mount Vesuvius and its famous outburst in 79 A.D.

KRISTIN ROMEY (EDITOR): Vesuvius is, it's an ominous, ominous mountain and it's still incredibly dangerous.

GWIN: Kristin Romey is a colleague of mine here at Nat Geo who covers archaeology.

ROMEY: We do have an account, an eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius written by a Roman named Pliny the Younger.

GWIN: Pliny the Younger didn’t live in Pompeii. He lived on the other side of the Bay of Naples.

But he watched the eruption while his uncle attempted to rescue people by boat. And then a few decades later, he wrote letters to a Roman historian about what he witnessed that day. And Kristin has a copy of one.

ROMEY: “Then we saw the sea sucked back, apparently by an earthquake, and many sea creatures were left stranded on the dry sand. From the other direction over the land, a dreadful black cloud was torn by gushing flames in great tongues of fire, like much magnified lightning.”

GWIN: And Kristen says, for two days, ash and volcanic rock rained down on Pompeii.

ROMEY: If you came back to Pompeii after this eruption, you would see, you know, the Colosseum of Pompeii poking up above the ash. You, you might see some of these larger monuments. But then everything else, it's just a poisonous, dead landscape.

GWIN: Basically, Pompeii was erased from the map for a long, long time. The first big archaeological digs didn’t start until the 1800s. And it wasn’t until the end of that century that a German archeologist wrote a book that brought Pompeii to the masses. Rebecca Benefiel says it was translated into a bunch of languages.

BENEFIEL: And in that book, towards the very end, he has a small chapter on graffiti. And he says, you know, the graffiti generally don't give us much information because the type of people who would scrawl their name on walls are not the type of people that we're interested in. And so there's this idea that we really are interested in the elites of town, kind of the leading citizens, the ones who have the nice homes with the good art.

GWIN: That was the thinking back then. But not anymore.

BENEFIEL: Right now, people are also interested in knowing what was the entire, um, what was the entire population like? We're no longer at that point where we say, well, let's just not study anyone who was poor.

GWIN: And Rebecca says there’s all these discoveries that had been ignored. Unlike other Roman ruins, when Pompeii was rediscovered, it still had its plaster walls. In the fancy villas, they were covered with colorful frescoes of food and ancient gods and myths. But even the less fancy homes had drawings on the plaster.

BENEFIEL: We get drawings of gladiators and sometimes you have gladiators labeled with their name and their record of wins.

GWIN: Kind of like the stats on a baseball card.

BENEFIEL: And when you draw a gladiator, you don't just draw a little person. You draw a gladiator with a particular type of equipment that he held because every gladiator had a, had a particular type of equipment. So did they have a short round shield? Did they have the net and the trident? Did they have a curved sword or a straight sword?

GWIN: But Rebecca says there’s something for everyone on the walls of Pompeii. From sports to politics to religion, people wrote all kinds of stuff.

BENEFIEL: So the graffiti include prayers to the gods. They include quotations of literature. So we get a lot of the opening lines of Virgil's Aeneid. They include grocery lists, which often are very helpful because they include prices next to the, the products. They sometimes include math problems. They include a lot of messages about family. So Successus writes to his brother and sends him lots of loving greetings.

GWIN: Nat Geo’s Kristen Romey has a favorite. And It’s not a loving greeting.

ROMEY: On the wall on the exterior wall of a tavern, some disgruntled customer wrote, don't drink the wine here. It's watered down. Go down the road.

GWIN: That's like a Yelp review right there on the wall.

ROMEY: Exactly.

GWIN: Kristin says one of the weirdest examples of graffiti she’s come across is from a site buried near Pompeii.

ROMEY: And it was written by this guy, Apollinaris. And he says, I am Apollinaris. I am the doctor of the Emperor Titus. I have defecated very well here. It was on the wall of the latrine.

GWIN: What is Apollinaris?

ROMEY: Apollinaris was a doctor. He was a doctor for the Roman emperor and he took the time to carve into the wall of the latrine that he had a particularly enjoyable stay.

GWIN: That is bizarre.

ROMEY: And to our, to our minds, it is bizarre. Right?

GWIN: This is like, this is like, like Roman social media. It feels - you've got, you know, bad wine reviews. You've got a guy saying that this is a good latrine, I mean.

BENEFIEL: But the other interesting thing is, if you're looking at who identifies themselves in this graffiti, we've got graffiti from people of, that we wouldn't assume were literate.

GWIN: People like women and Roman slaves. Rebecca Benefiel says this next one was written outside of a theater in Pompeii.

BENEFIEL: It says, Methe the slave of Cominia loves Chrestus, May Pompeian Venus be propitious in her heart to both and may these two always live harmoniously.

GWIN: A prayer written by a slave. Rebecca says she started telling other scholars about this and they found it hard to believe.

BENEFIEL: It was just, I think, so hard for people to think, well, no, why would a woman be writing and why would a slave be writing? But I think more it was more problematic that a woman would be writing. And so people were like, but how can we say this? How can we prove this?

GWIN: Maybe by showing that it wasn’t just one woman writing?

BENEFIEL: We can look and see actually, you know, there are a couple of hundred graffiti where women are writing.

GWIN: In fact, everybody seemed to be writing on the walls. Rich people. Poor people. Slaves. Women. Men. Even people just passing through Pompeii. Rebecca says, that’s the magic of the graffiti.

BENEFIEL: It shows you how human the Pompeiians and visitors to Pompeii were. And that's, that's kind of really the thing that sends shivers down my spine about studying these graffiti is that these are real people. I think that's what the graffiti do. They, they help us envision the ancient city full of life and full of people who are sharing their thoughts and often communicating with each other. It really shows as people living together and writing to each other and sharing, sharing moments.

GWIN: And that sounds a lot like us. We’re still sharing our thoughts all over the place. Scholars have gained all sorts of insights into daily life from the graffiti in Pompeii. But Rebecca says, the graffiti - it’s fragile.

BENEFIEL: So they were scratched in very small letters on plaster. And if that plaster is exposed to sun and rain, it eventually crumbles. And that's one of the saddest things. One of the one of the trips I went when I was working on my dissertation, I went to Pompei looking for this one wall. And it, had - I found, I found the wall, but it was in fragments and plaster dust on the on the floor because it's plaster. And especially if you get these hard friezes, the plaster detaches from the wall. It's just, it's not meant to be forever.

GWIN: That’s why Rebecca and her students spend their summers documenting as much graffiti as they can. And they post it in an online database which anyone can access. But some of the graffiti that’s been found isn’t scratched in plaster. There are new digs going on in Pompeii right now and the site’s director posted a recent discovery on Instagram.

BENEFIEL: So it was written in charcoal, which is essentially like us writing in pencil.

GWIN: In other words, even more fragile than the graffiti scratched in plaster.

BENEFIEL: You could erase charcoal very easily. All you had to do is essentially kind of brush against it or wipe your hand against it and charcoal disappears.

GWIN: Rebecca says hardly any charcoal inscriptions survived because it’s just too easy to erase. But this one did survive, which means it probably wasn’t written too long before Mount Vesuvius erupted. And that’s sparking a lot of interesting conversation.

BENEFIEL: Because it has a date in it.

GWIN: October 17th. But no year. Okay, so here’s why that date could matter: remember those letters from Pliny the Younger about the eruption? Scholars relied on copies of those letters for the date of the eruption: August 24.

BENEFIEL: But a lot of archeological material that has been studied and found would suggest that we should probably be looking later in the fall because you have things like grapes and pomegranates that have recently been harvested and you don't harvest grapes in August. You harvest grapes usually in late September and October. And when we look at the clothes that the victims are wearing in Pompeii, it looks like they're wearing pretty heavy clothes that you wouldn't want to be wearing in Pompeii in August.

GWIN: So there was some evidence that maybe Mount Vesuvius didn’t erupt in the summer, but instead, in the fall. And then, this graffiti is discovered, dated mid-October, written in charcoal. Ephemeral charcoal! And some people think that means it was written the same year of the eruption and then buried and preserved in volcanic ash for another 2000 years before it was found, just recently.

Do you think this is the smoking gun? Is this sort of like, does this put the, put the stamp on it? We really, okay. Later, later date for explosion.

BENEFIEL: I think we have - okay, here you go.

GWIN: I’m putting you on the spot here, totally putting you on the spot.

BENEFIEL: I think we have a lot of evidence and I love when it all comes together. And I think this is a puzzle piece. And it, it is another piece of the puzzle that does suggest there’s a lot of evidence that’s, that’s yes, going for a later date.

GWIN: You're totally hedging here. Come on. No, I'm teasing you. I'm teasing you, but that's fascinating. So what other pieces would we need for you to be more certain?


GWIN: Is it the kind of thing where we could ever be certain?

BENEFIEL: Um, I, I think that academic and scholars tend to speak in probabilities and I’ll say there’s a high probability now. I think we have a lot of evidence that points to a later date.

GWIN: So you mentioned this, that there's a date, but what does the actual inscription itself say?

BENEFIEL: So the actual graffiti itself is, is it's not hugely illuminating beyond the date. But essentially it says that on this date in October, someone overindulged in food.


BENEFIEL: He ate too much. So it’s this sort of thing --

GWIN: You're kidding. That's the thing?

BENEFIEL: I am not. I am not.

GWIN: We're hinging the discovery , of the new date of Vesuvius' eruption on that guy had indigestion.

BENEFIEL: Yeah or maybe he ate too much. He was just a big old glutton.

GWIN: Archeologists are still debating how long before the volcanic eruption this gluttonous graffiti was written. And while it may not be definitive proof that Vesuvius exploded in the autumn instead of the summer, it does add one more piece to the puzzle that is Pompeii. A place I thought we had figured out a long time ago, only to discover there’s so much more to learn.

Who knows what else is in Pompeii? Still buried or scratched on its walls, just waiting for somebody to come along and pay attention.

More after the break.


Check out the graffiti Rebecca Benefiel has been documenting and we also have some ​tips about how to stay safe if you ever find yourself near an erupting volcano. You’ll find the links in our show notes. And if you want another story about Roman ruins left after a natural disaster, check out “Digging up Disaster,” our episode about Cesarea and its lost harbor.

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Emma Jacobs, Robin Miniter, Brian Gutierrez, and Jacob Pinter.

Our Senior Producers are Kristen Clark and Jinae West.

Ibby Caputo edits Overheard.

Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.

Our Deputy Director of Podcasts is Emily Ochsenschlager.

Hansdale Soo composed our theme music and engineers our episodes with additional help from Interface Media Group.

Special thanks to Steve Ellis, Kristina Milnor, Jacqueline DiBiasie-Sammons, Emily Richardson-Lorente, and Cozima Amelang.

Overheard is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is our editorial director.

I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening and see y’all next week.