Last week I was directed to this wonderful page in the scholarly demesnes of the Interwebs: a collection of graffiti from the walls of Pompei, preserved along with everything else at the time of its cataclysm. The sentiments expressed range from the banal (“Romula hung out here with Staphylus”; “Marcus loves Spendusa”) to the confrontational (“Samius to Cornelius: go hang yourself!”) to the aphoristic (“Once you are dead, you are nothing”) to the obscene (“On June 15th, Hermeros screwed here with Phileterus and Caphisus”), along with combinations of several of the above (“Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog”) – in other words, almost exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to see scrawled in Sharpie on the walls of your local underfunded public restroom or city park. There’s perhaps more emphasis than in modern times about who was taking a dump where (“Anyone who wants to defecate in this place is advised to move along. If you act contrary to this warning, you will have to pay a penalty”) but, on the whole, it’s an almost comfortably recognizable litany: expressions of love, boasts about getting laid, grousing about the bad service, dirty gossip, and, of course, complaints about all the graffiti.
We would find the people of the ancient world to be alien and incomprehensible in many ways, and startlingly familiar in others, and which cultural mores fall into which category isn’t always what we might assume. But what strikes me (as was noted in the comment thread where this link came up) is how much this reads to modern eyes like a sort of classical Twitter, or Texts from Last Night – brief, on-the-spot records of lives in progress, little triumphs and humiliations and quarrels and public notices. The next time you hear some blowhard talking about how our culture is going to hell in a handbasket because of texting or tweeting, think of the Pompeians, who would surely have taken to smartphones with the same enthusiasm they seem to have had for wine, buggery, and crapping in public.
It’s hard to say what we can point to as universal human qualities, but I think, now that we have the miracle of literacy, we’re likely to want to use that incredible tool from time to time to record and share quotidian things, and to pass notes to each other about socializing and carousing and screwing and poop. And well we should; there’s room in the world for all of it, “high” and “low” sentiments and everything in between. Anyone who tries to tell you different is being an insufferable snob. (I suggest outing them as such on the wall of the bathhouse.)