‘Atimetus got me pregnant’

Emma Dench

  • Popular Culture in Ancient Rome by Jerry Toner
    Polity, 253 pp, £17.99, July 2009, ISBN 978 0 7456 4310 6

Scholars who have gone in search of Roman popular culture have focused on trying to recover the voices of ordinary Romans. Graffiti survive on the walls of Pompeii and other Roman towns, in arenas and at favourite destinations for ancient tourists, such as the miraculous ‘talking’ Colossi of Memnon and the Valley of the Kings. Romans boasted, named and shamed (‘Atimetus got me pregnant’ or ‘I fucked Nisus up the arse ten times’), and scrawled everything from elegant poems to ‘Lucius was here’ on ancient monuments. Curse tablets, which were often scratched (fortunately for us) on durable metals such as lead, and hung on walls, buried with the dead or deposited in water, begged for horrible things to happen to every organ of a rival’s body, expressed a desperate unrequited love, a determination that a favourite team in the chariot races should win, or anger about the theft of a cloak from the baths – clearly a major hazard. The gravestones that lined the roads in and out of any town in the Roman Empire, and the ‘dovecot’ funerary monuments that were shared by a household’s slaves and servants, carried posthumous opinions. One minimalist epitaph reads: ‘I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care.’

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