Emily Gowers, in her TLS review of Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii by Kristina Milnor, makes some very interesting points about the inseparability of low and high, just the kind of thing I love:
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. […] 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. The affinity between Catullus’ more aggressive poems and graffito abuse is famous (and acknowledged by him when he follows up a threat of oral rape by offering to cover tavern walls with phallic images), while the satirist Persius likens himself to a naughty boy peeing in sacred precincts and scrawling insults behind the emperor’s back.
One of the most extreme forms of high–low exchange takes the form of engagement with Virgil’s Aeneid. Published three generations before the destruction of Pompeii and already consecrated as Rome’s national epic, this would seem to be the perfect example of a unified textual corpus. But, as Milnor shows, Virgil was almost instantly atomized into bite-sized snippets which permeated the popular consciousness and embarked on their own creative afterlife – just as “To be or not to be” did, or “The boy stood on the burning deck”. It would be nice to find something significant in the Pompeians’ choice of Virgilian lines (a few of them contain anti-Greek sentiment, for example). But mostly they are mindlessly ludic, especially when they use the momentous opening, “Arms and the man”. One variation, “I sing of fullers and the screech owl, not arms and the man”, takes us neatly from the Olympian heights of Augustan literature to the world of street traders and craft guilds (the owl was the fullers’ mascot). Some wag, spotting that a formal election announcement fortuitously contains the acronym DIDO, has inserted a tiny “Arma virumque” beneath it. “Everyone fell silent”, the audience’s preparation for Aeneas’ narrative of his post-Troy adventures, is knowingly redeployed in a mural context. Milnor has to conclude that most quotations, above all those of Virgil’s opening words, are “meaningless, not meaningful”. Aeneas had already become a kind of Everyman, his poem a dispersible symbol of authority and national spirit available for all Romans to imprint on its segments their individual stamp. Yet such authorship as is claimed is of an offbeat kind – opportunist and ultimately irresponsible.
[…] Pompeii, a city dedicated to Venus, contains a disproportionate amount of erotic graffiti and erotic wall-painting, though it is still unclear how much that really reflects the economic activities of this particular town. At any rate, it was more multilingual and cosmopolitan than quiet, graffiti-free Herculaneum (Pompeii even offers samples of the proto-Arabic Safaitic script). Yet it is less local difference than the wide reach and common repertoire of Roman popular culture that Milnor is keen to emphasize. The address to a beleaguered wall quoted above [“I’m amazed, wall, that you haven’t fallen down in ruins, since you bear the tedious outpourings of so many writers”] is no one-off but is found at least three times in Pompeii in different hands. Far from being the authentic voice of a single individual, the message was a replicable meme: a kind of ancient “Kilroy was here”. And repeated variations on the motif “We couldn’t wait to get here, we can’t wait to leave” made it the Roman equivalent of “. . . and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”.
Interestingly, whereas the online review is titled “Ancient vandalism?” the version in my physical copy is called “Conticuere omnes,” the Latin original of the “Everyone fell silent” quoted in the review. I don’t think an American publication for a general (i.e., non-classicist) readership would allow itself such an allusion; I’m glad someone does.