Slaves Tell Tales: And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece

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It was just trivial nonsense.

Trying to understand graffiti from the non-elite viewpoint, we can see that one of the most basic purposes of graffiti was to while away time. Long periods of inactivity, on account of underemployment, were likely to have been commonplace for many of the non-elite, and graffiti helped fill that void. Work provided a cornerstone of non-elite identity in a way that otium did for the elite, and we can interpret the need to scratch surfaces as a kind of displacement activity for the work that it temporarily replaced.

An emphasis on the almost cutthroat competition that pervaded all of Roman culture can obscure the pronounced element of courtesy that is found in many graffiti. But that is not to deny the strong competitive streak. Much of the graffiti employs an aggressive, mocking, but jocular tone towards its readers and interlocutors, treating them as semi-serious rivals in a textual-verbal competition. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion. Salvius wrote this. If you want to know why, it was because there was no chamber pot.

Banter was not simply abuse. From the male point of view, this kind of jocular sparring helped to create a sense of community. It was not purely designed to wound the recipient. The collective humour it generated supported group morale and established a hierarchy of wit. Reducing individuals to physical traits and urges can also be seen as a way of emphasising the supremacy of the group over and above the individual.

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However competitive their world, the non-elite needed each other to survive, whether it was working together in a fishing boat or a fullery, or serving in the legions. The non-elite male was expected to be tough enough to laugh off such taunts and share in the collective laughter. It was, though, a model of social relations that was patently aggressive and argumentative. Banter therefore reflected a belief in a form of collectivity. Much of the social life of ordinary Romans probably centred on the local communities in which they lived and worked.

These areas served as strong cultural and even political boundaries within the city of Rome. Maintaining friendly social contact in the good times would help to establish mutual ties that could be turned to when people needed help. Often they refer to each other as eating together comestores.

We can see this type of group solidarity as representing a sense of cultural camaraderie. One of the characteristics of the popular graffiti noticed by Plutarch was that it sought to establish shared memories and build relationships.

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However, in the same way that the elite maintained a network of social equals bound by amicitia , so we can see among the lower classes a recognition of the benefits that such a social group could bring the individual. It was a way of asserting the value of community. Similarly, we can see camaraderie as a way of amplifying the individual voice. On his own—and I am primarily talking about Roman men here—a man of the lower ranks was weak; when joined with his peers, he had greater potency. We can a see a comparable powerful sense of community at work in contexts such as the games. Coming together in shared pleasures was a way for the collected Romans to assert their group values and desires.

Their collective voice could also, on occasion, have influence over those at the very top of society through group chants and complaints. But this sense of collectivity was limited by the very real need for the non-elite to compete among themselves for money and status. This sense of shared struggle, both against the world and within the group, was reflected in the popular fascination with the competitive contests of the games. A recurrent image in figurative Roman graffiti is that of the gladiator.

Interestingly, this gladiator graffiti tends to contain lots of information, in the form of facts and figures. What mattered was results. It also suggests that numeracy was far more important in the outlook of people than we might otherwise imagine.

SEHEPUNKTE - Rezension von: Slaves Tell Tales - Ausgabe 12 (), Nr. 11

The ability to count and calculate, to know how to price and evaluate, however, was an indispensable skill. Graffiti concerning non-elite male relations with women reflect a similar sense of shared pain and conflict. Let him die twice over whoever forbids love. So, force me to die since you force me to live without you. Your gift will be to stop torturing me. This is how men liked to see and portray themselves, emphasising their powerlessness in the face of a passion so great that it would overcome any rival.

We should also remember how different were notions of sexuality in the Roman world. My penis has given you up.

Goodbye, wondrous femininity! It may also reflect something of the underlying complexity of non-elite sexual relations. The gods themselves were established as a divine model for this form of aggressive social relations. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy.

Slaves Tell Tales : And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece

It was a shared joke among the weak at the expense of an immeasurably more-powerful being. It is tempting to see a parallel with how non-elite individuals might have grumbled among themselves about their social superiors. Epictetus tells how people would sometimes vilify the emperor and share their complaints in the taverns of Rome. We can easily imagine that such a sense of solidarity in the face of perceived maltreatment from members of the patron class was a common phenomenon.

Gossip could be used to try and keep people in their proper place and put pressure on them to conform with the unwritten rules of acceptable social conduct.


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This was primarily an oral culture; talking to each other was how people exchanged information and formed opinions. The gossip-graffiti can be seen as reflecting the ways that people went about establishing and demolishing reputations through verbal means. Again, it reflects a society where the communal dominated the individual, but one that also required constant attention from the individual in order to maintain his or her status within it.

Plutarch complained that graffiti were both useless and artless. They were certainly often practical. Anyone who returns it to me will be given 65 sestertii.

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That is not to say that many graffiti did not strive for artistic effect. Milnor has shown how the opposite was often the case. Likewise, we should not conceive of their social interactions with one another as being simply functional and to the point. Indeed, as we have seen, in the graffiti they were often characterised by what seems to be a complex and discursive set of social beliefs about how individuals should behave towards each other.

Reflecting a need to maintain both group solidarity and individual status within the group, the banter of graffiti operated as a complicated system of non-elite communication. Banter also reflected the valorisation of a certain quick-wittedness, a kind of streetwise nous that served to incubate the non-elite from the excesses of competition that could otherwise easily confuse them. Even daily acts of buying and selling were constant battles of wits between merchants and customers. Sometimes it was the scales that were fixed so that unfair measures were given out, other times the quality of the produce had been tampered with.

You sell water but drink unmixed wine yourself. If graffiti can tell us about the manner in which primarily male non-elite social relations took place, then surviving Pompeian tavern art can reveal something about the communal context in which such social contact often occurred. I want to focus on three particular wall paintings, two from the bar of Salvius, another from the bar of Mercurius. Below is a transcript of the text accompanying one of the images from the bar of Salvius, which shows two men quarrelling while playing dice.

The second image from the bar of Salvius shows a woman carrying a pitcher of wine and a drinking cup. Two seated men each claim the drink for themselves.

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Two are seated at a table, gambling, while the other pair observe. What can these relatively simple images tell us about non-elite social relations in the Roman world? Taverns featured prominently in the social life of the urban population. Taverns functioned as both leisure sites and, because most people did not have access to cooking facilities, as places to get hot food. Cold food and wine were also served. They were so popular that in Pompeii, with about 20, inhabitants, approximately inns and bars have been found so far there is still much to be excavated , or about one per people in the population.

Their importance was such that the Romans had numerous names for these eating and drinking places: taberna, popina, ganeum, caupona, hospitium, deversorium. Often these places offered other entertainments, including music, prostitution, and gambling.