The Writing on the Walls: Reading the Sexual Passivity of Herculaneum Women*
1¶ Ancient graffiti– drawings and text inscribed onto the face of a wall– are increasingly acknowledged as valuable sources for studying the daily lives of the ancients. Unlike monumental inscriptions or political programmata, graffiti are imbued with immediacy and do not require an intermediary writer to convey a person’s sentiments. For these reasons, graffiti offer an illuminating glimpse into the lives of those typically excluded from the historical record. The lively epigraphic culture of the ancient Bay of Naples and the state of preservation of the cities therein provide a dense, diverse assortment of ancient graffiti. This study focuses on the graffiti of Herculaneum to bring the women of this ancient city into the fore through their presence in graffiti. In particular, I examine the ways in which sexual agency and passivity are represented in erotic graffiti. In this city, male voices are repeatedly represented as dominant to the passive, subordinated voices of women, and the sense of female sexual agency that appears in many Pompeian graffiti is generally not reflected in the graffiti of Herculaneum.
2¶ Ramsay MacMullen coined the term “epigraphic habit” to describe the ubiquity of inscriptions throughout the Roman world. A subset of this “epigraphic habit” is the “graffiti habit,” the tendency of the Romans to inscribe texts and images onto walls or other surfaces not designed for inscribing. Graffiti served varying functions, including providing salutations, commemorating events, counting days, or maintaining financial information. They have been found in spaces both domestic and public, and, unlike our notions of contemporary graffiti, they were not received as obtrusive or destructive, but rather served as informal, on-going dialogues between text, people, spaces, and images. This “graffiti habit” can be observed throughout the Latin-speaking world, though there is a high density of graffiti in the Bay of Naples; over 9,000 graffiti, including both textual and figural graffiti, have been found in the remains of these ancient cities. These inscriptions are generally dated between 62 CE and 79 CE– the years between the destructive earthquake and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
3¶ The erotic graffiti that dominate the walls of Pompeii in particular have received much scholarly attention given the wealth of inscriptions in this city; Pompeii alone has yielded circa 7,000 textual inscriptions. However, scholarship has largely bypassed the sexual graffiti of Herculaneum. These erotic graffiti occur in both private and public spaces throughout the city. For the purposes of this study, “erotic graffiti” will be categorized as those which include sexual verbs, amorous feelings, or erotic images. Of the city’s circa 350 published graffiti, Herculaneum provides 13 inscriptions that fit into this category, comprising roughly 4% of the city’s graffiti. The following table provides an overview of the erotic graffiti that explicitly reference women or in which women are made conspicuous by their absence:
4¶ Erotic Graffiti
|CIL IV.10568||Ma(n)sueta / tene ((:phallus))||V.9-10, thermopolium||Commercial|
|CIL IV.10628||V? Bombycion / fellat||Insula Orientalis I.2||Domestic|
|CIL IV.10675||Duo sodales hic fuerunt, et, cum diu malum / Ministrum in omnia haberent / nomine Epaphroditum, vix tarde / Eum foras exigerunt (:exegerunt). / Consumpserunt persuavissime cum futuere ((sestertius)) CVS||Suburban Baths||Public|
|CIL IV.10677||Apelles cubicularius / cum Dextro Caesar(is) / pranderunt hic / iucundissime et / futuere simul||Suburban Baths||Public|
|CIL IV.10678||Apelles Mus cum gratre Dextro / Amabiliter futuimus bis / bina(s)||Suburban Baths||Public|
|CIL IV.10684||Sala[rius] glabe(r) rusiunnae (?) Lavinia(m) futui||Ramp||Public|
|CIL IV.10697||Fortunatus amat Amplianda(m). /
Ianuarius amat Veneria(m). /
Rogamus damna (:domina) Venus /
ut nos in mente(m) habias (:habeas) /
quod te modo introrgamus. (:interrogamus)
5¶ Deborah Kamen and Sarah Levin-Richardson review the current theories of ancient sexuality and subsequently refine the definitions of agents and their actions. Applying Kamen and Levin-Richardson’s map of Roman sexuality to the erotic graffiti that we find in Herculaneum provides an informative reading of the representation of gender relations and sexual attitudes in the graffiti of this ancient city. Kamen and Levin-Richardson specifically articulate the problems with penetrative models of ancient sexuality– that a woman cannot be active as she lacks a penis and thus cannot penetrate. Instead, these authors argue that a woman’s sexual agency was conceptualized independently from her penetrative role. Their revised model of ancient sexuality permits the idea of a sexually active woman, which the authors define as a woman who is the subject of active verbs, who moves her body independently during sex, or who desires sex. Roman women who were active participants in sex were described as tribas (a woman who penetrates), fututrix (a woman who actively moves her body or desires sex), or fellatrix (woman who performs fellatio). Additionally, the active verb forms of futuo and fello connote the sexual agency of their subject.
6¶ Examples of women’s sexual agency appear in several graffiti in Pompeii, both through using titles for women that indicate sexual agency and through women acting as the subjects of the active verbs futuo and fello. Levin-Richardson argues that there are examples of Pompeian graffiti which were plausibly written and read by women and that many of these graffiti reflect female sexual agency. The graffiti of Herculaneum, however, do not yield the same indications of female sexual agency as defined by Kamen and Levin-Richardson. Indeed, when examining these graffiti in closer detail, we see a near absence of female agency in graffiti reporting sexual activity. Women are the often the objects of the active verb futuo, the standard obscenity used to describe normative male sexual behavior, penetrative vaginal intercourse. The identities of both the fututor and the fututa are provided in one inscription, CIL IV.10684: Sala[rius] glabe(r) rusiunnae (?) Lavinia(m) futui (“I, hairless Salarius, fucked Lavinia of Rusiunna (?)”). Here, Lavinia is presented as the fututa, the direct object having been fucked by the sexually dominant Salarius. Lavinia assumes the normative, passive female role in ancient Roman sexuality and represents the object of Salarius’s active verb, futui. As Levin-Richardson demonstrates, women were not praised for assuming this normative passive role. In the Roman conception of sexuality, normative women were subjugated and socially disparaged through penetration; when they are penetrated, women’s bodies are violated, and they relinquish their bodily autonomy. Thus, while in this graffito Lavinia performs the normative function of a Roman femina during sex, she is not conceptualized as honorable; rather, she is intimately violated, and her penetration is publically declared on the public ramp into the city.
7¶ Beyond just subjugation to the sexually passive, penetrated role, women are entirely omitted from boasts of male sexual conquest in three other graffiti using futuo, all from the Suburban Baths. This occurs in CIL IV.10675: … Consumpserunt persuavissime cum futuere ((sestertius)) CVS” (“…They most agreeably spent 150 sestertii to fuck”); again in CIL IV.10677: Apelles cubicularius / cum Dextro Caesar(is) / pranderunt hic / iucundissime et / futuere simul (“The servant Apelles with Caesar’s Dextrus ate here must pleasantly and, at the same time, they fucked”); and in CIL IV.10678: Apelles Mus cum gratre Dextro / Amabiliter futuimus bis / bina(s) (“We, Apelles Mus with Dextrus, lovingly, willingly fucked a pair twice”). The women remain anonymous in these inscriptions, making them conspicuous only through their absence. In CIL IV.10678, the verb’s objects are vaguely called binas, a pair, and in CIL IV.10675 and 10677, the verbs’ objects are excluded entirely. Understanding that futuo represents the normative sexual behavior for Roman men, women must be the intended direct objects of these verbs. Thus, through the anonymity and absence of women in these graffiti, the sexual experiences of men are regarded as more important than those of women, so much so that women are not even mentioned. In his discussion the verb futuo, Adams writes that in expressions of fututio, the identity of the subject’s partner was unimportant. This group of inscriptions exemplifies this prioritization of the fututor’s experience; not only are the partners unimportant, they are completely anonymous. Here, women are depicted as sexually passive to the point of silence and exclusion from these inscriptions.
8¶ The sexually passive role for women is represented not only through textual inscriptions but through composite graffiti that include dialogues between text and image. Two graffiti found on the wall of a thermopolium (CIL IV.10568) offer this type of informative dialogue. Rebecca Benefiel proposes three types of dialogues that can be considered when interpreting ancient graffiti: dialogues between textual graffiti, dialogues between textual and figural graffiti, and dialogues between graffiti and their physical location. The dialogue created between the text of CIL IV.10568 and the nearby figural graffito of a phallus contributes to our understanding of sexual relationships between men and women in this city. In this graffito, it may be tempting to imagine that the author of the text was the same person as the illustrator of the drawing. However, the text of the inscription was written in carbon, whereas the phallus to the right was incised into the wall’s surface. While this discrepancy in media does not preclude the possibility that the text and drawing share a scribe, a more likely scenario may be that one was written first, and the other was added later by a second hand. Regardless, the inscriber of the later graffito would have consciously placed his or her inscription in close proximity to the earlier graffito, thus creating a dialogue between the text and image.
9¶ The dialogue created here reads Man(s)ueta / tene ((:phallus)) (“Mansueta hold (this/ a) phallus”) with the imperative verb suggesting that the author has ordered Mansueta, a Roman woman, to hold this phallus. There is no indication that Mansueta will hold or has held the phallus of her own volition, only that she is told to perform the action assigned by the scribe. Regarding manual stimulation, Kamen and Levin-Richardson discuss an example from Martial’s epigrams, IX.22.1-6, in which a hand is described as fututrici (“fornicating, fucking”). The vivid expression suggests an active, agentive connotation for the word fututrix and its various forms as the hand is sexually active, moving up and down a penis. However, CIL IV.10568 lacks such sexually explicit verbs, participles, or nouns that may likewise indicate sexual agency. Rather, teneo, a verb that does not carry the connotation of movement or motion, is used here. This then leads us to consider the drawing. The image of a phallus placed beside this inscription emphasizes the man’s penis and, thus, his own sexual experience. Additionally, the author has underscored the dominant male role through the use of the imperative verb, tene. This mood lends a stronger, more dominating voice to the speaker, perhaps the imagined owner of the phallus, and subjugates Mansueta to the passive role, acting in response to the command of the scribe. Here again, the sexual experience of a Herculaneum woman is shown as subordinated to a that of man.
10¶ Not only are women represented as subordinate to men in sexually explicit graffiti but also in amorous declarations of male affection. We find such an expression of love on the city’s ramp, a place of heavy traffic and high visibility. This graffito, CIL IV.10697, reads Fortunatus amat Amplianda(m). Ianuarius amat Veneria(m)… (“Fortunatus loves Amplianda. Ianuarius loves Veneria…”). The men, Fortunatus and Ianuarius, are the subjects of amo in both statements, thus serving as the active agent. They are actively loving, and the women, Amplianda and Veneria, passively receive the men’s love. While this graffito uses amatory language rather than sexually explicit language, here again, women are presented as the passive objects of male desire.
11¶ In contrast to these graffiti which subjugate women, one graffito in Herculaneum represents female sexual agency, CIL IV.10628, V? Bombycion / fellat (“V? Bombycion sucks”). In his review of CIL IV.3.3-4, Heikki Solin suggests that Bombycion should be read as Βομβύλιον, the name of a woman, using onomastic data and the verb fellat as contextual support for this claim. In Pompeian graffiti, women are repeatedly presented as the subjects of the active verb fello, “to suck” or “to perform oral sex on a man,” supporting Solin’s suggestion that Bombycion, or Βομβύλιον, was indeed the name of a woman. Oral sex occupies a complicated space within the scheme of Roman sexuality. Williams comments upon the striking ubiquity of references to fellatio in Pompeian graffiti. Of the 241 allusions to sex (oral sex, vaginal sex, cinaedus, and pathicus) that appear in published Pompeian graffiti, 126 graffiti refer to oral sex. He notes that evidence of this preoccupation with fellatio is salient throughout the Latin-speaking world.  Kamen and Levin-Richardson elaborate on the way oral sex– when performed on a Roman man– was conceptualized. The two primary verbs to describe this were fello (“to suck”) and irrumo (“to penetrate a mouth”). They argue that fello reflects female sexual agency in the way it emphasizes female action, whereas irrumo stresses male action and female passivity, emphasizing the man’s penetrative role. Thus, fello may be imbued with a sense of female agency whereas irrumo may not. In CIL IV.10628, Bombycion is recorded as the subject of fellat, and this inscription stresses her action rather than the action of her anonymous male partner. This inscription is unique in the agency it lends Bombycion. In Herculaneum, however, this graffito is the sole exception to the rule; nowhere else in the city is the same evidence of female agency demonstrated through ancient graffiti.
12¶ This graffito gains an additional layer of agency when considering issues of female authorship and, relatedly, literacy. Scholars have previously offered methods of inferring authorship from graffiti. Levin-Richardson writes that it was common for graffiti writers to refer to themselves in the third person (as in CIL IV.1841 scribit Narcissus). She suggests that, as is usually done with male subjects, self-referential graffiti that include female subjects ought to be considered female-authored. CIL IV.10628 is similarly self-referential as Bombycion performs the action of fellat. While there is no way of definitively knowing the true author or intention of this text, this graffito is the exception among the erotic graffiti of Herculaneum in the way it opens the possibility of not only female agency but also female authorship.
13¶ Millennia removed from the moment of their inscription, the intent behind graffiti remains elusive. Erotic graffiti in particular could be factual, invective, or comical. As Williams notes, humor is a particularly difficult element to gauge with the Romans having had such a variety of comedic registers. Graffiti are also inherently fragmentary, as the texts themselves are often damaged and as they only represent a sample of the graffiti that may have initially existed. However, graffiti are invaluable in revealing what everyday Romans deemed worthy of inscribing on the surfaces that surrounded them. Locations of graffiti can shed light on what was considered appropriate for domestic and public spaces. Each of the erotic graffiti discussed here, save CIL IV.10628, were inscribed in public settings: baths, a thermapolium, the ramp into the city. Each boast of sexual conquest, each declaration of love was intended to be seen publicly. In this way, the Herculaneum graffiti add to our understanding of not only how first century Romans represented sexual dynamics but also how they conceptualized spaces and the dialogues created therein.
* I would like to acknowledge Dr. Rebecca Benefiel for the opportunity to participate in the Ancient Graffiti Project and the Herculaneum Graffiti Project (field season 2016). I would also thank my research mentor, Dr. Holly Sypniewski, for her consistent and insightful feedback on this project.
 For discussions about the “epigraphic habit” of the Romans, see MacMullen 1982 and Meyer 1990.
 Cooley 2012: 111.
 For dialogues of ancient graffiti, see Benefiel 2010 and 2011.
 For discussions of erotic Pompeian graffiti, see Varone 2002, Levin-Richardson 2013, Williams 2014, Kamen and Levin Richardson 2015.
 CIL IV.10676, reading Hermeros Prìmigeniae dominae: / venì Puteolos in vìco Tyaniano et quaere / a Messio nummulario Hermerotem Phoebì, is excluded from the above table as it does not contain any explicit verbs related to sex or love, nor is it associated with any erotic nouns or images. This graffito is sometimes included in discussions of erotic graffiti because the name Primagenia has been found in other inscriptions (CIL IV.10241, 8356, 10676, 8301, 8769c, 8260a, 4270), and she was thought to have been a high-class prostitute or courtesan. Additionally, graffiti which mention cinaedi (CIL IV.10654c, 10654d, and 10671) are omitted from this table as they do not reference, name, or involve women. CIL IV.10607 and 10694 are omitted for the same reason.
 The symbols ((: )), (: ), and (( )) are epigraphic conventions used by the Epigraphic Database Roma. ((: )) indicates the presence of figural graffiti. The image is described inside the double parentheses. (: ) represents spelling variants, with the normalized forms of words inserted in the parentheses. (( )) indicates a symbol in the text, with the symbol included in the double parentheses.
 Kamen and Levin-Richardson 2015: 231-252.
 Ibid.: 235.
 Ibid.: 245.
 Kamen and Levin-Richardson 2015: 238.
 Kamen and Levin-Richardson argue for the agency of a fututrix through literary examples (epigrams by Martial) as well as grammatically. Fututrix is derived from the verb futuo, “to fuck.” If the writer intended a passive connotation, then they would have instead written the passive noun form of this verb, fututa, “one who has been fucked;” fututa has been attested in ancient Pompeian graffiti; ibid.: 245.
 Interestingly, the noun fellatrix appears only in ancient graffiti; ibid.: 239.
 Ibid.: 249.
 Examples include CIL IV.2204 (Μολα φουτουτρις), CIL IV.4196 (Miduse fututrix), CIL IV.2559 (Fortunata fellat)
 Levin-Richardson 2013: 327.
 Levin-Richardson 2013: 327-328.
 Adams 1982: 120.
 Benefiel 2010: 60.
 Kamen and Levin-Richardson 2015: 246.
 Solin 1973: 272.
 Examples of fello in Pompeian graffiti include CIL IV.2278 (Nice fellat), CIL IV.1651 (Rufilla felat), and CIL IV.7057 (Fyllis felat).
 Williams 2014: 499.
 Kamen and Levin-Richardson 2015: 242.
 Levin-Richardson 2013: 325.
 Williams 2014: 494-495.
 Ibid.: 494.
Adams, J.N. 1982. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. Baltimore.
Benefiel, R.R. 2010. “Dialogues of Ancient Graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii.” AJA 114.1: 59-101.
—————2011. “Dialogues of Graffiti in the House of the Four Styles at Pompeii (Casa Dei Quattro Stili, I.8.17, 11).” Ancient Graffiti in Context (eds. J.A. Baird and C. Taylor) 20- 48. New York.
Cooley, A.E. 2012. The Cambridge Manual of Latin Epigraphy. Cambridge.
Kamen, D. and Levin-Richardson, S. “Lusty Ladies in the Roman Imaginary.” Ancient Sex: New Essays (eds. R. Blondell and K. Ormand) 231-252. Columbus, OH.
Levin-Richardson, S. 2013. “Fututa sum hic: Female Subjectivity and Agency in Pompeian Sexual Graffiti.” CJ 108: 319-345.
MacMullen, R. 1982. “The Epigraphic Habit in the Roman Empire.” AJP 103: 233-246.
Meyer, E. 1990. “Explaining the Epigraphic Habit in the Roman Empire: The Evidence of Epitaphs.” JRS 80: 74-96.
Solin, H. 1973. Review of M. Della Corte and P. Ciproti, eds., Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum, voluminis quarti supplementi pars tertia, Lieferung 3-4. (Berlin 1963-1970). Gnomon 45: 258-277.
Varone, A. 2002. Erotica Pompeiana. Rome.
Williams, C. 2014. “Sexual Themes in Greek and Latin Graffiti.” A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities. First ed. (ed. T.K. Hubbard) 493-508.