The Writing on the Walls: Reading the Sexual Passivity of the Women of Herculaneum

1§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 comparatively few graffiti extant in Herculaneum.

1§2 Ramsay MacMullen coined the phrase “epigraphic habit” to describe the ubiquity of inscriptions throughout the Roman world.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] The practice of writing graffiti 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. Many of the inscriptions date to the latest period of the city, between 62 CE and 79 CE­– the years between the destructive earthquake and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

1§3 Among a wealth of inscriptions in Pompeii, where there are nearly 7000 textual inscriptions, the erotic graffiti have been a major focus of scholarly attention.[4] However, scholarship has largely bypassed the sexual graffiti of Herculaneum, which can be found 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 which are in dialogue with nearby text. 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:[5]

Erotic Graffiti[6]

Reference Transcribed Text Location Setting
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 / Caesar(is) // cum Dextro / pranderunt hic / iucundissime et / futuere simul Suburban Baths Public
CIL IV.10678 Apelles Mus cum fratre 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 habias (:habeas) /
quod te modo introrgamus (:interrogamus)
Ramp Public


1§4 Contemporary theories of Roman sexuality provide an insightful lens through which we can read these erotic graffiti and interpret the agency or passivity that they suggest for women. Deborah Kamen and Sarah Levin-Richardson review the current theories of ancient sexuality and subsequently refine the definitions of agents and their actions.[7] Their proposed model of ancient sexuality is included in the table below:

Vagina Anus Mouth
    Verb futuere pedicare irrumare
        Male fututor pedicator/ pedico irrumator
        Female tribas/ fututor tribas ––
    Verb futui pedicari irrumari/ fellare
        Male (passive) –– pedicatus/ fututus irrumatus
        Male (active) –– cinaedus/ pathicus (?) fellator
        Female (passive) femina/ puella/ fututa pathica (?) irrumata
        Female (active) fututrix –– fellatrix

Penetration-Agency Model for Roman Sexuality[8]

1§5 Applying Kamen and Levin-Richardson’s table 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 articulate problems with penetrative models of ancient sexuality– that a woman cannot be active as she lacks a penis and thus cannot penetrate.[9] Instead, these authors argue that a woman’s sexual agency was conceptualized independently from her penetrative role.[10] 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.[11] 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),[12] or fellatrix (woman who performs fellatio).[13] Additionally, the active verb forms of futuo and fello connote the sexual agency of their subject.[14]

1§6 The graffiti of Herculaneum do not yield strong indications of female sexual agency, as defined by Kamen and Levin-Richardson. Examples of women’s sexual agency do 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.[15] Elsewhere, Levin-Richardson has argued 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.[16] By contrast, we see a near absence of female agency in the Herculanean graffiti which report 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 remarks, 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.[17] 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.

1§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 omission depicts the women as sexually passive to the point of silence and exclusion from these sexual boasts. 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 / Caesar(is) // cum Dextro / 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 fratre 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 would have been 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.[18] This group of inscriptions exemplifies this prioritization of the fututor’s experience; not only are the partners unimportant, they are left completely anonymous.

1§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.[19] 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 charcoal, whereas the phallus to the right was incised into the wall’s surface.[20] 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.

1§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 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”). This 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.[21] 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 verb, teneo, may assume a euphemistic valence, though. Adams discusses this verb and its function in sexually-charged situations; here, teneo may mean “to embrace.”[22] He cites Tibullus 2.6.52 as an example of the verb’s euphemistic, erotic function: quisve meam teneat, quot teneatve modis (“in what and whose embraces my love is held”).[23]Applying this reading of teneo allows the textual graffito, CIL IV.10568, to be understood as more explicitly erotic. 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 sexual experience. Additionally, the author has underscored the dominant authorial role, perhaps that of a man, 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 Herculanean woman is shown as subordinated to a that of man.

1§10 Not only are women represented as subordinate to men in sexually explicit graffiti but also in amorous, yet perhaps euphemistic, 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…”). As with teneo, amo may perform an erotic, euphemistic function. As Adams examines, authors such as Cicero use amo euphemistically, using it as a synonym for the physical act of sex.[24] Cicero writes: alios ipse amabat turpissime, aliorum amori flagitiosissime serviebat (“Upon some he satisfied his own foul passion, for others he pandered to their filthy desires”).[25] In this statement, there can be little doubt that Cicero intended amo to be understood as a euphemism. In this graffito, CIL IV.10697, amo may assume a similarly erotic function. The second half of the inscription reinforces this erotic interpretation: Rogamus damna (:domina) Venus / ut nos in mente habias (:habeas) / quod te modo introrgamus (:interrogamus) (“We ask, mistress Venus, that you hold us in mind, that which we presently ask you”). Including this invocation to Venus allows the graffito to assume a more overtly erotic function.[26] Thus, this precatory graffito could indeed express not only the amorous desires of these men, but also their sexual desires. The men, Fortunatus and Ianuarius, are the subjects of amo in both statements, thus serving as the grammatical agent and the active parties in the amatory declarations. They are actively desiring, and the women, Amplianda and Veneria, passively receive the men’s desire. In this graffito, women are again presented as the passive objects of male desire.

1§11 In contrast to these graffiti which subjugate women to the normatively passive role, one graffito in Herculaneum reflects 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 the name Bombycion, thought to be the name of a man by Della Corte,[27] should be read as Βομβύλιον, the name of a woman. He cites as evidence the similar appearances of the letters L and C as well as the presence of the name Bombylas in Rome.[28] 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.[29] 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. [30] 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.[31] 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 in erotic contexts demonstrated through ancient graffiti.

1§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.[32] CIL IV.10628 is similarly self-referential as Bombycion performs the action of fellat, and she becomes the grammatical agent of the inscription. 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.

1§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 given that the Romans had such a variety of comedic registers.[33] Graffiti are also inherently fragmentary, as the texts themselves are often damaged, and their extant number only represents a sample of the graffiti that may have initially existed.[34] 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. Notably, the only graffito in Herculaneum which suggests female sexual agency, CIL IV.10628, was found in a private home, whereas the others are found in public spaces: baths, a thermapolium, the ramp into the city. Each of these boasts of sexual conquest and declarations of love were 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.

Translations are my own, unless otherwise noted.

[1] For discussions about the “epigraphic habit” of the Romans, see MacMullen 1982 and Meyer 1990.

[2] Cooley 2012: 111.

[3] For dialogues of ancient graffiti, see Benefiel 2010 and 2011.

[4] For discussions of erotic Pompeian graffiti, see Varone 2002, Levin-Richardson 2013, Williams 2014, Kamen and Levin Richardson 2015.

[5] CIL IV.10676, reading Hermeros Primigeniae dominae: / veni Puteolos in vico Tyaniano et quaere / a Messio nummulario Hermerotem Phoebi, 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.

[6] The symbols ((:  )), (:   ), and ((   )) are epigraphic conventions used by the Epigraphic Database Roma.

((:   )) indicates the presence of figural graffiti with the image 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.

[7] Kamen and Levin-Richardson 2015: 231-252.

[8] Ibid.: 249. Table reproduced with permission from authors.

[9] Ibid.: 235.

[10] Ibid.: 245.

[11] Ibid.: 238.

[12] 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.

[13] Interestingly, the noun fellatrix appears only in ancient graffiti; ibid.: 239.

[14] Ibid.: 249.

[15] Examples include CIL IV.2204 (Μολα φουτουτρις), CIL IV.4196 (Miduse fututrix), CIL IV.2559 (Fortunata fellat)

[16] Levin-Richardson 2013: 327.

[17] Ibid.: 327-328.

[18] Adams 1982: 120.

[19] Benefiel 2010: 60.

[20] The medium of the inscription is somewhat ambiguous. In Della Corte’s field notebooks, he includes a drawing of the text and the phallus, and he describes the inscription with “carbone”; Della Corte 1937-1939: 42.

Meanwhile, in his publication of these inscriptions, he writes that the letters and a phallus were drawn, “delineato”; Della Corte 1958: 293.

In CIL IV, Ciprotti’s description suggests that the text was written in charcoal, whereas the phallus is described with “graphio.” The implications of a multimedia inscription are described above.

[21] Kamen and Levin-Richardson 2015: 246.

[22] Adams 1982: 181.

[23] Tibullus, Elegies 2.6.52., trans. Postgate.

[24] Adams 1982: 188.

[25] Cicero, Against Catiline 2.8., trans. Macdonald.

[26] The names of the women, too, may subtly add to the erotic overtones of this inscription: Veneria, a cognate with Venus, and Amplianda, which literally translates to mean “she who must be widened.”

[27] Della Corte 1958: 276.

[28] Solin 1973: 272.

[29] Examples of fello in Pompeian graffiti include CIL IV.2278 (Nice fellat), CIL IV.1651 (Rufilla felat), and CIL IV.7057 (Fyllis felat).

[30] Williams 2014: 499.

[31] Kamen and Levin-Richardson 2015: 242.

[32] Levin-Richardson 2013: 325.

[33] Williams 2014: 494-495.

[34] 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.

Della Corte, M. 1937-1939. Field Notebook. Getty Research Institute Archives, H. B. Vander Poel Campanian collection, I.C., Box 52, 5.

Della Corte, M. 1958. “Le Inscrizioni di Ercolano.” Rendiconti della Accademia di archaeologia, lettere e belle arti 33: 239-308.

Kamen, D. and Levin-Richardson, S. 2015. “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.

Macdonald, C., ed. and trans. 1976. Cicero. In Catilinam 1-4. Pro Murena. Pro Sulla. Pro Flacco. Cambridge, MA.

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.

Postgate, J.P., ed. and trans. 1913. Catullus. Tibullus. Pervigilium Veneris. Cambridge, MA.

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.

Leave a Reply