In 1987 some clusters of mysterious graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii’s theater tunnel were published in an academic journal. They did not make much of a splash. After all, next to the brightly colored and pornographic frescos of the tragic city’s brothels and the remains of people and animals frozen in time and volcanic ash, inscriptions seem almost boring. But they might actually be Pompeii’s best-kept secret and one of its greatest mysteries.
These graffiti were written in an obscure form of Old Arabic otherwise completely unknown in the Western Mediterranean. For almost 35 years the inscriptions were a mystery: Who wrote them? And, frankly, what are they doing there? A new article published last month promises to unlock their secrets.
Part of the reason for the neglect of these unique inscriptions is the mystery surrounding their origins. They are written in Safaitic, a south Semitic script that records a dialect of Old Arabic. Scholars have plenty of Safaitic inscriptions—over 34,000 were written between the first century B.C. and the fourth century A.D.—but they are found in Ḥarrah, the black desert that stretches from southern Syria, down through northeast Jordan, and into northern Saudi Arabia. The script was used by the nomads who populated the region and bred camels, sheep, and goats. Prior to the Pompeiian discovery Safaitic had never been seen in the Western Mediterranean much less the Italian Peninsula. Other than “volcanic stuff” (the black desert is so called because it is made of basalt) it’s difficult to see what Pompeii and the Ḥarrah have in common.
The inscriptions—11 in total—were found scratched onto the north wall of the passageway (known as the theater tunnel) that connects the ancient theater complex with the Via Stabiana, one of the main roads that led in and out of the city. They were first noted in the 19th century, but they remained undeciphered until Jacqueline Calzini Gysens published an edition of them in 1987. (Her edition identified nine texts, but subsequent analysis has redivided the archeological evidence into eleven distinct examples.) Since then and apart from their inclusion in the Online Corpus of the Inscriptions of Ancient North Africa, they have barely been studied.
A new article, published in the latest issue of the prestigious Journal of Roman Studies by St. Olaf College classics professor Kyle Helms, offers a brilliant solution. Up until now the working hypothesis for their existence has been long-distance trade. The explanation has a ring of truth to it and is certainly credible. But it is as easy as it is logical: If you find something out of place in the ancient world it was surely brought there from somewhere else. But the “trade” explanation didn’t really give us much to go on especially, as Helms notes, when there is no evidence “for nomad involvement with trade in Puteoli [the port that served Pompeii] – or, in fact, with trade of any kind.”
It’s clear that the graffiti were written by nomads from Ḥarrah, the real question then is, why were they in Pompeii? Helms argues that these nomads had been incorporated into the Roman military and had come to Italy with the Legio III Gallica—the Third Gallic Legion—during the civil war of 69 A.D.
The reason for the association is partly contextual. The Safaitic graffiti are not alone; they are tucked among the crush of inscriptions that adorn the theater wall. The inscriptions there are a diverse group: images of boats, animals, and gladiators jostle for position alongside bathroom stall-style boasts of group sex, prayers to Venus, and more banal assertions of presence. Of this last category two, written by Roman soldiers and located close to the Safaitic inscriptions, struck Helms as particularly suggestive. These pithy examples note that “The men of the Third were here” and send their regrets (“farewell, Rufa, since you suck well”) and best wishes (“farewell, prick) to the city’s inhabitants.
The men of the Third have for some time been thought to have been soldiers in another Third Legion of Rome. There was more than one Third Legion in the army but, according to the historian Tacitus, Legio III Gallica was stationed in Capua in the waning months of 69 and early days of 70 A.D.. As no other Third Legion is known to have been in the vicinity at the time, this was the probable window of opportunity for these veritable poets to leave their marks on the corridor wall.
This is crucial, writes Helms, because III Gallica arrived in Italy after spending almost a century in Syria, “the distant homeland of writers of Safaitic.” They were called to Italy when they marched in support of the future Emperor Vespasian, who successfully wrested power from his predecessor Vitellius. They spent some time billeted in Capua, at the expense of local aristocrats who had supported Vitellius rather than Vespasian. They were finally dispatched home in 70.
Helms identifies two ways in which nomads might have entered the Third Gallic Legion: first, during this period Roman legions were becoming more provincial and increasingly drew upon the local population. A legion with historic ties to Syria, therefore, would have been comprised of a large number of Syrian recruits. This much is clear from Tacitus himself who refers to the men of the Third observing Syrian religious customs. Alternatively, it’s possible that the Safaitic writers were auxiliaries. It was unusual to move auxiliary troops but periods of crisis—like the civil war in 69—were the sorts of occasions when it might have happened.
Other academics agree that there’s evidence that the Roman military recruited nomads as auxiliaries. In his work Michael McDonald, a preeminent scholar of the inscriptions in Ḥarrah, has suggested that nomads may have been incorporated into the army, perhaps in a special “ethnic unit.” It’s difficult to tie the graffiti evidence from the Ḥarrah to 69 A.D. in particular, but there is, writes professor Ahmad Al-Jallad, “concrete evidence for the activities of Roman auxiliary military units raised from the nomadic tribes of the Ḥarrah.”
If Helms is correct, and he presents a compelling case, what does this mean? Why did these men (we know their names—Tm, Md, and Ṣhb—but Safaitic doesn’t preserve vowels so we can’t vocalize them with certainty) scratch their names into the theater corridor? Helms told me that we will never know for certain “but there are several possibilities. It’s easy to imagine, for example, that they might have been expressing a certain pride in their identities and their language… perhaps the authors of the Safaitic wanted to participate in the same, informal writing on the walls as their comrades [from the Third]—but, again, they did so in their own language and with their own script.”
This isn’t necessarily about an adaptation of Roman customs. What’s striking is that as foreign as the streets of Pompeii would have felt to these soldiers, the heavily inscribed walls of the city said Helms “might have seemed familiar to these visitors from far, far away. They might not have understood all of the Latin or Greek on the walls there (though there is increasing evidence for bilingualism in the Ḥarrah)—but they would have understood writing graffiti as a practice.” Graffiti, therefore, is a cross-cultural practice in which everyone—foreigners included—could engage, connect, and add their own contributions. The full range of multicultural Pompeian graffiti (and that of neighboring Herculaneum) can be viewed online at the Ancient Graffiti Project (ancientgraffiti.org), directed by Professor Rebecca Benefiel at Washington and Lee University.
Helms’s work is important for the ways in which it reminds us both of vastness of the Roman world and its connectedness. Helms told me “I still think it’s just amazing that, one day in late December, 69 CE in southern Italy, you could have heard Arabic being spoken as you walked towards to the theater! That’s just incredible! The Safaitic graffiti are also a good reminder that the Roman army might have looked and sounded a lot like its empire.”
Just because nomads served in the military did not mean that they gave up their own language and traditions. Marking their names in their own language on the walls of cosmopolitan Pompeii may well have been a point of pride. The power of the Roman empire expressed through architecture, propaganda, violence, and spectacle does not swallow or subsume the traditions of those caught up in its mechanics. On the contrary, the walls of Pompeii become the canvas for the inscription of ethnically and linguistically diverse expressions of identity.