Friday, February 3, 2017


Rebecca Benefiel, Peter Keegan (ed.), Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World. Brill studies in Greek and Roman epigraphy, 7. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. Pp. xviii, 284. ISBN 9789004307117. $135.00.

Reviewed by Claire Holleran, The University of Exeter (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This exciting new volume has its origins in a panel held at the 2012 Epigraphic Congress in Berlin and contains twelve wide- ranging papers closely focused on the central theme of epigraphy in the private sphere. Such inscriptions are often relegated to the sidelines of scholarship in favour of publicly-inscribed monuments and funerary markers, yet as this volume clearly demonstrates, writing was also very much a part of the private realm in the Greco-Roman world. This writing encompassed a variety of media, some of which tend to be fragile and prone to destruction, such as inscribed graffiti and charcoal writing on walls, while others, including stone inscriptions on statue bases and bronze plaques recording official honours and decrees, are more robust. The volume approaches such writing as a cross-cultural phenomenon and the different media are discussed in a series of chapters which range from Classical Attica to the Late Antique Levant, although a number of papers understandably focus on the Vesuvian sites. The admirably broad chronological and geographical coverage of the papers is reflected in the authors themselves, who are based in Europe, the US, and Australia, and are at a variety of career stages. Given the constraints of space, this review will not provide a detailed description of each chapter (a full list of authors and titles can be found at the end), but will focus instead on two key themes of the volume: definitions of public and private space, and the nature of ancient graffiti.

Many of the papers grapple with the central problem of delineating the public and private sphere in antiquity. In the opening chapter, for example, Wallace-Hadrill emphasises that the private sphere is not simply synonymous with domestic space, and there are ambiguities in the ancient world that are difficult to envisage in a modern cultural context. The separation of work and home that accompanied the process of industrialisation transformed notions of public and private, whereas the Roman house was typically a place of both work and residence, and—at the highest social levels—of political activity. Houses were, therefore, semi-public spaces, with areas that might be deliberately visible from the street, and spaces for the reception of visitors that could be used in a similar way to public spaces. The atrium, for example, was sometimes used to display formally-decreed public honours, as demonstrated by Beltrán Lloris' paper on bronze tabulae that recorded grants of hospitality and patronage; he describes atria as being transformed into 'small forums'. Similarly, Zarmakoupi considers the presence of formal stone inscriptions, particularly statue bases, within private houses on Delos in the late Hellenistic period, underlining again the public character of some parts of the house and the deliberate placing of inscriptions celebrating the achievements of the homeowner in the most visible and well-visited areas. Rathmayr too draws on a range of Hellenistic and Roman-era case studies from Ephesos, Delos, and other sites to consider the relationship between sculptures and associated inscriptions in private dwellings, exploring the self-representation of homeowners to their guests.

Taylor explores the ambiguity of public and private in epigraphy by suggesting that when categorising an inscription in this way, we need to consider its location, the manner of its production, and the audience who viewed it. She illustrates this perfectly with the example of grave markers. These were typically (although not exclusively) erected at the private initiative of family or friends, but could be displayed in a public setting or in a rural location on private land, in the former case addressing mainly a public audience, and in the latter, a more restricted (largely) private audience. Wallace-Hadrill observes that a space such as the Roman street also lay somewhere between the private and the public, since it was accessible to all, but its maintenance and upkeep was the responsibility of the homeowner who lived alongside it, and their properties often encroached on the street itself. Should graffiti on the exterior walls of houses adjoining the street then be seen as public or private in nature? The space is semi-public, the audience is public, but the writing of the graffiti is a private initiative.

A number of authors note that the presence of writing can in itself 'privatise' particular spaces. Keegan, for example, contends that an ostensibly public space could be appropriated for the use of a private person or group by graffiti addressing a particular individual or sub-culture, be it Pyrrhus addressing his (deceased?) companion Chius in graffiti on the wall of the Pompeian Basilica (CIL IV 1820; 1852) or modern hip-hop graffiti in Melbourne. Similarly, Taylor argues that writing inside homes in Attica could be used to negotiate ideas of privacy and to construct personal landscapes within those particular built spaces. Furthermore, Stern's detailed chapter on 'magical texts' in Levantine synagogues demonstrates how communal spaces could be made private by the hidden presence of amulets, although this is a privatisation of space known only to the agent. Inscriptions located in spaces to which access is controlled are also considered here to be private in nature, such as the painted or charcoal funerary inscriptions found within tombs at Cyrene, some of which are published by Cinalli in this volume for the first time.

While a wide range of media are considered here, graffiti understandably still dominate, with studies focusing on Dura-Europos (Baird), Classical Attica (Taylor), Delos (Zarmakoupi), and the Campanian sites (Benefiel, Varone, Keegan). Corbier, in a useful chapter that acts as an epilogue to the volume, classifies graffiti under the heading of 'spontaneous writings', which share two key characteristics: firstly, the one who writes the text and the one who conceives of it is the same person; and secondly, they are carried out on walls, a medium whose primary function was not to serve as a writing surface.

Just like modern graffiti, ancient graffiti is unofficial, but contemporary analogies quickly break down when we consider the illicit or subversive nature of modern graffiti; these are typically classed as vandalism and their presence very often taken as an indicator that a space is abandoned, neglected, or shabby. However, this is clearly not the case in the ancient world, despite earlier beliefs to the contrary.1 In fact, graffiti could be found in even the grandest houses. Moreover, as several authors note, if walls were more often preserved to a greater height, if plaster survived more widely, or if graffiti had been more systematically recorded at the time of excavation, we would almost certainly view such writing as an even more wide-ranging phenomenon. As it is, there is still plenty of evidence to indicate that domestic graffiti were the norm across the ancient world. At Dura-Europos, for example, Baird notes that at least 40% of houses contain preserved graffiti, a figure that almost certainly underrepresents the reality, while Benefiel suggests that 60-70% of houses at Pompeii, and possibly more, had writing on the walls. Graffiti were not, however, universally welcomed. Keegan, for instance, points to notices at Pompeii and Rome asking for people to refrain from marking particular walls, although such warnings do not constitute a widespread ban on graffiti.

The importance of taking the spatial context of graffiti into account is noted by several authors, but is explored in particular by Benefiel (Director of the Ancient Graffiti Project), whose excellent chapter focuses on graffiti in domestic spaces at Pompeii. Pompeii is unique in its extensive preservation of graffiti, with the largest concentration—almost 3,000 examples—found within homes. There were significant clusters within certain houses, located in core spaces where people tended to spend the most time, such as the atrium and other central spaces, and sometimes involving a dialogue between writers. Despite the large quantities of writing in these clusters, the visual impact of the graffiti was still minimal, and Benefiel identifies certain conventions governing the production of graffiti in domestic spaces. They were, for example, typically very small, and care was taken to avoid wall paintings and pre-existing graffiti; columns and pilasters, which had little formal decoration, were particularly popular locations for writing. Zarmakoupi demonstrates that similar patterns are also evident at Late Hellenistic Delos, where graffiti are typically concentrated in areas of passage and congregation, and they complement, rather than conflict with, the existing decoration.

The content of ancient graffiti is wide ranging. Baird's three case studies from Dura-Europus, for instance, include Greek mnēsthē texts (essentially remembrance texts of a religious nature), horoscopes, and records of commercial transactions. This variety is reflected in the other papers in the volume, which include examples of personal names, greetings, exclamations, wishes, and images, especially of boats. Varone's chapter is particularly original, focusing on graffiti and painted notices relating to human waste from the Vesuvian region, including some new and corrected readings of graffiti from latrines and other locations. He demonstrates not only that defecation was openly joked about and discussed in the Roman world, but that public defecation in streets, on corners, and close to tombs was a genuine problem within Pompeii and in the surrounding area. In general, the papers indicate that there is not much difference between the content of graffiti found in public spaces and those in private houses or commercial areas.

The volume is well edited and I noted no mistakes in the text, although the subject index is inexplicably missing from the printed edition (the Index Locorum and Index Nominum are included). There are a number of decent quality images and drawings of inscriptions, as well as some maps, largely in black and white, but a small number in colour. Overall, this is a very useful volume, which makes a real contribution to furthering our understanding of the inscribed environment in the ancient world. Several texts are published here for the first time or are reinterpreted, and the chapters are original and wide ranging in their subject matter. The focus on writing within the private sphere, an area that is often overshadowed by more monumental inscriptions, is to be particularly welcomed, and the end result is a volume that will be of interest to researchers and students working on a variety of topics, including graffiti, ancient houses, urban environments, ancient religion, elite self-representation, scatological writing, literacy, funerary commemoration, and the separation of the public and private spheres, to name just a few.

Table of Contents

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Inscriptions in Private Spaces
PART 1 Graffiti and the Domestic Sphere
J. A. Baird, Private Graffiti? Scratching the Walls of Houses at Dura-Europos
Claire Taylor, Graffiti in a House in Attica: Reading, Writing, and the Creation of Private Space
Mantha Zarmakoupi, The Spatial Environment of Inscriptions and Graffiti in Domestic Spaces: The Case of Delos
Rebecca R. Benefiel, The Culture of Writing Graffiti within Domestic Spaces at Pompeii
PART 2 Discourses of Public and Private
Antonio Varone, Newly Discovered and Corrected Readings of iscrizioni "privatissime" from the Vesuvian Region
Francisco Beltrán Lloris, Honos clientium instituit sic colere patronus – A Public/Private Epigraphic Type: Tabulae of Hospitality and Patronage
Elisabeth Rathmayr, The Significance of Sculptures with Associated Inscriptions in Private Houses in Ephesos, Pergamon and Beyond
PART 3 Place and Space
Angela Cinalli, Painted and Charcoal Inscriptions from the Territory of Cyrene: Evidence from the Underworld
Karen B. Stern, Harnessing the Sacred: Hidden Writing and "Private" Spaces in Levantine Synagogues
Peter Keegan, Graffiti as Monumenta and Verba: Marking Territories, Creating Discourses in Roman Pompeii
Mireille Corbier, Writing in the Private Sphere: Epilogue


1.   For further critique of analogies between ancient and modern graffiti, see J. A. Baird and Claire Taylor (eds.), Ancient Graffiti in Context New York: Routledge, 2011.

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