The Writing on the Wall:  Inscribed Paintings in Pompeii

Jessica D. Powers

University of Michigan

This paper examines the role of the written word in shaping the meaning of painted images for their ancient audience.  Wall paintings in twelve houses at Pompeii incorporate painted inscriptions, some naming the figures portrayed, others quoting a few lines of poetry.  The inscriptions accompany depictions of scenes from myth and everyday life as well as isolated images of literary and mythological figures.  They are written in both Latin and Greek.  I address the question of why such inscriptions were included in a handful of paintings when they were not felt necessary in the overwhelming majority of murals from the city.

I argue that the restricted use of such inscriptions indicates that their presence is the result of a conscious choice on the part of the patron who commissioned the painting.  An examination of the locations of these paintings shows that they decorated both rooms open to the masses and those limited to more carefully selected guests.  Because of the relatively low level of literacy in Pompeii, the inscriptions would only have been comprehensible to a limited number of those who saw them.  I propose that the inscriptions had a highly symbolic value:  on one level, they served to highlight distinctions of education and social class between literate and illiterate viewers.  At the same time, the Greek inscriptions also differentiated viewers able to read Greek from those literate only in Latin, the official language of imperial Pompeii.  In each case, viewers not literate in the language employed were excluded from full comprehension of the painting and consequently reminded of their inferior status in relation to the image's patron.  


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