After bearing witness to the latest tiny tornado in the Richard Armitage Twitterverse, I’ve been reflecting a bit on Twitter.  (If you are not aware of the storm in question, don’t fret – given the lay of the land – another one will no doubt emerge.)  I’ve long wondered exactly what the point of Twitter is, what role it plays.  It’s difficult enough to have any kind of civil exchange on social media (98% of the reason why I’ve taken a hiatus from my personal Facebook feed.)  The 140 character limit of Twitter seriously impedes any kind of real discussion, and potentially encourages incendiary exchanges with the extensive use of cryptic emojis and abbreviations.   Clearly, it’s not terribly conducive to conversation beyond quips.  As I was watching the opening credits of HBO’s ROME in class the other night, an apt comparison hit me…

Here a series of Roman artworks and collected pieces of graffiti are animated and run across the walls as the credits roll.  Behind them the viewer also sees all kinds of static writing on the walls of the city.  Graffiti writing seems to have been a very common part of Roman life, and it is tremendously interesting to archaeologists and historians because it provides a view into a segment of life that is not well represented by the usual suspects of ancient writers.  With the graffiti, we can see what the man on the street was up to – literally!  Unfortunately, due to the nature of the evidence – much of it scratched or painted on exterior plaster wall surfaces – almost none of it survives in normal contexts.  However,  thanks (once again) to the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, a compelling body of Roman epigraphy has been preserved.

Ancient graffiti Source

Ancient graffiti

The graffiti of Pompeii and Herculaneum provide a fascinating, somewhat shocking, window into daily life among the Romans.  Ranging from semi official political campaign ads to “status updates” to the ancient equivalent of bathroom stall endorsements, Roman graffiti really does seem to function in way very similar to a contemporary social media platform like Twitter.  Here are just examples:

Checking in…

checking in

Lovers and Lovelorn

lovers and lovelorn

at the BIG brothel (that is, there were many)

at the brothel

Waiting at the courthouse…


Political endorsements


Political endorsements?

dubious endorsements


These are just a few of the thousands that have been and continue to be recorded, and while I am sure that a particularly vivid or large graffito would have drawn wide notice (as was the intent)

"Romans go home" scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian

“Romans go home” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian

I have never read about a serious fracas that was caused by something as transient as a wall scribble. Since walls were often re-plastered or re-painted, here today, gone tomorrow was the rule of the day for graffiti – strikingly similar to a certain Twitter stream right?  When push comes to shove,  it seems that in a practical sense, Twitter serves basically the same function as graffiti – without the threat of a fine for vandalism!   🙂


I think my favorite piece of Roman graffiti by far,  is a sentiment which shows up at several locations around Pompeii and Herculaneum and reads something like:

I wonder, O, wall, that you have not fallen in ruins from supporting the inanities of so many scribblers.

It would be remarkably easy to adapt this to a great deal of what goes on on Twitter on any given day.

22 comments on “Twitterffiti….Gratweeti?

  1. Outstanding piece. A friend of mine compared Twitter to a large cocktail party where people are making random statements, 98% of which are said to no one & gain zero response. So, just noisy. 🙂

  2. Well said! And notes passed in class would also probably come under the label of graffiti “inanities” of our childhood.

    But Twitter has the added features of immediacy and global reach–that spreads the inane, profane, and “complains”–far and wide with no filter to catch and detain the more outlandish tweets/spam in a NSFA (anyone) net –let alone, does there seem to be considered thought at what would be prudent and rational at times. And yet, though our Mothers taught us not to touch something hot, lest we get burned, we go back to Twitter for more. Ha!

    Maybe there should be an emoji warning we could click to label such tweets without propagating them, nor having them attached to us? *wink* Frankly, I usually tend to just leave some tweets “where they lay”. Ha!

    • obscura says:

      True enough…like so much of contemporary life, the scope is immense. I agree…leaving some stuff alone is the best response. Unfortunately, that relies on the masses taking responsibility for their own actions and that seems to be a factor that is in swift decline. 😦

  3. Guylty says:

    That had never occurred to me – and you are spot-on! Twitter is just transient. There’s nothing older than yesterday’s tweets. Ok, except that they are visible nowadays, as all online social media is there forever. That is what makes it such a medium prone to second-guessing and post-post deletion. Well, and the fact that it is not anonymous as graffiti is (unless tagged). But still – the analogy holds.
    Having said that, the examples you have cited, had me in stitches. But yeah, of course the Romans were only humans. Why should they be any different from us. And why should some more exposed humans of today not be any different, either… Tweetffiti is as entertaining as graffiti.
    BTW – any evidence of Greek graffiti?

    • obscura says:

      There is graffiti from every ancient culture, there’s just more of it in general, and especially more in situ in direct context in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

      • Guylty says:

        I was talking to Mr Guylty about that (because he visited Herculaneum a couple of weeks ago), and we guessed that it survived in H and P because the towns were preserved under the ashes, whereas other cities changed and had graffiti simply rubbed off by the passing of time?

  4. Servetus says:

    I think in essence that that’s how Armitage uses Twitter — as a surface he can write on and erase at will. It’s unfortunately that that’s his main means of communication with fans, if that is the case.

    • obscura says:

      It seems so. I find it quite puzzling since unlike graffiti which could easily be destroyed, it’s virtually impossible for him to “disappear” a Tweet when so many people have already saved it somewhere.

  5. linnetmoss says:

    Great post. I agree about the limitations of Twitter. But at least it involves reading and writing 🙂

  6. Perry says:

    Graffiti -Now, there’s a good use of walls.

  7. Hariclea says:

    Brilliant reminder of the ancient graffiti and nice to know how little we’ve evolved from the Romans or Pompeians 😉had to love the particular similarity of ‘may you fall sick if you delete this message ‘ People it seems always needed a public outlet of their thoughts of the kind that can carry almost no response or very little thereof
    .. far more popular means of ‘communication’ it seems than dialogue

  8. Mimi Cruz says:

    Hahaha – I see your point❗️ I remember a neighbor couple visiting the house one night and telling us they had decided to go vegetarian. They had a lot to say on the subject, actually the wife had a lot to say. At one point, my Hubs asked why is it that every vegetarian or vegan person is so unhappy? The wife just stared at him, while her husband lost it laughing so hard. He was going along with it, but clearly, it was not something he wanted to do. 😈🐂🐄🧀

  9. Esther says:

    Oooh, yes, great comparison! I find it easy to let most tweets just slide and now I know why. Will think of Twitter as Graffi-twitti in my mind from now on. 🙂

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