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.
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:
Lovers and Lovelorn
at the BIG brothel (that is, there were many)
Waiting at the courthouse…
NSFW – FAR TOO MANY TO LIST!!
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)
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.