The myth of the past


Asinius Marrucinus, you don’t employ

your left hand too well: in wine and jest

you take neglected table-linen.

Do you think that’s witty? Get lost, you fool:

it’s such a sordid and such an unattractive thing.

Don’t you believe me? Believe Pollionus

your brother, who wishes your thefts

could be fixed by money: he’s a boy

truly stuffed with wit and humour.

So expect three hundred hendecasyllables

or return my napkin, whose value

doesn’t disturb me, truly,

it’s a remembrance of my friends.

Fabullus and Veranius sent me the gift,

napkins from Spain: they must be cherished

as my Veranius and Fabullus must be.

-Catullus 12 (translation provided by

One of the greatest lies about history is that people were somehow different than they are today. Especially literature and written communication. One of my favourite subjects that I have gotten to study in university is how that is very much not true. People have always been very silly, for example they might publicly publish a poem threatening you with 300 more poems if you don’t give back the napkins you stole.

That brings us to Catullus. Catullus was a poet in Ancient Rome. He’s not a well known poet today, despite a surprising amount of his works surviving, but then again he is not really what we think about when we think “poets of the classical era”. However Catullus was not actually a poet by trade, but by hobby, and his poems bring an interesting glimpse into how written language was used in the day to day of the Ancients.

As authors like Douglas Ruskoff insist we must slow down and look at how technology is changing how we communicate, I think one of the important things to do is first break down the inncorrect assumptions we have about literature and writing in the past. What we are presented in secondary school is a highly edited version of the lives of real people, who operated socially much like we do today. They had the same fear of new technologies and sureness that it was bringing an end to real thought and the production of drivel. They also had a large amount of penis jokes. Some boys never change.

One of the things a classicist must keep in mind is that our knowledge is fragmentary. Catullus is a widely studied poet simply because his poetry survived for study. When it comes to ancient works we know the ancients were reading and writing far more than we have evidence for. Yet in certain places, such as Pompeii, we have been inordinately lucky and have had some of the most precious writings survive. Graffiti. One of the things graffiti has taught us is that even if the mediums change, what people are writing about is pretty common. What now is written on your facebook wall was once literally written on the wall of your house (slightly more obnoxious to remove your ex’s drunken laments when he carves it into your door)

Above is the link to a site which has faithfully documented some of the graffiti of Pompeii. Unsurprisingly a large amount of it is crude. Surprisingly it’s not anything you wouldn’t expect to see in a public bathroom or on the streets of New York, Leicester, or any other city. It’s riddled with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and hosts everything from ads for buildings to rent to announcing everyday mundane activities. Writing was not limited to the elite or few, and it did not exist only in books and rigid announcements of the wealthy. It was an active living part of these people’s culture, deeply interactive in that it existed in 3-D spaces in a way that you do not see now because those conversations have moved onto the digital sphere instead of being carved into tables and walls.

While people certainly didn’t get this information directly into their pocket, it shows something different than the plan great literary works, it shows everyday use of written language by everyday people, whores and soldiers and tradesmen and young boys in love, food critics and advertisers, all who used the written word in a way that seems very familiar and even modern. In the end that is what much of social media is. It’s graffiti. It’s the impulsive spontaneous little bits of writing humans cannot seem to help but leave everywhere, whether it be all over your twitter feed or written all over the streets. People have always being “checking into locations” for centuries, they just would physically carve their name into it. While it is true that you can learn much about what is on a culture’s mind by seeing what they are scribbling, and it certainly is much easier to search with tags and digital organization, what people are doing and writing about has not actually changed much. So it is important to remember that, especially when comparing the present “everyday scribblings” to the edited and fragmented writings of the past.


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