Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.):
Exterior wall of House of Fabius Ululitremulus, regio IX.13.5, Pompeii.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum):
Graffito scratched into the exterior wall of the so-called House of Fabius Ululitremulus, Pompeii. Two parallel wall paintings are found on either side of the main door of the house, nearby the inscription.
Graffito scratched on plaster.
CIL IV, 9131
This graffito is found on the exterior wall of the so-called House of Fabius Ululitremulus in Pompeii. It is scratched on to the plaster near the entrance of the house, and is a parody of the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid, arma virumque cano(“I sing of arms and a man”). Like Virgil’s epic poetry, this graffito is also in hexameter, but it manipulates the first line of Virgil’s epic by distorting it to claim of singing of “fullers and a screech-owl” (fullones ululam ego cano) rather than of “arms and a man”.
The ‘fullers’ of Pompeii were the association responsible for the dying and washing of cloth; this was a substantial business in any Roman town, which likely employed a good number of its inhabitants and occupied large premises in order to accommodate the necessary equipment. The fullers of Pompeii were especially successful, and are known for their dedication of a fine marble statue of a local aristocrat, Eumachia, in the same building that bore her name (see Dedication of a public building in Pompeii (CIL X, 810, 811)). Matteo della Corte suggested that the screech owl (ulula) was sacred to the association of the fullers, perhaps on account of the divine connection between the bird and the goddess Minerva (Case ed abitanti, p. 336). There was, however, a clear association between the use of a line from the Aeneid and two pictures that were painted on either side of the door of the house, which depicted on the one side Aeneas, Ascanius and Anchises, and on the other side Romulus carrying the spolia opima (“rich spoils,” the armour and other ornaments that a victorious Roman general stripped from his opposition). The association between the painted pictures and the text calls into question the extent of “literary literacy” in Pompeii, and what the intention of the graffito was. A name of the house arises from a further graffito beneath the painting of Romulus, which attests to a certain Fabius Ululitremulus’s support of Caius Secundus Pansa and Popidius Secundus in the forthcoming elections; Ululitremulus has therefore been understood to have been a fuller himself – partly on account of his cognomen, which seems to mimic the ‘symbol’ of the owl in our graffito. In this respect, was the graffito intended as a witty preference for the profession of fuller over the ‘epic’ achievements of Aeneas? Kristina Milnor has suggested that if this is the case, the graffito should be understood as engaging a visual competition between the election notice and the wall painting, or between the “formal decorative element represented by the Trojan group and the more informal and ‘popular’ advertisement embodied in the election notice” (Milnor, Graffiti and the Literary Landscape, p. 249-50). In addition to this is Milnor’s point that the ‘fullones ululam cano’ is given the same hexameter as Virgil’s opening line, imbuing the graffiti with a faux-grandiosity that appears to gently make fun of the epic nature of his poem (Milnor, Graffiti and the Literary Landscape, p. 250).
The first line of the Aeneid was certainly popular in Pompeii; it is attested in at least fifteen different graffiti from the town and in a variety of locations. It appears to have been so well-known that it was used as a kind of common language or vernacular; this is perhaps unusual if we consider the more local and immediate nature of the majority of the Pompeian graffiti, which tend to record either election candidates or comments of a more social nature, in relation to prostitutes, warnings, advertisements and petty crime.
The frequency of the Virgilian inscriptions in Pompeii, and this parody, might therefore be understood as a kind of literary appropriation, which sought to unite the pragmatic, local character of the urban graffiti with the “sphere of elite cultural production” (Milnor, Graffiti and the Literary Landscape, p. 242). The writer’s ability to compose their own hexameter is a further statement of this, which contributed to the ‘learned’ reading of the graffiti with the decorative wall paintings. On the other hand, this may be a deliberate display of wit and wisdom; as Barbara Kellum has stated in relation to the wall paintings, also from Pompeii, which depict Aeneas and Romulus with the heads of dogs attached (see A Painted Parody of Aeneas and Romulus), this was “exaggeration for effect”, and intended to both indicate a high level knowledge about Virgil’s text, as well as caricaturing the audience’s familiarity with it (Kellum, “Concealing/revealing”, p. 175). As Mikhail Bakhtin commented: “the literary and artistic consciousness of the Romans could not imagine a serious form without its comic equivalent” (Dialogic Imagination, p. 58).
This parodying of Virgil is most important if we consider what the Aeneid meant to the cultural conscience of the Romans, particularly in early Principate. Although it is not possible to date the graffiti of Pompeii precisely, most scholarship interprets it as being from the final phases of the town’s existence, under the Flavian administration. Although the Aeneid was at its most culturally influential under Augustus, who used it to support his claim that his sole leadership of the Rome was divinely ordained and tied to the original foundation of the city, the connection between the epic poem and the ruling dynasty must surely have continued in the public conscience up to the Flavian era and the possible date of this graffito. In that case, the graffito may take a more mocking, subversive tone than much of literature has acknowledged, especially if considered in light of the wall painting that also appears to mock Aeneas’s arrival in Italy. The ‘popular’ nature of arma virumque cano may have acted as vehicle through which to make fun of the claims of the imperial household, in a framework that carried less weight – and therefore less potential danger – than other, more ‘serious’ literary forms.