Ancient Graffiti Making Fun of Gay Sex Uncovered in Pompeii

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday January 1, 2021

The thermopolium in the Pompeii archeological park, near Naples, Italy. (Luigi Spina/Parco Archeologico di Pompei)
The thermopolium in the Pompeii archeological park, near Naples, Italy. (Luigi Spina/Parco Archeologico di Pompei)  

A newly-excavated eatery in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii made headlines last week, but a new detail has now emerged: The presence of mocking graffiti about sex between men, Pink News reports.

Pompeii was destroyed in a very short period of time, rapidly buried under tons of volcanic ash in AD 79 when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted. Excavations at the city have offered a snapshot of what daily life was like in the ancient Roman Empire. It seems that homophobic humor, then as now, was part of that daily life: Scratched into a wooden frame around a painted depiction of a dog were the words "NICIA CINAEDE CACATOR," which, the website for Pompeii reports, translates to "Nicias [is a] Shameless Shitter!"

Other news outlets expounded on that phrase, explaining that Nicias was probably a freed Greek slave and the graffiti may have been a joke aimed at the eatery's owner. The phrase "shameless shitter" was, archaeologists speculate, a way of saying that the Greek man was a catamite — which, to the ancient Romans, simply meant a man's younger male sexual partner, usually about the same age as young women considered to be ready for marriage.

The graffiti "was probably left by a prankster who sought to poke fun at the owner," or perhaps by an employee at the eatery, the Pompeii website explains.

"Ancient Roman men are known to have written love poetry about other men, and women wrote poetry about other women. Some reports even suggest there were same-sex marriage ceremonies," Pink News noted, going on to point out that, "Although a man being penetrated was stigmatized in Ancient Rome, it was the arrival of Christian rule that caused it to be punished by burning at the stake."

As previously reported, the eatery — in Latin, a "thermopolium" — included a counter with spaces for large jugs containing hot foods. Trace remnants of those foods gave investigators insights into what might be on the menu of such an establishment in the ancient world, including pork, fish, goat, and snails.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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