The Aesthetics of Pompeian Electoral Inscriptions: Questions and Hypotheses
Rebecca Benefiel and Jeremy Hartnett
Over 2,500 painted electoral notices have been recorded from excavations at
Pompeii. Typically, each programma, as they have come to be called, lists the name of
the candidate for municipal office and the title of the office he was seeking, either aedile
or duovir. Standard formulae supplement these bare essentials: most commonly, an
adjectival modifier for the candidate is added, such as d(ignum) r(ei) p(ublicae); posters
often also include the full title of the desired office, such as iiv(ir) i(ure) d(icundo); and
an explicit, though abbreviated, endorsement appears regularly, o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis). In
fewer cases, an endorser – or rogator, for the verb rogare is often used – is listed as well.
As a corpus, the programmata have been stridently studied and discussed by
specialists. Their work has shown important light on the city’s political life and elite
citizenry. Working from overlapping inscriptions and pairs of running mates, James
Franklin has sought to establish the relative dating of individuals’ candidacies. Several
scholars have examined the distribution patterns of electoral inscriptions for candidates,
both as individuals and in pairs, in an effort to answer a set of crucial questions: Who was
responsible for painting these inscriptions? What was the relationship between
candidates and rogatores? Just how organized were these campaigns, if we can even call
them such? Arguments have been marshaled for a variety of interpretations, ranging
from Henrik Mouritsen’s fairly top-down, candidate-centered vision to the more grass
roots efforts that Raffaela Biundo sees emerging from the programmata.
In this piece, we do not wish to immerse ourselves fully in the swirling waters of
this debate. Instead, we hope to examine one aspect of these painted inscriptions that, to
the best of our knowledge, has largely been overlooked yet which was most relevant for
how they were experienced in the ancient city – their physical appearance.
Electoral inscriptions are essentially studied as though they are visually equivalent
to one another. That is, scholars recognize that different classes of programmata
potentially reflect different processes of creation (with rogator endorsements drawing
special scrutiny, especially those listing women as supporters), and the inscriptions have
also been categorized by the office sought by the candidate and mapped across Pompeii’s
cityscape. But, even in these cases, the data are typically presented as series of identical
circles, triangles, and squares dotting a plan of the city. This system of representation
conceals and even distracts us from the much more complex visual landscape of
programmata afforded by a street-level view.
As an illustration of this point, we begin with a quick sketch of one stretch of
frontage along the busy commercial corridor of the Via dell’Abbondanza. Here, the
common decoration of a white upper zone above a deep red socle unites a span of about
twenty meters pierced by three doorways. Except for the bar/tavern at the western end,
little has been excavated beyond the façade. Nineteen different electoral inscriptions
have been found, and they vary widely in size and other visual characteristics, as can be
seen from the XXX endorsements of one candidate along this frontage, C. Lollius Fuscus.
To the east of the bar, one endorsement screams for attention with letters 37cm tall and a
total length of more than 2.5m. A second, on the bar’s eastern doorjamb, boasts beautiful
script and spacing, the name of the candidate spelled out in large, evenly-sized, and
serifed letters between which are placed smaller letters abbreviating his desired office.1
Meanwhile, on a third programma, located on the opposite side of the doorway, the
candidate’s name is written nicely enough, but the remainder of the endorsement is
smaller, with letters less than 20cm tall, and much more squiggly: the letters arch and
undulate, follow no discernable spatial pattern, and vary in size from one line to the next.2
In short, even for a formulaic epigraphic genre, all programmata were not created equal, Formatted: Font: Times New Roman
nor did they appear as anything close to equivalent in the ancient cityscape. Formatted: Font: Times New Roman
This paper examines, primarily through a series of case studies, the aesthetics of
electoral programmata at Pompeii – what these posters looked like, how big they were,
and where they were located. Sensitivity to their visual form contributes to a number of
questions, not least among which are how house owners related to their facades, who was
responsible for painting the posters, and how ensembles of programmata took shape over
multiple campaign seasons. What else?
Diversity of Forms, Patterns of Posters
-candidate name always largest, decreasing letter size in subsequent lines
-aim at unity, typically
-when space, horizontal streamlining; double-decker letters at end of endorsment
Programmata can differ from one another through characteristics besides color,
size, and straightness of writing.
For lack of a better term, the “font” of political posters also varied significantly.
While the most reproduced and most commonly known examples from Pompeii are
similar to the large, mostly block letters of the principal inscriptions along the bar at
IX.11.2-3, others show different penmanship. On the façade of I.8.15, for example,
several endorsements share the same wall space, with some overlapping their
predecessors. Three have somewhat non-standard handwriting, with one in particular
characterized by elongated, fluid letter forms reminiscent of those that appear in graffiti.3
Similarly, amidst a great number of programmata on the House of the Moralist (III.4.2-
3), one endorsement of A. Suettius Verus has a much looser, more serif-ed appearance
than its neighbors. More?
CIL 4.7863. The content of this rogator inscription – its endorsement reads Asellinas rogant [sic] nec sine
Zmyrina – also raises questions on multiple fronts.
The examples above begins to point up problems with our standard conception of
the creation of such posters and related painted inscriptions, such as announcements of
gladiatorial games – namely, that professional painters lettered building facades.
Multiple inscriptions do pull back the curtain, in fact, to tell reveal some details of the so-
called scriptores, and a colorful picture certainly emerges from such sources. One
poster-painter encourages his lantern-carrying friend to steady the ladder, while others
name their friends who were present at the painting, some of whom likely whitewashed
the wall before the painter did his work.4 The compelling nature of these inscriptions has
even encouraged previous generations of scholars to build up this category of artiste as a
profession and to identify certain properties, because of the concentration of handsomely-
painted interior inscriptions, as the headquarters or collegia of the scriptores. Though
there is little doubt that some self-identified scriptores were responsible, at least on a
part-time basis, for painting the handsome posters that we see today, it would be a
mistake to generalize from a few brief mentions and to assume that all façade inscriptions
were thus painted. To do so would be a small-scale example of what Keith Hopkins
called the “Everest Fallacy” – “a tendency to illustrate a category by an example which is
exceptional.”5 What is exceptional in this case isn’t a well-painted programma, for there
are many handsome programmata, but the scriptor who identifies his own role in the
handiwork. Simply because a few poster-painters “sign” their work or make a meta-
comment about the process of painting does not mean that all posters were so conceived.
In fact, the direct evidence of more haphazardly painted endorsements, such as those
along the façade of the bar at 9.11.2, suggests otherwise. Others aside from scriptores
were painting posters as well.
House of Trebius Valens: Domestic Facades, Decoration, and Programmata
The façade of the House of Trebius Valens (3.2.1), located along the highly-
trafficked thoroughfare of the Via dell’Abbondanza in the city’s eastern sector,
Cite Susini article on aesthetics, p. 119
The Visual Language and Context of Political Programmata
One of the oddities of how programmata have been studied is their relative
isolation from other forms of writing, both in Pompeii and elsewhere. Since they
constitute a genre of the written word that is fairly unique, this phenomenon is somewhat
understandable. Yet electoral endorsements were, of course, not the only form of the
written word to appear in public at Pompeii, or even the only one to appear on street-
facing walls. In this section, we endeavor to approach two related questions. First, what
formal or aesthetic similarities do political programmata have in common with other
forms or writing, both within and beyond Pompeii? Second, what does this imply about
the way that political posters were read and understood?
Lantern and ladder: CIL 4.7621 (cf. 4.3884); others present: 4.230 (cf. 4.3529). In general on the painters,
see Franklin 1978.
Death and Renewal, 41-42.
The organization of volume IV of the CIL divorces from one another inscriptions
that were immediately adjacent at Pompeii. Along the facade of the House of Trebius
Valens (III.2.1), for instance, graffiti were scratched into the plaster on which electoral
endorsements and edicta munerum were painted. Meanwhile, reconstructing this full
scene requires looking in at least three different sections of the CIL. The separation of
inscriptions by genre facilitates the study of the individual categories, but shreds the
urban epigraphic fabric and decreases the likelihood that it will come to be studied as a
composite whole whose parts were, pace Benefiel, in dialogue with one another.6
As we noted above, the visual appearance, including the
Two main questions:
-what formal or aesthetic similarities do these inscriptions have with other forms of
writing? And what does that mean?
-what physical space did programmata share with
-IV.7124 (3.7.1) and 3.6.2 (2x) for other possible “fonts”