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Left, Childlike graffiti found at Insula dei Casti Amanti site, Pompeii.              Source: Pompeii Sites

Children’s Graffiti Reveals Witnessing of Gladiatorial Violence in Pompeii

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Alongside the impressive frescoes found during excavations at Pompeii, some less impressive, but perhaps more telling art has been discovered. Children’s graffiti has been found that depicts scenes of gladiators fighting, evidence that young Romans were exposed to the ultra-violent spectacles that were attended by the adults.

Impressionable Minds: Juvenile Exposure to Violence

Before Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, encasing Pompeii in volcanic ash, local children sketched gladiators fighting to the death on a courtyard wall in charcoal, illustrating the vivid level of violence they were casually exposed to on a regular basis. Archaeologists have discovered graffiti in the Insula dei Casti Amanti, a cluster of homes and a bakery that recently opened to visitors at the Pompeii Archaeological Park.

Based on the simplicity and naive finesse of the charcoal sketches, these illustrations have been attributed to children, mostly between the ages of 5 and 7.

According to a statement on the official website, one drawing, located about five feet off the floor on a house wall, depicts four gladiators: trained fighters who battled beasts and men for ancient Roman entertainment. Two warriors face each other, while the other two, likely bestiarii—beast fighters—aim long spears at a pair of wild boars. Off to the right, the artist drew what appears to be the head of an eagle.

What has been designated as child graffiti found in the Insula dei Casti Amanti, Pompeii. (Pompeii Sites)

What has been designated as child graffiti found in the Insula dei Casti Amanti, Pompeii. (Pompeii Sites)

“The exposure to extreme forms of violence, even for small children aged between five and seven, is not only a problem in our own times with the advent of video games and social media. The difference is that in ancient times the bloodshed in the arena was real and that few saw it as a problem with all the possible repercussions on the psycho-mental development of Pompeian children,” explained park director Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

Child psychology experts from the University of Naples Federico II studied the sketch and concluded that the artist (or artists) was drawing from memory, not imagination, he further elucidated.

The children who played in the courtyards and flowerbeds of this house some 2,000 years ago likely attended events at the city’s amphitheater. Like Rome’s Colosseum, it was a venue for bloody fights and hunting spectacles. Pompeii’s youth came into contact with an “extreme form of violence,” possibly including the executions of criminals and enslaved people, says Zuchtriegel, according to a translation by The Telegraph.

The stick figures in the sketch resemble cephalopods, a class of animals that includes octopuses and squids, with limbs sprouting directly from their heads. This characteristic is an “anthropological constant” in children’s drawings across time, Zuchtriegel adds, and many kids today use a similar approach!

“Probably one or more of the children who played in this courtyard, among the kitchens, latrine and flowerbeds for growing vegetables, had witnessed fights in the amphitheater, thus coming into contact with an extreme form of spectacularized violence, which could also include executions of criminals and slaves. The drawings show us the impact of this on the imagination of a young boy or girl, subject to the same developmental stages that are still found today,” Zuchtriegel said.

Other, classical art frescoes that have been uncovered in the buildings. Left, Aphrodite, Right; Persephone (Pompeii Sites)

Other, classical art frescoes that have been uncovered in the buildings. Left, Aphrodite, Right; Persephone (Pompeii Sites)

Captured in Dust: An Ash-Frozen Remnant of History

While researchers suspect a child climbed onto scaffolding to draw the gladiator scene, sketches in a different room were likely drawn at the young artist’s eye level. Just one and a half feet up the wall of a storeroom for amphorae—tall jars often used to hold oil and wine—illustrations depict three small hands, two people playing with a ball, a wild boar, and two boxers lying on the ground.

Archaeologists also discovered a painting of a small child wearing a hood, described as "without comparison" in Pompeii, possibly a homage to a deceased child, according to the Pompeii Park release. The child is surrounded by bunches of grapes and pomegranates, along with a tiny dog, and appears to be looking out into the garden near where the other children's drawings were found.

The storeroom for amphorae where some of the graffiti was found. (Pompeii Sites)

The storeroom for amphorae where some of the graffiti was found. (Pompeii Sites)

Elsewhere in the Insula dei Casti Amanti, archaeologists unearthed the skeletons of a man and woman who died when Mount Vesuvius erupted. They were likely seeking shelter from the volcanic cloud of hot pumice and ash that killed them. Other rooms in the complex were decorated with frescoes depicting centaurs, sirens, griffins, and the gods Apollo, Aphrodite, and Dionysus.

Pompeii, which thrived as a port city for more than 600 years before its demise, is a “treasure chest” of archaeological discoveries, says Italian Minister of Culture Gennaro Sangiuliano. Recent excavations have uncovered spectacular frescoes of Helen of Troy, an ancient construction site, erotic art, and quarters for enslaved people, among other finds.

Top image: Left, Childlike graffiti found at Insula dei Casti Amanti site, Pompeii.              Source: Pompeii Sites

By Sahir Pandey

References

Anderson, S. 2024. The Children of Pompeii Saw Gladiators Fight to the Death—and They Drew Graffiti About It. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-children-of-pompeii-saw-gladiators-fight-to-the-death-and-they-drew-graffiti-about-it-180984432/.

Giuffrida, A. 2024. Drawings depicting gladiators among latest discoveries at Pompeii. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/article/2024/may/28/drawings-depicting-gladiators-among-latest-discoveries-at-pompeii.

Harris, G. 2024. Newly discovered drawings in Pompeii indicate children saw bloody gladiators in action. Available at: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2024/05/29/newly-discovered-drawings-in-pompeii-indicate-children-saw-bloody-gladiators-in-action.

Nadeau, B.L. 2024. Pompeii gladiator drawings suggest children saw ‘extreme form’ of violence. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2024/05/29/style/pompeii-children-drawings-scli-intl-scn/index.html.

 

Comments

While this is both fascinating and heartbreaking, we must not allow ourselves to judge the violence and the children’s reactions by our current, modern standards.  In ancient Rome, violence on some level was an everyday occurrence.  Long before “enjoying” the violence offered for mass entertainment, children were exposed to the everyday violence of slavery and animal abuse.

Sahir's picture

Sahir

I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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